BYU football coach Kalani Sitake has said for the last eight months that the Cougars have improved their depth to the point they can absorb some injuries to key players and find a way to win.
His words proved prophetic Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, as a banged up, No. 19-ranked BYU football team held off gritty and upset-minded Wyoming 38-24 in front of 60,092 fans and a late-night ESPN2 audience.
This one was as ugly as a Wyoming winter, but the Cougars (3-1) will take it, considering they were without 10 or so players who were considered starters or close to it when the season began.
“A lot of mistakes in the game, still. … We gotta find ways to play more disciplined football.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake after a 38-24 win over Wyoming.
“We needed it,” Sitake said, remembering last week’s devastating 41-20 loss to Oregon that tested the Cougars’ resolve to turn around and handle a 22-point underdog bent on revenge for suffering eight-straight losses (now nine) to their one-time hated rival.
What the Cougars didn’t do was remember how to play disciplined football — which Sitake began preaching the need for moments after the Oregon loss.
BYU committed 11 penalties for 109 yards, while Wyoming was flagged just three times (one was declined) for 20 yards.
“A lot of mistakes in the game, still,” Sitake said. “… We gotta find ways to play more disciplined football.”
Sure, some of the flags thrown by a CFO West officiating crew — a combination of WAC, Mountain West, Big 12 officials, usually — were downright strange. Like the one where the Cougars forced an incomplete pass, then were whistled for a low block because the officials didn’t blow the play dead when it was obvious the ball hit the turf before John Nelson started running with it the other way.
“Some weird mistakes, man,” Sitake said.
He was referring to his own players, and himself and his coaching staff, but he very well could have been talking about the guys in stripes.
Only Wyoming’s defenders — trying to slow down Jaren Hall and a combination of second- and third-stringers for much of the game — had a worse night than the zebras.
Speaking of Hall, he was sensational again, which Cougar fans have come to expect, and perhaps take for granted. The fifth-year junior completed 26 of 32 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns, with a passer rating of 211.
That’s a career-high passer rating for Hall in a game against an FBS team.
“That boy is so talented, man,” said receiver Keanu Hill, who also had a career night.
Hill was targeted five times and came down with five receptions for a career-high 160 yards and two touchdowns. He dragged a Wyoming defender 10-15 yards to the end zone for his second TD.
“I would say I had a great night,” Hill said, after deflecting praise to Hall and an offensive line that again struggled to run block (in the first half, at least) but was solid in protecting Hall.
Amazingly, BYU’s top four receivers in terms of number of receptions were Hill, Brayden Cosper (four catches, 58 yards, career-first TD), running back Miles Davis (four catches, 21 yards) and Kody Epps (four catches, 13 yards) ).
Puka Nacua played for the first time since the season-opening win over South Florida, and caught three passes for 26 yards before leaving the game with some sort of left knee injury.
Sitake would not provide an update on the star’s condition after the game.
“I am always hopeful,” Sitake said, sounding hopeless.
Speaking of Davis — the converted receiver from Las Vegas who is not related to the famous jazz musician of the same name but played some sweet music Saturday as RB1 on this night — he ran 13 times for 131 yards.
The redshirt freshman busted off a 70-yard run to the Wyoming 5 late in the game, and expects to hear about how he got caught from behind all week until the Cougars face struggling Utah State on Thursday.
“Credit to Jaren, he knows how to make everybody look good,” Sitake said, while discussing how the QB thrived with a hodgepodge of guys who mostly watched the first few games.
The Cougars ran for 188 yards and held Wyoming to 124 on the ground, but this was no cakewalk. Not until Hill’s 68-yard TD catch and run (through a Wyoming defender) with 5:31 left could BYU breathe easy.
After Davis’ big run, Wyoming kept the Cougars out of the end zone and coaches went with walk-on Justin Smith to kick a 25-yard field goal rather than Jake Oldroyd — who had missed his last three field goal attempts but attempted and made all five PATs Saturday.
“I think it was a good time in that moment for Justin to go in and make that kick,” Sitake said, when asked why Smith, and not Oldroyd, got the honors.
Sitake was also asked why Davis got 13 carries and presumed RB1 Chris Brooks got only two. Brooks’ 6-yard TD run in the first quarter put the Cougars on the board.
“The plan was to see who could get the hot hand,” Sitake said. “… Towards the end we were going to go with the hot hand.”
Wyoming (3-2) controlled most of the first half, and the Cougars were lucky to lead 14-10 at the break.
“We are not playing rhythm football right now,” a frustrated Sitake told the BYU Sports Radio Network at halftime.
BYU had 206 yards in the first half to Wyoming’s 155, but that was on the strength of several big plays and a 13-play, 76-yard drive to end the second quarter that ended with a 3-yard touchdown reception by Brayden Cosper. the first of the star-crossed junior’s BYU career.
Some poor clock management and having the wrong personnel groups on the field almost cut the drive short, and Sitake said afterwards that he will “challenge” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake to get that figured out.
Wyoming set the tone early, forcing a three-and-out and then marching 57 yards for a 28-yard field goal. Titus Swen picked up 62 yards on 14 attempts in the first half, and Wyoming averaged 4.4 yards per rushing attempt.
The Cowboys finished at 3.6 yards per rush, as Tyler Batty and company got more stout as the game wore on.
“I appreciate the style of football Wyoming plays,” Sitake said. “You can’t hide from it.”
Brooks’ TD run came a play after Isaac Rex caught a 32-yard flea flicker pass from Hall.
Much to the chagrin of BYU’s large home crowd, Wyoming answered that BYU TD with a 10-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown.
Aided by an iffy facemask penalty on Keenan Pili and a nifty 18-yard third-down pass to Wyatt Weiland, the Pokes got into scoring territory and then found the end zone after their first long drive stalled at the BYU 10.
Weiland’s fly sweep TD run gave the visitors a 10-7 lead.
John Nelson sacked Peasley to force Wyoming’s second punt, and the Cougars took over at their 24 with 3:32 remaining in the first half. Just like they did against Baylor here two weeks ago, the Cougars scored right before halftime to take the lead and carry some momentum into the locker room.
Hall, whom Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said postgame is the best QB the Cowboys have faced this season, described the week after the Oregon loss as “a lot of emotion going on” due to the disappointing loss and the departure of backup tight end Dallin Holker. .
“It took us a couple of days to figure out how we were going to move on,” Hall said.