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Dick Harmon: Absolutely nothing pretty about BYU's loss to Northern Illinois

The Brigham Young Cougars join with students and sing after losing to the Northern Illinois Huskies in NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.
The Brigham Young Cougars join with students and sing after losing to the Northern Illinois Huskies in NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.
Ravell Call

PROVO — BYU football found itself in the depths Saturday after Northern Illinois defeated the Cougars 7-6 in a game where offense was an endangered species.

Despite the rare afternoon start time, there were plenty of empty seats. Despite the sunshine, there were fans electing to stay home. Despite it being a Saturday instead of a Thursday or Friday night, a lot of students (the ROC), who can easily stroll over from the dorms, stayed away. Despite bowl eligibility implications on the line, you got the feeling the team simply could not rise up and seize the day.

It left the program with a pattern of losing at home. It left a desire to beat more FBS opponents at home an unfulfilled goal.

It left the Cougars 4-4 heading into a trip to Boise State. It left head coach Kalani Sitake feeling a little heat. “My heart aches right now,” he said.

BYU ran into a very tough, aggressive Northern Illinois defense, the same one that held Utah to zero points at the half two months ago. The Cougars answered that challenge with a less-than-aggressive attack, opting to take pressure off freshman quarterback Zach Wilson in the face of a sack-hungry, pressure-prone Huskies front seven by running the ball a lot on first down.

The Cougars were good enough to get multiple chances to overtake NIU, especially with a first down on NIU’s 5-yard line before the third quarter. But as has been common the past few years, the offense did things that offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes absolutely abhors: pre-snap penalties.

The Cougars were flagged for two false starts. They were back to back. They were complete meltdowns, nervous misfires of focus at a time BYU’s offense was begging for some points. The Cougars had to settle for a 22-yard Skyler Southam field goal.

Another time, they had to settle for a Southam field goal attempt from beyond 50 yards. It had the distance but not the accuracy.

It all came down to a last-gasp late-fourth-quarter drive, and the Cougars had the ball at their own 33. They’d just made a drive to midfield and elected to punt on fourth and 4.

It was the right call. BYU’s defense had been outstanding. And deciding not to convert had worked because the Cougars retained possession.

All BYU needed to do is drive down and kick a field goal for the win.

Some things are just hard.

NIU’s defense dropped back into coverage and Wilson threw toward Aleva Hifo, but NIU's Mykelti Williams intercepted the ball. Game over.

"It was a bad read," said Wilson. "I thought the safety was deeper than he was."

Afterward, Sitake was visibly disappointed. He told reporters BYU should have been more aggressive and “let it rip.”

Wilson throwing down the middle of the field on that last possession was aggressive. NIU was in a prevent defense and it wasn’t like BYU’s offensive line was protecting like monsters all game long. NIU sacked Wilson five times for 23 yards.

“This was a rough one,” said running back Lopini Katoa. “I thought we played hard but when it was time to make plays, we couldn’t make the plays. They were a great defense. They flowed to the ball really well and got to their gaps really well.

“We just need to trust each other and work harder,” Katoa added. “We just have to believe. We were just out of sync at times. We are a good team. We’ve proven that, but we have to play better.”

NIU earned this win. But BYU’s offense didn’t do near enough to even hope to change that. Those pre-snap penalties in scoring position were 2017 déjà vu all over again.

“That was an old-school ugly football game from start to finish,” said NIU coach Rod Carey. “To give our team credit, we uglied it up. We uglied it up on offense, we uglied it up on defense and the kicking game was really outstanding today.”

Oh, and there was that.

BYU’s special teams had a block in the back that negated a good return and a muffed punt attempt catch that put the offense near BYU’s own goal line.

In a game that turned out to be a total field-position chess match, a game that was so ugly any big play was headline material, those kind of mistakes were land mines.

The Cougars stumbled enough on this perfect day for football that they’re making it hard for those empty seats to find owners.

Marie Osmond, who was sitting near midfield, was playing Candy Crush on her phone.

This one set BYU football back.

It left a scar under a scab.