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BYU’s big win over No. 14 Boise State brings relief, but also more questions about Cougars’ inconsistency

Players say they are playing for embattled coach Kalani Sitake, who gambled on fourth down because ‘it just felt right’ and pulled out an improbable upset victory

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Austin Kafentzis goes over the pile for a first down to seal the game against the Boise State Broncos during NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Austin Kafentzis goes over the pile for a first down to seal the game against the Boise State Broncos during NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

PROVO — A little more than halfway through the 2019 season, the BYU Cougars have proven that they are capable of almost anything, for better or worse.

Wins over a pair of Power Five opponents and No. 14-ranked Boise State? Check.

Losses to two struggling programs with nowhere near the resources or tradition of BYU, Toledo and South Florida? Check that, too.

Welcome to embattled fourth-year coach Kalani Sitake’s Wild Ride, which could make a heckuva book some day. The latest chapter ended with Sitake himself making one of the biggest decisions of his coaching life, a call that just might have saved his time at BYU. Or could have hastened his ouster, had it backfired.

With the Cougars facing a fourth-and-inches situation on their own 34 and the game literally hanging in the balance, Sitake sent out the “scrum team” with safety Austin Kafentzis under center.

The former Jordan High quarterback lunged forward for the first down with just over two minutes remaining. The Cougars were able to run out the clock from there and took a 28-25 win that could reverberate well into November when BYU (3-4) is trying to get bowl-eligible.

“I just trust the players. I think in your mind you think maybe you should punt it. But I dunno, I had a good feeling from the players,” Sitake explained. “I liked the look that they gave me on the sideline, like, ‘it is time to win the game, let’s go do it.’”

It was a bold gamble in a career at BYU — Sitake is now 23-23 overall — that has seen plenty of those, for good or bad.

“I trust Austin Kafentzis, who is a senior, and that (offensive) line, the guys up front. And they really wanted this,” Sitake said. “We practice that scrum personnel quite a bit. And we were collaborating about the calls, what we should do there, and even talked about punting. That one just felt right.”

Senior Dayan Ghanwoloku, who was lined up behind Kafentzis on the play, said Sitake “was on the sideline (before the gamble), letting us decide, pretty much. Coach had trust in us that we could get it.”

These are players who truly believe they are playing to save Sitake’s job. Linebacker Chaz Ah You pretty much said that in last Monday’s news conference, and fellow linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi reiterated that in the wee hours Sunday morning. Kaufusi and his brother, Jackson, had interceptions in the game, becoming the first pair of brothers in BYU history to record picks in the same game.

“I don’t think people really realize and understand how much we love Kalani,” Isaiah Kaufusi said, tears welling up. “He is a great mentor, a phenomenal coach. I think people are too quick to criticize and attack him. The whole team, we are behind coach Kalani. We love him. We play for him. Regardless of whether his job is on the line or not, you are going to get 123 guys playing for Kalani. I love him. Regardless of what happens and what is next, I think we all play for him. The bottom line is we love him and we will fight for him any day.”

The obvious question is why that passion and fight didn’t carry out on the road the last two outings, when the Cougars were outscored a combined 27-0 in the fourth quarters at Toledo in the 28-21 loss and at South Florida in the 27-23 setback. Those losses became even more puzzling for BYU fans when the Rockets and Bulls were blown out Saturday by Ball State and Navy.

This might be the most unpredictable BYU team in years, maybe decades. The Cougars won at Tennessee of the SEC, which gave Alabama a tough game Saturday, and knocked off No. 24 USC and now No. 14 Boise State at home.

What gives?

“Just off the top of my head, we have always talked about putting a complete game together, and for some reason it just hasn’t happened,” Isaiah Kaufusi said. “I think tonight it did, it showed, and when we do put a complete game together, we are a great football team. But I think we found the formula for what it takes. We were really dialed in. We found the formula to be successful.”

Up next is another rivalry game, at Utah State, which has defeated the Cougars convincingly in the last two matchups and quite likely will be favored after BYU has a bye this week.

Which BYU team will show up?

“I think moving forward, you will see a better team. I think we kinda figured it out,” Kaufusi said.

Sitake pushed all the credit to the players and his assistant coaches, as he usually does, but clearly the losses had been wearing on him, having described himself being in a “tight spot” last week.

“I didn’t do anything too crazy,” he said.” The players worked extremely hard for this win. If anything, I leaned on them even more heavily, and our assistant coaches had a great game plan. … I liked the aggressive nature of our team.”

Like going for a first down in your own territory with the game — and quite possibly, your job — on the line.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t Sitake’s first gamble on fourth down that turned out favorably for the Cougars. On fourth-and-1 with about three minutes remaining in the third quarter, Sitake went for the first and was rewarded with a touchdown, a brilliant play call by offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who was on the field calling plays for the first time this season.

Lopini Katoa took a handoff from Baylor Romney, pitched the ball to Aleva Hifo, who tossed in back to Romney. Tight end Matt Bushman was alone down the East sideline, and Romney found him for the 39-yard touchdown to give BYU as 28-10 lead.

“We made some pretty bold moves this game, and they paid off,” said Bushman, who had five catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns and re-emerged as the best player in BYU’s offense to ease the first start at quarterback for Baylor Romney.

The redshirt freshman said he got a phone call from quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick on Wednesday night telling him he would get the start, that Jaren Hall had not cleared concussion protocol.

“When we put everything together, I think we can compete with any team on our schedule,” Bushman said.

Unfortunately in this season of unexpected twists and turns, the opposite has been true as well.