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Thrilling overtime home win over a ranked, Power Five opponent in USC should turn down the heat on BYU coach Kalani Sitake

Fourth-year coach improved to 2-5 against P5 opponents at LaVell Edwards Stadium, but is not interested in ranking it as one of his best.

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake walks the sideline in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake walks the sideline in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — Mildly under fire for not being able to deliver any signature wins at home, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake wouldn’t bite when he was asked what the Cougars’ 30-27 overtime win over No. 24-ranked USC on a glorious Southern California-like Saturday afternoon at LaVell Edwards Stadium will do for his future and his heretofore middling college football program.

“I am just glad we can win and still learn from it,” said the fourth-year coach who improved his overall record to 22-20, and his record against Power Five teams at home to 2-5.

Players such as defensive heroes Dayan Ghanwoloku and Kavika Fonua and playmaking quarterback Zach Wilson didn’t hesitate to answer the question, however, after Wilson threw for 280 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions and Fonua tipped much-ballyhooed USC quarterback Kedon Slovis’ final third-down pass in overtime that Ghanwoloku corralled for the victory.

“It was huge,” said Wilson, a sophomore who totally outplayed the true freshman making his first road start in front of 62,546 fans, just short of a sellout. “This is such a big win for us. It is easy to go into Monday learning off of a win. There are so many things we have to get better at, but to get a win is huge. I am so proud of this team for battling.”

It is the kind of win that Sitake can point back on — along with the victory last year at No. 6 Wisconsin — as proof that he seemingly has the program pointed in the right direction, despite the pileup of maddening losses (for BYU fans) to rivals Utah, Utah State and Boise State.

Of course, Sitake wouldn’t rank the win as his best in Provo, but thousands of BYU students who stormed the field in celebration would likely put it right up there.

“I don’t really care about all that stuff, man,” Sitake said. “I am just trying to coach football and have fun with these guys.”

Had BYU not won, a curious decision Sitake made toward the end of the third quarter with the score tied 17-17 would have been second-guessed from here to heaven. Facing a fourth-and-2 at the USC 9, Sitake went for the first down — several times, actually, as officials called the first play dead — and Ghanwoloku was stopped short.

The Trojans, with momentum having swung clearly to their side, marched 92 yards in 13 plays to take a 24-17 lead with 10 minutes, 45 seconds remaining.

“I was being selfish and I wanted to get the first down,” said Sitake, who has never shied away from talking the blame for questionable decisions. “That’s me being honest. That was a fan moment for me. … I think Jake (Oldroyd) had just missed a field goal. I believe in what we did. I will have to look at it and decide if I made the right decision.”

It doesn’t matter now. But oh, it might have. Until the plucky quarterback and his hammer — 99-yard rusher Ty’Son Williams — took over late again.

BYU wilted defensively after Utah took a commanding lead 16 days ago in Provo, but the Cougars bowed up offensively and defensively this time against another expected Pac-12 South contender.

That was true even after the Trojans scored a disputed touchdown — Slovis’ 30-yard strike to Michael Pittman Jr. — that was allowed because officials ruled Ghanwoloku had pushed Pittman out of bounds and the receiver reestablished position inbounds before making the catch.

“I thought it was offensive (pass interference), but whatever,” Sitake said. “But they made big plays. We had coverage there. Credit to them. They were able to make the play.”

Just getting warmed up, Sitake went out of his way to credit his players, coordinators and assistants for the win.

“This isn’t about me and my rankings of the games,” he said. “I am just happy for our players and happy for the fans for the win. As a head coach, I have the best view in the house. There were moments where I was just a fan, enjoying what the other coaches were calling.”

There was plenty to nitpick about, though.

For instance, why did the Cougars resort to gadget plays — such as the one where Ghanwoloku was stopped on fourth down? And why did they try to hurry so much to catch the Trojans out of position?

On third-and-3 midway through the fourth quarter, Williams was stopped 2 yards short on one such hurry-up attempt when the ball was snapped with all the offensive linemen looking toward the sidelines. Perhaps having learned from the third-quarter snafu, Sitake sent Olrdroyd out and he booted a 32-yarder that cut USC’s lead to 24-20.

Wilson’s 16-yard touchdown run, which came after his scrambling, 35-yard throw to Gunner Romney, pushed BYU ahead 27-24 and got the crowd back into it. USC’s Chase McGrath booted a 52-yard field goal to tie it with 1:43 remaining, and BYU seemingly had moved into scoring territory, but Williams’ long run was nullified by Aleva Hifo’s illegal block.

“Zach is learning really quickly, and he has an amazing football IQ, and a great supporting cast,” Sitake said. “He has a work ethic that is second to none. Then you match him up with our offensive line and our backs and our receivers and tight ends, and I think we have got something special happening.”

Whether the most popular coach with BYU fans since LaVell Edwards can turn that something special into another memorable moment against Washington at LES next week remains to be seen, but certainly this is a nice jumping-off point.

“I think it was big,” said Ghanwoloku. “We play good away, like the big win at Tennessee and that. It was good winning there and seeing all the fans and stuff, but obviously seeing this environment at home, it is just crazy, seeing our fans happy, seeing them rush the field. That’s what we live for. We want to win in front of them and protect LaVell’s house, and that’s what we did.”

And they might have given their coach’s future a big lift.

“It just builds confidence, really,” said Fonua, last week’s defensive hero in the 29-26 double-overtime win at Tennessee. “Just going to the end of the game, we had no doubt that we were going to win it, just like at Tennessee. That confidence boost, being away, is always good. Now we are just trying to get that confidence back in our home stadium.”

As Sitake said when discussing how the Cougars turned USC’s air raid offense into a run-heavy attack: Mission accomplished.