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BYU’s next task after thrilling double-overtime win at Tennessee: Don’t repeat last year’s post-Wisconsin letdown

Cougars showed they do have some playmakers in outlasting Vols 29-26 at Neyland Stadium.

BYU players celebrate their win over Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. BYU won 29-26 in double overtime.
BYU players celebrate their win over Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. BYU won 29-26 in double overtime.
Scott G Winterton

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After all the high-fives and hugs and singing the school fight song twice to the 10,000 or so BYU fans who took over Neyland Stadium in the final, frenetic last few moments, Cougars coach Kalani Sitake was asked where the Cougars go from here.

Good question.

“We have had big wins before, and not learned from them,” Sitake said.

Maybe this one will be different, after a pair of Cougar seniors — Micah Simon and Ty’Son Williams — showed that BYU does, indeed, have a few playmakers on its side.

Simon broke free for a 64-yard reception when all appeared to be lost at the end of regulation to set up Jake Oldroyd’s game-tying field goal with a second remaining. Williams powered his way into the end zone in the second overtime — bulldozing past UT’s gassed defensive line behind a convoy of BYU’s fresher offensive linemen — as the visitors pulled out a 29-26 win in front of 92,475 mostly shellshocked fans.

“You want to enjoy it, but after today we got USC coming in next week,” Williams said. “We gotta protect LaVell’s house.”

Immediately, memories of last year’s big win over Wisconsin come to mind. The Cougars played flatly in a win over McNeese State the week after upsetting the Badgers, but were never quite the same. They went into the tank with back-to-back blowout losses to Washington and Utah State.

“The stress we put ourselves under in fall camp prepared us for this moment,” said Simon, who said it will be up to the seniors and team leaders to not let the Cougars fall into the same trap as they did last September and early October.

Simon had a career-high 127 yards on seven receptions, but whatever happens from here, no catch-and-run will be remembered more in Cougar lore than his 64-yarder at Rocky Top as the clock ticked perilously close to zero.

“I am glad they tackled us as early as they did,” Sitake said.

The coach said he was “going to have fun with it” the remainder of the night Saturday, and especially on the flight home, but quickly added that after 24 hours the focus will shift to the Trojans. He was also lamenting a “possibly hurt ankle” that occurred in the celebration, while not asking for sympathy.

“We have been in a position where we’ve won before and haven’t capitalized on it,” he said.

Another player who has been in the program a long time, linebacker Kavika Fonua, said he initially thought the Cougars had shot themselves in the foot with a premature celebration when officials reviewed Williams’ 5-yard TD run in which he never went down.

“I was hoping we didn’t run on the field too early,” said Fonua, the defensive hero with an interception that set up BYU’s first TD after tipping a pass that fell into a UT receiver’s arms in the end zone for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Williams’ take after improving to 3-0 in his career against Tennessee: “I just got in there and got dirty.”

Then there was ever-studious sophomore quarterback, Zach Wilson, who couldn’t let the moment pass without lamenting how the offense “should have done better” before clicking in both overtime sessions.

“Still, this gives us confidence for the rest of our schedule,” said the Corner Canyon product who was 19 of 29 for 232 yards, but sacked four times.

The Cougars will have to play the first half against USC without defensive end Devin Kaufusi, who was ejected for targeting in the second half.

But defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki — whose unit bowed up in the second overtime to force a field goal after giving up 256 rushing yards before that — has said this is the deepest front four he’s had at BYU. Now is the time to prove it.

The Cougars almost won it in the first overtime after another senior criticized for not being enough of a playmaker, Talon Shumway, caught a 14-yard TD toss from Wilson. Tennessee converted twice on third-and-long, including a 13-yard TD pass to Jauan Jennings in which BYU’s Chaz Ah You seemed to be in better position to get an interception, only to have Jennings wrestle the ball away for the tying TD.

Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said BYU wanted it more, and willed itself to the win, evidenced by the rugby-like scrum that led to Williams’ score that touched off the celebration nearly heard in the nearby Smoky Mountains.

“We have great kids,” Sitake said in response to Pruitt’s remarks. “They come with this resilient attitude to work hard.”

Still, there’s plenty to clean up — from the maddening false starts on first down that put the Cougars behind the chains before they even snapped the football — to some head-scratching play calls out of the coaching booth.

Twice BYU had to burn timeouts on defense on UT’s first possession, timeouts it could have used later in the first half. Then a pair of bad breaks led to the Vols scoring a touchdown. BYU seemingly had forced an incompletion on third-and-19, but after a replay review officials ruled Josh Palmer had a toe inbounds and gave the Vols the ball at the BYU 5.

On 4th-and-3, Fonua tipped a pass intended for tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson at the back of the end zone, and it fell into Jennings’ arms for a gift touchdown. For 45 minutes, it didn’t appear to be BYU’s night.

“I think the crowd noise got to us in the first half,” Sitake said, explaining the early mistakes.

The comedy of errors continued into the second quarter when another false start pushed the Cougars back, then Wilson was sacked on second-and-2 after a 13-yard reception by Matt Bushman. On third-and-10, a snap bounced off Aleva Hifo and resulted in an 11-yard loss.

At that point, BYU had minus-20 rushing yards.

Somehow, the Cougars overcame all the miscues, found their second wind, and looked like the better team in overtime after being mostly outplayed the first 60 minutes.

Lost in the celebration and Simon’s big play were several key plays made earlier in the game, such as Austin Lee’s two pass breakups in the end zone that forced the Vols to settle for field goals.

“We made a couple more plays than they did,” Sitake said, repeating what he said last year when the Cougars stunned Wisconsin at Camp Randall.

Now if they can avoid repeating what happened after that.