LAS VEGAS — Not only did BYU quarterback Joe Critchlow make his first career start Friday night at UNLV, but he also earned his first career victory.
But he had a lot of help from his teammates.
Among those who played a key role was running back Squally Canada, who rushed 25 times for 213 yards — the No. 9 all-time single-game rushing performance in school history — and a touchdown in a 31-21 win at Sam Boyd Stadium as the Cougars improved to 3-8 on the season.
What was the offense’s confidence level in Critchlow going into the game?
“I talked to (tight end) Matt Bushman and (receivers) Micah (Simon) and Jonah (Trinnaman) and said, ‘Look, this is his first start. We’ve got to make the tough plays, we’ve got to make the tough runs,’” Canada said. “Let’s make him right and let’s make the game easier on him. Us making the game easier for him, he got into his groove and he started completing passes. I think Joe did really good for his first start.”
As a team, the Cougars rushed for 265 yards. Austin Kafentzis ran 10 times for 58 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Aleva Hifo caught six passes for 58 yards and a TD.
Last Monday, coach Kalani Sitake announced an open competition for the starting job, with Critchlow, Beau Hoge and Kody Wilstead vying for the spot, after junior Tanner Mangum went down with a season-ending Achilles injury.
“It was early in the week when coach (Ty) Detmer informed me that I would get the nod and be the starting guy,” said Critchlow, who completed 14 of 22 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. “The team as a whole really had my back. We had a great offensive plan and our defense played really well. It feels good to get a win.”
“During the week, we didn’t think Beau was going to be ready,” Sitake explained. “His health matters, too. I think he was willing to get out there and play hurt, but I’m not sure that would have helped our team and it wouldn’t have helped him. We decided against it with (offensive coordinator) Ty (Detmer). We’ll see how everything goes now. But Joe did a great job.”
Critchlow became the third true freshman at BYU to win his first start, along with Mangum (2015) and Taysom Hill (2012). He’s the fifth true freshman all-time to start for the Cougars.
“I thought Joe Critchlow played really well for his first time starting,” Sitake said. “He showed a lot of poise. I’m really excited about his progress that he’s made since getting home from a mission not long ago. This guy has grown a lot in the last couple of months. He was knocking on doors a few months ago.”
Did his performance Friday mean Critchlow will start next week against UMass?
“Well, yeah, that’s what I think. We’ll see,” Sitake said. “He didn’t give the game away. He put the ball in some spots where only our guys could catch it. He was really safe with where he threw it. He showed a lot of poise in the pocket.”
BYU’s defense seemed to feed off of Critchlow’s first start, too.
“We were excited to see Joe. Joe’s been working every single practice, working just as hard as the other QBs,” said safety Micah Hannemann. “He was excited and the offense was excited. I’m happy for him. I’m happy for his future as well.”
Critchlow got off to a bit of a slow start but found his stride in the second quarter. “Towards the beginning of the game, I maybe had a little bit of nerves,” he said. “But I feel like once our running game started clicking, it made the passing game a lot easier. I was really satisfied and impressed with our offensive line.”
Just before the end of the first half, Critchlow connected with Hifo for an 11-yard touchdown pass to give BYU a 14-7 halftime lead.
“That felt great. To get a score right before half knowing we were going to get the ball in the second half was really big for the momentum of the team,” Critchlow said. “Honestly, when I threw the ball, I thought I threw it a little far, but Aleva made a great play and got his foot down. It really boosted our offense.”
On the Cougars’ opening drive of the second half, Canada picked up 54 yards and later scored on a two-yard TD run to give BYU a 21-7 cushion.
The Cougars ran for 213 yards in the second half alone.
“He’s a hard worker,” Sitake said of Canada. “We knew going into the season that we had something special with him. He’s had some bad luck with injuries and his health. He and Austin did a good job.”
For BYU, it was a complete team effort that aided a freshman QB in his first career start.