BYU coach Kalani Sitake stressed the challenge of the Cougars matching the physicality of Wisconsin in their matchup with the No. 6 team in the country.
Challenge accepted, and accomplished.
BYU pulled off the major upset, beating the sixth-ranked Badgers 24-21 behind a solid effort from all three facets of the game. It was the first time a non-conference opponent beat Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium since 2003.
One week after BYU struggled offensively to get anything going in a 21-18 loss to California, the Cougars’ offense showed marked improvement against Wisconsin. BYU finished with 311 yards of total offense, but more importantly took advantage of the majority of opportunities it had during the game.
BYU’s rushing attack produced 191 yards on the ground, led by Squally Canada, who had 11 carries for a game-high 118 yards and two touchdowns. He had runs of 44 and 46 yards, two plays that helped lead to two Cougar touchdowns. BYU also effectively utilized the jet sweep, led by wide receiver Aleva Hifo, who had 45 rushing yards on five carries.
The Cougars also did not turn the ball over and had just four penalties for 36 yards, two critical elements to BYU staying in position for a win.
Jeff Grimes’s creativity paid off in the second quarter against Wisconsin. Facing a second-and-4 at the Wisconsin 31, Tanner Mangum threw backward to Hifo along the sideline. Hifo then threw deep to a wide-open Moroni Laulu-Pututau for the 31-yard touchdown to give BYU a 14-7 lead with 12:17 remaining in the second quarter.
When the Cougars needed a big play offensively, they got it more often than not against the Badgers. Twice, BYU responded to a Wisconsin touchdown with a score of its own on the ensuing drive, and the Cougars cashed in for a touchdown on the lone turnover of the game.
Like the offense, BYU’s defense made the plays when it needed to in the upset victory.
The Cougars had a 134-98 edge in rushing yards in the first half, thanks to the BYU defensive front, and run-heavy Wisconsin only held a 204-191 edge in rushing yards for the game. Heisman candidate running back Jonathan Taylor finished with 117 rushing yards, though BYU held him to a 4.5 yards-per-carry average and he didn't reach the end zone.
Sione Takitaki led the defensive charge, with 13 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss to help alleviate the absence of Butch Pau’u at middle linebacker.
BYU also got a critical turnover, as linebacker Zayne Anderson intercepted Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook on the Badgers’ first drive of the second half. That set BYU up at the Wisconsin 27 and led to a Cougar touchdown to take a 21-14 lead. Anderson also came up big with 11 tackles on the day.
One of the biggest plays of the day defensively for BYU came from sophomore defensive tackle Zac Dawe, who made his first career sack a big one, taking down Hornibrook for a five-yard loss on a third-and-3 play with a little more than seven minutes to go. That gave BYU the ball back up three points.
Wisconsin had the edge in total yards, with 394 to BYU’s 311, and was able to establish its physical presence on the Badgers’ three touchdown drives. The Cougars, though, held the Badgers to 4-13 on third down conversions, and they made a critical fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter.
BYU true freshman kicker Skyler Southam scored the eventual game-winning points, hitting a 45-yard field goal for the Cougars with 9:58 to play.
Cougar punter Rhett Almond also saved his best punt for last, as he used a 50-yard punt to pin Wisconsin at its own 8-yard line on what ended up being the Badgers’ final drive.
Then, the biggest special teams play came in the final minute, as Sitake used two timeouts to try to ice Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone on his 42-yard attempt that would have tied the game with under 40 seconds to play. The tactic worked, as Gaglianone missed wide left.
The only thing that really drives down the grade for BYU on special teams was Southam’s long field goal miss — he missed wide right on a 52-yarder in the first half — and Almond’s first punt that wasn’t particularly great and set Wisconsin up at its own 39 for the Badgers’ first touchdown drive.
Otherwise, the Cougars excelled on special teams. BYU was strong in punt and kickoff coverage, keeping the Badgers from being able to break off any big plays.
It wasn’t a perfect effort for BYU, but it was darn close as the Cougars picked up the biggest win in the Sitake era.
BYU avoided making big mistakes, then took advantage of the opportunities in front of them. To do this at a historic venue like Camp Randall Stadium, one year after Wisconsin handed the Cougars a humbling 40-6 loss in Provo, is something BYU can build on of as it looks to continue distancing itself from a frustrating 2017 season.
With FCS opponent McNeese State up next before the Cougars finish off September with a game at Washington, BYU is looking good to have a strong first month in the 2018 season.