BYU football: Left for dead Cougars rise, roll past Boise State

BYU football: Left for dead Cougars rise, roll past Boise State

BOISE — For more than 58 minutes Saturday night on the blue turf of Albertsons Stadium, white-clad BYU looked like it was trying to invent another way to lose a football game — not just here, in the Cougars’ house of horrors until two years ago, but in this a completely forgettable season.

But somehow, some way, coach Kalani Sitake’s beleaguered crew managed to pull a win from the jaws of defeat – after doing the opposite last week – to upset Boise State 31-28 in front of an announced crowd of 36,641, snap their four-game losing streak and end the Broncos’ four-game winning streak.

As far as Sitake’s seven-year tenure goes, it was one of the most improbable wins, right up there with road wins at Wisconsin and Tennessee and the 2021 season-opening victory over Utah.

Raise your hand if you’ve seen this.

“There were a lot of mistakes, but I think we were able to overcome them because of our belief and trust in each other.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake.

Yes, exactly.

“It felt good to play BYU football and win and get back to our identity, who we are,” Sitake said. Overall I thought it was a good game in all three phases.”

The Cougars (5-5 and suddenly on the brink of a bowl game with FCS visiting Utah Tech in two weeks) talk a lot about playing complementary football, and for once this season, they did.

When the offense repeatedly missed and opened up golden scoring opportunities throughout the first half, the defense buckled down and held Boise State to 79 yards in the first half.

When the defense — playing without two starting quarterbacks — tired in the second half and began to allow the Broncos to easily run down the field without much resistance, the offense picked up and scored on every possession except the last when it went for the winning formation .

“There were a lot of mistakes made, but I think we were able to overcome them because of our belief and trust in each other,” Sitake said.

Aside from Boise State knocking off BYU in 2014, Cougars-Broncos games always deliver the goods, and this one was no different.

And it became apparent that, however the final match in this intense cross-mountain rivalry played out, one set of fans would go home blaming the referees and one group bemoaning superior play when it mattered most.

On this chilly night in the Treasure Valley, BYU was on the receiving end of that argument, for just the second time here.

That’s because the game-winning touchdown, Puka Natsu’s bobbing, twisting, one-finger grab inbounds with one minute, 46 seconds left, had to be reviewed by replay officials after only one zebra signaled a touchdown.

After a lengthy delay, the Boise State faithful poured into Albertsons when the announcement came that the call on the field had stopped.

“It wasn’t the best look (for quarterback Jaren Hall) when he threw that go ball, but he threw it to me and that’s my job to go up and make a play, and I went along with it,” Natcua said.

Don’t worry, BYU fans also had a bone to pick with the replay officials, who said BYU running back Lopini Katoa missed a field goal on the final play of the first half from the 6-inch line, denying the Cougars a chance to take a halftime lead.

“Maybe we should have a goal-line camera every game,” Sitake said, sarcastically, perhaps recalling Zach Wilson’s apparent touchdown in the 2019 Hawaii Bowl.

“That would probably be very helpful.”

So BYU’s offense held up its end of the bargain, but this one was far from over. Remarkably, the Cougars gave up 532 yards and 27 first downs against a Boise State defense that was No. 2 in the nation in total defense, giving up just 232.3 yards per game.

The Broncos took over at their own 25 with 1:46 left, after scoring touchdowns of 78 and 65 yards on their previous two possessions.

A BYU defense that was so terrible in October that Sitake had to take over call-calling duties and reassign at least three assistants to different roles was in the crosshairs of redshirt freshman Taylen Green.

After an incomplete pass, a holding penalty on Boise’s Will Farrar — who got away with a sack on the previous drive — another incomplete pass and a 12-yard reception, the Broncos faced 4th-and-8 from their own 27.

Cougars defensive back Jakob Robinson, the hero of last November’s defensive stand to preserve a win over USC, did it again. He broke up a pass intended for Latrell Keples, and the Cougars could begin celebrating the end of their longest losing streak since 2017.

Boise State finished with 324 yards, below its average of 360 yards.

“I don’t know if it’s something I do,” Sitake said of the defense. “Just trusting the players more and believing in them. I’m just trying to play fundamental, sound football. We haven’t missed as many games as before, and we just have to keep working on it.”

Ben Bywater and Keenan Pili had six tackles apiece, while Tyler Batty, Gabe Summers and Lorenzo Fauatea recorded tackles for loss and Kaleb Hayes, Robinson and Pepe Tanuvasa had hits.

In attack, Hall was good when he needed to be, after a shaky first half when he was intercepted twice – although one was not his fault as it deflected into the hands of Isaac Rex.

Hall went 29 of 42 for a career-best 377 passing yards and three touchdowns for a 158.5 passer rating, but he did just as much damage with his legs.

He ran 12 times for 82 yards and a TD, picking up where he left off last week in a 27-24 loss to ECU.

His 459 yards of total offense is also a career high.

“I think we just want to see Jaren do his thing. I don’t think he needs me or (Aaron Roderick) or anybody to tell him that. He knows exactly what he can do, and we just let him do it,” said Sitake.

“I think that’s the key. I mean, you just have to trust the players. I think he did a great job tonight. We just need to trust him more.”

The Cougars dominated the first half and had nothing to show for it, thanks to a dozen incredibly costly mistakes, some by players, some by coaches, and one, perhaps, by the officials at the end of the half (replay from the end zone seemed to show that Katoa smashes the plane with a ball).

BYU had more first downs, 16, than Boise State had rushing yards, 14, in the first half; The Cougars had 236 yards of offense, the Broncos had 79.

However, the score at halftime was 7-7.

The Cougars took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards for a score, taking more than six minutes off the clock with a nice mix of passing and running.

On its second possession, BYU drove to the Boise State 33, but Hall was tackled on third-and-1 and Kato on fourth-and-1. When Katoa was stopped, it was the 16th time in the last 18 attempts on fourth down that the Cougars lost.

Boise State quickly made BYU pay for the short-yardage failures that have become a theme of BYU’s season; The Broncos drove 67 yards in six plays to tie the game at 7-7. Caples got wide open on a wheel route and Green found him for a 16-yard TD.

BYU drove into Boise State territory again, only for Hall to be intercepted by JL Skinner.

Two possessions later, BYU got the ball again inside the Boise State 20, only for Rodney Robinson to get a pick that marked Hall’s first multi-interception game since USC last November.

Instead of taking a knee with 23 seconds left, the Broncos tried to move the ball. But Pili forced a fumble and Batty recovered, giving BYU the ball at the Boise State 10 with 14 seconds left. Natcua caught a pass within inches of the goal line with about 6 seconds left, but BYU didn’t call a timeout, for some reason, until :01 showed on the clock.

Of course, all that was forgotten when Nacua’s touchdown backed up the phenomenal catch that four years ago put Zach Wilson on fourth down with the game on the line in the eventual 21-16 loss.

“Yeah, we’re one step closer to extending the season and getting those valuable practices,” Sitake said when asked what the scene was like in the locker room. “And that’s important for the development of these young men and that’s the thing.

“Our players, when they were going through that slump, we just reminded them that winning is hard and to never take it for granted,” Sitake continued. “We told them to just remember this feeling and stay humble and grateful and let’s move on to the next one.”

Because victories on the Blues are really so rare.

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