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BYU football: No. 13 Cougars’ improved depth was on full display in 34-20 win over Utah State

BYU replaced four injured offensive starters with seasoned backups in the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel and was able to roll the trophy back to Provo after another impressive wire-to-wire win

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Morgan Pyper tries to tackle Utah State Aggies quarterback Logan Bonner in Logan.
Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Morgan Pyper (10) tries to tackle Utah State Aggies quarterback Logan Bonner (1) in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Maybe there is something to this “next man up” mentality the undefeated BYU Cougars have adopted.

Sure, it is one of those stale sports cliches that has been used so much it has lost meaning over the years, but the No. 13 Cougars are mastering it in this injury-filled season when they are proving time and again that last year’s 11-1 record was no fluke.

The latest example was Friday’s intense 34-20 win over the much-improved Utah State Aggies in the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel at crazed Maverik Stadium in Logan.

Playing without starting quarterback Jaren Hall, starting right tackle Harris LaChance, starting center James Empey and starting fullback Masen Wake, then having to go with third-string freshman quarterback Jacob Conover the entire second half, BYU still mustered 34 points on offense and didn’t turn the ball over for the third time in five games.

“That’s just what BYU football is,” said running back Tyler Allgeier, who ran for a career-high 218 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries and also caught three passes for 22 yards, putting the Cougars on his back when QB Baylor Romney left the game at halftime after his head bounced on the hard artificial turf at Merlin Olsen Field.

It was the eighth-best rushing day in BYU football history.

“When someone goes down, the next person knows the play and knows what to do and literally just takes over,” Allgeier said.

Defensively, Ben Bywater found his footing after replacing lost-for-the-season leader Keenan Pili at middle linebacker in last week’s 35-27 win over South Florida and made three tackles for loss while posting a team-high nine tackles.

Amazingly, BYU held USU to 22 yards on 35 carries. Heck, even BYU’s sports psychologist is pitching in.

“I talked to the team therapist about some things that could help me personally,” Bywater said. “But we have a great scout team and great coaches. … Those opportunities that are created come from scheme. So, great D-line play, picking up the blocks, and it frees me up to go get those TFLs.”

Reserves ranked second and third in tackles Friday, as backup safeties Morgan Pyper (seven tackles) and Ammon Hannemann (six tackles) got in on the team act.

“The 11 guys on the field (who started) were great, but it was the other 11 that really stepped up and made some plays for us, too,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake.

Three defenders who missed the USF game — cornerback Isaiah Herron and defensive linemen Tyler Batty and Atunaisa Mahe — returned and made their presence felt. Backup Caden Haws was particularly effective in bull-rushing the QB when the Cougars dropped eight.

The defense was almost back to full strength, although nickel Caleb Christensen didn’t play and playmaker George Udo briefly left the game but returned. Walk-on Jacob Boren saw his most significant action as a Cougar, and USU transfer Jakob Robinson overcame a stumble that allowed a long TD pass and posted a game-sealing interception, with Malik Moore getting the other pick.

“They have a really explosive offense, and I thought our guys hung in there,” Sitake said. “We used all our corners to cover and we played a lot of man coverage today. I think we used all six corners, so that was good.”

Bywater said that when word spread throughout the locker room at halftime that Romney had been knocked out of the game, team captains Payton Wilgar and Pili stepped up and reminded the guys they would be OK.

“We believe in Jake. So Jake came in and did a great job, didn’t turn the ball over and was able to march us down the field and get a few scores,” Bywater said. “The whole team stepped up in general, but obviously we looked to our captains to get us through those tough times.”

Amazingly, given their early schedule, the Cougars have yet to trail in a game this season. In all five games, they’ve taken a multiple-score lead then withstood an opponent’s comeback with clutch drives and/or stops in the fourth quarter.

“Yeah, the fast starts help us, but I like ending the right way, and we have been able to do that in our games,” Sitake said. “We just have to stay consistent in the way we play. I like the way our guys are being coached. I like the way our guys are responding. We have had to use quite a bit of depth in the last five games.”

Building that depth has been something Sitake has been preaching since he took over in 2016. Memories of that second-half collapse when they led Utah 27-7 late in the third quarter in Salt Lake City in 2018 will never leave the program, and they are bound and determined to not let history repeat itself.

“I just think we are all reliable and relentless,” Allgeier said. “If someone goes down, we go on. We had two offensive linemen down, and we had two offensive linemen (Joe Tukuafu and Campbell Barrington) that ended up starting and doing their thing. So it shows a lot to what BYU football is and what our message is. We are all reliable and literally that is what BYU football is and what we do.”

Now the Cougars are in the familiar spot of figuring out their QB situation after another physical battle with the Aggies — who also lost their starting QB Logan Bonner in the game.

Sitake didn’t rule out the possibility of any of the three — Hall, Romney or Conover — starting against Boise State next Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“We are hoping to get (Hall) back,” Sitake said. “We are hoping to get Baylor back. We will just have to wait and see what happens.”