PROVO — Squally Canada has been BYU football's workhorse running back in the early season, but backup Lopini Katoa shined during BYU's 30-3 win over McNeese State on Saturday. The Cougars hardly missed a beat.
Katoa received his first carry on the first offensive play from scrimmage following a fumble by Canada, the starter, midway through the first quarter. Katoa responded with a 7-yard run, and then topped it with a 15-yard gallop two plays after, giving the lagging BYU offense a much-needed jump-start.
“Squally was a little banged up, and you saw his ankle slip out on him a little bit, but it was nice to be able to rely on Lopini to get in there,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake.
Much like it was for all of the offense, Katoa was perhaps at his best during the second quarter. With 8:42 left before the half, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound freshman scored his first-ever collegiate touchdown on a 4-yard run, giving the Cougars a 7-3 lead. About seven minutes later, the American Fork product scored from 14 yards out to extend the lead to 21-3 right before the half.
Like most good running backs, Katoa was quick to credit the guys up front blocking for him, while noting his emotions.
“It felt good. It was awesome,” Katoa said. “The (offensive) line really opened up some huge lanes to make that possible, so it was just nice to get in there.”
Katoa finished Saturday's win with a team-high 65 yards rushing on 10 carries in a performance that didn't come as much of a surprise to those who have seen him perform this season. Although his playing has been somewhat limited, the Oregon State transfer has largely performed well since arriving at BYU last season, when his work on the scout team was praised by his defensive teammates.
“I’m happy that I can be a part of such a great team and to contribute like I am, and to be able to run with so many other great backs and to make each other better. It’s just a good feeling,” Katoa said.
Chief among those backs is perhaps Canada, a senior who has received praise from most every running back regarding his influence.
“I feel like I’m still learning. I still have a lot to learn, but there’s some great backs (on the team) that I’m able to learn from,” Katoa said. “There’s good things and there’s some mistakes, but I think I’m doing good.”
Other backs receiving praise were senior Matt Hadley, who finished with 25 yards on three carries, and Riley Burt, who added eight carries for 22 yards.
Katoa also lent praise to first-year BYU running backs coach AJ Steward for how he's managed his position group since arriving at Provo shortly after the 2017 season.
“I think that each person has their own strengths that I can take from,” Katoa said. “But I think coach Steward does a great job of holding all of us accountable in the whole room. He points out things we’re good at, so I think, as a whole, that I learn from everybody.”