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BYU lets another close game get away with another second-half collapse on the road, falls 27-23 to South Florida

After starting quarterback Jaren Hall leaves game with concussion-like symptoms, third-stringer Baylor Romney leads two-late game drives but Cougars can’t get the ball in the end zone, lose third-straight game

Third-string quarterback Baylor Romney rushes for a first down after he enters the game against USF following Jaren Hall’s injury, in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019.
Third-string quarterback Baylor Romney rushes for a first down after he enters the game against USF following Jaren Hall’s injury, in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019.
Robert W. Grover, For the Deseret News

TAMPA, Fla. — It was so similar to the loss two weeks ago at Toledo, it was almost eerie.

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: BYU controls the first half but doesn’t lead by as many points as it should, takes even more control in the second half and then suddenly can’t figure out how to stop the run, especially quarterback runs.

Then the Cougars’ starting quarterback gets hurt, and his backup comes in and almost saves the day, but throws an incomplete pass to the end zone as the clock strikes zero.

History repeated itself, from BYU’s perspective, in all the wrong ways Saturday afternoon in front of 35,375 sun-drenched fans as the Cougars fell 27-23 to South Florida when third-string quarterback Baylor Romney’s lob pass to Matt Bushman and/or Dax Milne was knocked away in the end zone.

At Toledo in almost similar fashion, Jaren Hall’s last-second toss soared out of the end zone and BYU was upset 28-21 to another team its fans believe it has no business losing to: Toledo. Romney, a redshirt freshman, was filling in for Hall, who had been filling in for Zach Wilson (fractured right thumb) injured on Sept. 28.

A BYU spokesperson said Hall was suffering concussion symptoms and was not cleared by the training staff to return. BYU also finished the game without starting running back Emmanuel Esukpa and its best defender, Dayan Ghanwoloku, was held out with an undisclosed injury.

For BYU, which fell to 2-4 and suddenly looks in danger of missing a bowl game for the second time in three years with Boise State, Utah State and San Diego State still on the horizon, it was simply more frustration as it lost its third-straight game.

“Obviously, very disappointing outcome to the game, and the result, and we have some things to address and improve on from this week to next week when we got a ranked team (No. 14 Boise State) coming into our home,” said head coach Kalani Sitake.

Make that a lot of things to address.

At the top of the list: stopping the run.

After Toledo ran for 64 yards in the first half and 178 in the second for 242 against BYU’s No. 118th ranked run defense last month, South Florida ran for 65 in the first half and 178 in the second half for 243 total on an 86-degree day in central Florida.

“I felt like we had a pretty sound first half, then fell apart,” Sitake said. “It became a fight, and they beat us in the second half and were able to get some yards. It didn’t help that we made a lot of mistakes in all three phases.”

Fell apart is putting it mildly.

The Cougars led just 16-7 at halftime despite piling up 209 yards and holding USF to just 119. The Bulls (3-3) took the second half kickoff and marched 68 yards for a touchdown on 11 runs and three passes, and the game was on.

“It was a rough game, a game we felt like we were in position to win, and didn’t,” said center James Empey. “Losses like this hurt.”

The 2019 Cougars are getting used to them.

BYU led 23-14 when Hall scampered 29 yards for a touchdown with just under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, then would not score again.

After Hall was hit just after he released the ball on an incomplete pass, a hit that almost certainly caused the concussion symptoms, Jake Oldroyd missed a medium-range field goal for the second-straight game, with 11:20 remaining.

“We really could have used those points,” Sitake said.

USF answered by driving 78 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, a 2-yard plunge by Jordan Cronkrite. He finished with 158 yards and two scores. Hall went to the sidelines having passed for 148 yards and a TD (to Dax Milne) and rushed for 83 yards and a score while becoming the first African American to start at QB for BYU in program history.

Romney took over with 7:30 remaining and moved the Cougars inside the USF 10, but his 5-yard pass to his brother, Gunner, on fourth down was short of the first-down marker and the Bulls took over with 1:36 remaining.

The Cougars got the ball back with 1:09 left and got to the USF 12 before Baylor Romney was sacked by Antonio Grier. His lob into traffic fell incomplete.

“He came in and it looked like he didn’t miss much of a beat,” Sitake said. “I wish we would have had more conversions, and would have had more time to win the game.”

The Cougars host Boise State on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. (ESPN2).