PROVO — Just two weeks ago, after making a change at quarterback and lighting up Hawaii for 49 points, BYU appeared to be making positive strides.
But the Cougars smacked into a wall in a frustrating 7-6 loss to Northern Illinois on a sunny Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 51,084 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU (4-4) didn’t play BYU football, coach Kalani Sitake explained.
“We didn’t do enough in all three phases to win the game. You look at the score and it’s 7-6,” he said of the defensive slugfest. “We’ve got to get more production from our offense and be more aggressive and establish our identity and what we are. We went away from that today.”
The Cougars scored only two field goals, and missed a 51-yarder. They had a chance to mount a potential game-winning drive with 1:47 remaining at their own 33-yard line.
But on first down, true freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, making his second career start, threw an interception that sealed BYU’s fate.
“It was just a bad read,” Wilson said of his pass that was picked off by Mykelti Williams. “I thought the safety was deeper than he was.”
But that mistake was just one of many by the Cougars.
BYU outgained NIU (5-3) in total offense, 301-204, but it couldn’t make enough plays.
Of course, Northern Illinois’ defense is in a different stratosphere than Hawaii’s.
“We’re obviously extremely happy with the outcome. The only number that matters is 7-6, that’s it,” said NIU coach Rod Carey. “That was an old-school, ugly football game from start to finish. 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 … It was ugly and it’s beautiful to us, I can tell you that in every way, shape and form.”
The Huskies sacked Wilson five times and limited BYU to 93 yards rushing on 37 attempts. The Cougars converted on just 3 of 15 third-down attempts. BYU had the ball for 34:48 compared to 25:12 for NIU.
“There’s not a worse feeling for a quarterback but you learn and grow,” Wilson said of the loss. “That’s how football works and that’s how life works.”
Wilson completed 18 of 30 passes for 208 yards.
The Huskies weren’t much better offensively, rushing for 89 yards on 36 attempts and going 3 of 14 on third downs.
Trailing 3-0 at halftime, NIU put together its only scoring drive of the game. It began with BYU kicking the ball out of bounds on the kickoff, giving the Huskies the ball at their own 35.
Northern Illinois drove 65 yards in 10 plays, taking just 3:41 off the clock, capped by a one-yard run by quarterback Marcus Childers to make it 7-3.
“I was disappointed with that touchdown drive. We made a lot of mistakes,” Sitake said. “Right out of the gate in the second half, that was disappointing.”
Later in the third quarter, Wilson engineered a drive down to the NIU 5-yard line.
It was highlighted by a 42-yard completion to wide receiver Talon Shumway.
A couple of plays later, Wilson hurdled a defender and stiff-armed another as he went out of bounds at the 5, eliciting a huge cheer from the crowd.
But then the Cougars committed back-to-back false-start penalties and they squandered their best chance to score a touchdown all day.
“We can’t have those mistakes. That was a big part of the game,” Sitake said. “We should be able to punch it in and get a score.”
BYU ended up settling for a 22-yard by Skyler Southam to cut the deficit to 7-6.
In the fourth quarter, Wilson led BYU deep into NIU territory but he was sacked for a four-yard loss. Southam’s ensuing 51-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
After the Cougar defense forced an NIU punt with two minutes remaining, BYU’s offense got another chance to pull out a win before Wilson’s interception.
“They’re a good team,” Sitake said of Northern Illinois. “They made more plays than we did and were one point better. They deserved to win. I just wish we would have played our style of football in all three phases.”
BYU visits Boise State next Saturday.
“Heartaches right now,” Sitake said, “but we’ve got to get over it and get ready for the next one at Boise.”