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Dick Harmon: How BYU got back on track and routed Hawaii

BYU players run onto the field as they and Hawaii prepare to play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
BYU players run onto the field as they and Hawaii prepare to play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — Kalani Sitake promised changes and he got it in droves in BYU’s 49-23 win over Hawaii Saturday night in LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Sitake turned loose his defense on the nation’s No. 2 passer Cole McDonald and he let his freshmen get a taste of what building the future may look like.

Zach Wilson, the youngest quarterback to ever start at BYU, threw three touchdown passes in his official debut as a Cougar. Wilson operated with an offense comprised of 54 percent freshmen. Of BYU’s 49 points, 76 percent were scored by freshmen Wilson, Lopini Katoa, Dallin Holker, Gunner Romney and Skyler Southam. It was the most points amassed by a BYU offense since 51 against UMass in 2016.

Of late, BYU’s offense hasn’t done that against anybody, not even FCS teams like McNeese State and Portland State.

Wilson was sensational against a struggling Hawaii defense, and converted linebacker Matt Hadley had 91 yards for a 10.1 yard average per carry against the Warriors. Wilson’s pass efficiency rating was the highest ever for a freshman QB in a start (167.2), breaking a mark by Tanner Mangum against Boise State (162.7) three years ago.

But on this night, there was something else at work besides the youth movement. BYU got defensive against Hawaii’s legitimate strike force run and shoot offense, and it was impressive. The Warriors could not handle BYU’s physicality.

You have to throw credit to BYU’s defensive coaches, coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki in particular.

After losses at Washington and Utah State, Tuiaki came under fire for his bland defensive schemes where sacks were scarce and opposing quarterbacks had hourglass-type time to pass. It appeared aggression had suffered as a result, and an injury-plagued defense just couldn’t find anything to feed off of.

“We challenged our defense this week to be more physical and play BYU football,” said Sitake. “They were relentless.”

Against Hawaii, Tuiaki dialed up a unique package of nickel and dime coverages. He deployed a three-man front, which was essentially a 3-5-3, and at times showed a five-man front with man defense on the outside, a spy on Hawaii’s QB in the middle in the form of 6-foot-9 defensive end Corbin Kaufusi.

He had tiny corner Michael Shelton playing linebacker and got back defensive end Bracken El-Bakri and safety Dayan Ghanwoloku. He had Kaufusi attack at times from his middle linebacker position and dialed up creative pressure from other spots. He put assistant head coach Ed Lamb in the press box, something Lamb hadn’t done in decades as a college coach, to “eyeball” how things developed against the nation’s No. 2 ranked passer.

It was creative, aggressive and delivered immediate dividends against Cole McDonald, who came to Provo with a remarkable 24 touchdown passes this season. The Cougars, who had just six sacks this season, got three in the first half and limited McDonald to no TDs and 99 yards passing by halftime.

It was unpredictable. It kept Hawaii guessing. It was part Army, Hawaii’s only loss, dropping eight and rushing three. It kept McDonald looking seconds longer.

Hawaii’s offense was genuinely disrupted early, and a BYU offense that has struggled to get out of the chute all season scored 28 by halftime. McDonald got hit and chased. There were a pair of fumbles, and it was tough for the Warriors and their speedy, darting receivers to find a rhythm with McDonald.

Defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga’s first quarter sack on McDonald was a violent, rag dog throw down. It was a statement.

You can break down plays, look at the statistics from this game as deep as you want, but what Tuiaki’s scheme actually did is inject energy and emotion into players on the field and sideline. After safety Austin Lee picked off McDonald in the second quarter and returned it 36 yards down BYU’s sideline, Sitake was seen leaping up with Lee with a bear hug.

This might not seem like big moments. And Hawaii’s defense was not very good as Wilson and Company chewed it up. But this victory, and the way it came about, was sorely needed in Provo.

It was a win bathed in passion. And suddenly receivers ran harder, defenders tackled harder, blockers blocked harder. Dominoes. The insertion of Wilson, the youngest quarterback to ever start at BYU, was kind of symbolic. It was a gamble replacing a senior veteran, but it was a move to build a positive vibe.

Mission accomplished.

A year ago, an emotionless, almost detached BYU team looked numb and shell-shocked during a seven-game losing streak. Football is a game of emotion and momentum. If Sitake ever needed both, a shot needle to the vein of his squad of something, anything resembling celebratory fun, it was this injection late Saturday night on the home field.

How the Cougars respond to this “all hands on deck” weekend and “must win” performance they hatched heading into a bye week is anyone’s guess. But the coming bye week couldn’t come at a better time for injuries and refocus before taking on a home stretch with some winnable games and stout matchups at Boise State and Utah.

Saturday night was fun again in Provo. It was the emotion that was needed to the bone. It established a solid foundation for BYU making a bowl game and finishing the season significantly different than a year ago with just four postgame smiley experiences.

For Sitake, it is 4-3 today with five to go and a two-game skid ended with an exclamation point.

That, one could say, is making progress with what is a very young team.