Wagon Wheel win over USU should get BYU’s season, Sitake’s future rolling again
Popular coach preached depth in the offseason, and that work paid dividends in injury plagued Cougars’ 42-14 rout of instate rival Utah State on Saturday night at Maverik Stadium
LOGAN — The Old Wagon Wheel hasn’t rolled back to Provo this easily in years. And that’s a good thing for embattled BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.
Harkening back to the days when wins over instate rival Utah State were almost automatic, the always unpredictable BYU football team pulled off another surprise on a chilly Saturday night at sold-out Maverik Stadium, bludgeoning the Aggies 42-14 with an explosive form of offensive and opportunistic defense not seen much from the Cougars recently.
“It is a roller coaster (of emotions),” said running back Lopini Katoa, describing the Cougars’ 4-4 season. “But hopefully it will just go up from here.”
The same could be said of Sitake’s hopes of staying in Provo, although the coach declined to wax poetic about what a second-straight rivalry game win means to him.
In putting together their best overall performance of the season, perhaps in several seasons, the Cougars not only got the wheel back by snapping USU’s two-game winning streak in the series and 10-game home winning streak, they stockpiled even more confidence on the heels of that 28-25 upset of then-No. 14 Boise State two weeks ago.
“It’s been a nice run,” said linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi, who led the defense that forced five USU turnovers and made bend-but-don’t-break an art form. The Aggies racked up 521 yards — after getting just 128 in last week’s 31-7 loss at Air Force — but managed just two touchdowns.
“Obviously, we played a different, unique defense tonight,” said Sitake, while not divulging exactly what changed. “I don’t know if it caught Utah State off-guard or not. But I liked the fact we made them earn it. Points is all I care about. So we will take giving up those yards if they only get 14 points.”
Most USU-BYU games since Aggies coach Gary Andersen made the rivalry competitive again a decade or so ago have been wild, woolly affairs, and this one threatened to be until the Cougars took control in the second half. But it did feature another quarterback having to leave the game due to injury, as these affairs almost always do.
Jaren Hall added his name to the list that includes Taysom Hill, Chuckie Keeton and Beau Hoge.
Having sat out the BSU game with a concussion, Hall seemingly suffered another one late in the first half, taking a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from a USU linebacker as he was running 7 yards for the touchdown that gave BYU a 21-7 lead just before halftime.
Hall was not cleared at halftime to return to the game, Sitake said, but panic didn’t set in because the Cougars knew Baylor Romney could get the job done, as he did against the Broncos.
Actually, Sitake said they were “going to play both (quarterbacks) anyways” and Hall’s second concussion in as many games “just kind of forced our hand.”
As for the hit that took Hall out and went unpenalized, Sitake said he didn’t see it or he would have taken a timeout or asked the officials about it.
“It is a violent game and the unfortunate part of it is sometimes injuries,” he said. “So we will see how he progresses. We just want him to be healthy. That’s the important thing.”
Building better depth was made important by Sitake and his staff during the offseason, and that work paid dividends again as Romney played almost flawlessly in the second half and a revamped offensive line asserted itself.
“We have to take it one week at a time. I feel like we know what we are capable of now, moving forward. We just gotta keep doing what we are doing.” — BYU quarterback Baylor Romney
Romney completed 10 of 16 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns, including a 1-yard TD pass to his brother, Gunner, to make a little program history, with just one interception. It was the first brother-to-brother combination for a touchdown ever at BYU.
Hall had carved up the Aggie defense, playing without leading tackler David Woodward, for 214 yards on 12 of 16 passing, before he left the game with 54 rushing yards and two rushing TDs.
The biggest Aggie-killer was a screen play to Lopini Katoa, who was spectacular with four catches for 129 yards and seven carries for 42 yards and a score.
Credit offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick, receivers coach Fesi Sitake and whoever else is calling the plays in what coaches say is a “collaborative effort” for continually keeping the USU defense off-balance.
“Offensively, our guys are starting to have a lot more confidence in themselves. I think we executed the plays well,” Sitake said. “I also like the way our offensive line protected. … The screen plays worked really nicely. One thing people don’t talk about is the blocks downfield from receivers. That helps spring a lot of big plays on the screen plays and everything we had. Plus we took some long shots and were successful there.”
So the Cougars finished with 639 yards and flirted with handing the Aggies their worst loss in the Battle for the Wagon Wheel since 2006 when Jason Beck filled in for John Beck at quarterback and led BYU to a 38-0 win.
“We have to take it one week at a time,” Romney said. “I feel like we know what we are capable of now, moving forward. We just gotta keep doing what we are doing.”
The Cougars exorcised a few demons along the way, such as finishing drives with touchdowns and not getting outscored in the fourth quarter. Sure, there were a couple blemishes — Emmanuel Esukpa fumbled inside the 5 when the Cougars were seemingly poised to take control early, and Romney’s ill-advised throw to the end zone in the third quarter was picked by USU’s Cam Lampkin — but for the most part BYU made all the game’s important plays.
Sitake said the Cougars tackled poorly in last year’s 45-20 loss in Provo and made that a point of emphasis this week. Utah State rushed for just 127 yards, and quarterback Jordan Love was intercepted three times — twice by Cougar linebackers.
Kavika Fonua and Payton Wilgar got the picks, along with defensive back Beau Tanner on USU’s last possession. Amazingly, BYU LBs have accounted for 10 of the team’s 12 interceptions this season.
“Those linebackers are all young, too,” said Sitake, who improved to 2-2 against USU and is now 3-9 against BYU’s three primary rivals. “I think they all return next year. That’s a good sign.”
For them, and the coach’s cloudy future.
A rolling wagon wheel might be just the right symbol.