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Dick Harmon: How BYU upset Arizona and injected new energy into the football program

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitaki walks onto the field after beating the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.
BYU coach Kalani Sitaki walks onto the field after beating the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

TUCSON, Arizona — It’s early, way early, but BYU’s remarkable upset of Pac-12 dark horse Arizona in Arizona Stadium Saturday night injected a new look and a new vibe into Kalani Sitake’s football program.

BYU slipped into Tucson with a game plan and execution that methodically ruined the kickoff of the Kevin Sumlin era at Arizona. BYU defeated the Wildcats, 28-23.

The Cougars exploded for 21 unanswered third-quarter points, using a power run game, stingy defense and pinpoint passing on nine consecutive completions by senior Tanner Mangum in that 15-minute span.

“It was good. It was needed. To come out that third quarter and start driving the ball gave us momentum and confidence,” said Mangum.

A year after the Cougars embarrassed themselves with lackluster play during a seven-game losing streak and four-win season, they came to this town and unleashed a change-up offensive design, and did a respectable job bottling up Heisman Trophy candidate Khalil Tate.

Squally Canada rushed for 98 yards on 24 carries with three touchdowns. He iced the game with power running at the end to kill the clock.

“It was just our O-line making big holes, and I just tried to run through it,” said Canada.

Using jet sweeps from receivers Aleva Hifo, Dylan Collie and Neil Pau’u and dump-off passes to Lopini Katoa and Canada in the first half, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes lulled Arizona defenders to sleep then stunned the Wildcats with huge pass plays to tight ends Matt Bushman, Moroni Laulu-Pututau and freshman Dallin Holker in the second half.

That stealth ignited the Cougars and deflated the Wildcats.

Combine that design with BYU’s defense blocking a first-quarter field goal by Michael Shelton and getting an 11-yard sack by Corbin Kaufusi, the Cougars did not allow Tate to score with his feet until the fourth quarter after racing to a 21-10 lead. Shelton also ripped off a 38-yard punt return to set up a Cougar TD.

Heavens, this looked like good football out of the team from Provo.

Of course, Arizona had one of the Pac-12’s worst defenses last year. But for a BYU team that averaged 17 points a game that same year, this desert consumption was Cougar nirvana.

“It felt good to get a win over a Power 5 team on the road to begin the season,” said Sitake. “We still have a lot to clean up, but it’s nice to say that when you’ve got a win under your belt. We are anxious to get to the next one.”

Nobody could have enjoyed this one more than Mangum after what he’s been through the past year with a serious injury to his foot.

After a slow start, Mangum ended up completing 18 of 28 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown pass to Bushman in the third quarter.

Mangum had some of the best throws of his career in that big third quarter as BYU took control. He completed 9 of 10 passes for 116 yards during that stretch.

“It was fun. I enjoyed it. I will never take being healthy for granted," Mangum said "It felt so good to be out there with this team and just have fun. That’s all I cared about, not comparing this to anything in the past, just enjoying it for what it was, a win.”

BYU had no turnovers, allowed no sacks and outgained Arizona 392 to 326 in total yards.

BYU’s defense slow-played Arizona superstar Tate and didn’t get too aggressive. By keeping gaps and seeing Tate go to work in front of the defense, the powerful junior didn’t have many opportunities to take off. He gained just 14 yards on eight carries in the game and scored one touchdown.

Many expected Tate to have a field day on the Cougar defense.

Never happened.

“We didn’t want to get too aggressive. I’ve seen teams do that and he’d run for 70-yard touchdowns on them,” said Sitake. “Our coaches had a good game plan, and, for the most part, they executed it.”

So, BYU left Tucson with a win few expected.

But to a man, the players never stopped believing they would come to the desert, win, and go home humble but extremely happy.

And they did.