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Cougars give Kalani Sitake the physicality he wanted in win over Washington State

BYU coach Kalani Sitake called out his offensive and defensive linemen for not being physical enough during two-game losing streak, but Cougars responded Saturday at Martin Stadium

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BYU defensive back Jacob Boren (20) disrupts a pass intended for Washington State wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr.

BYU defensive back Jacob Boren (20) disrupts a pass intended for Washington State wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. (8) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. BYU won 21-19.

Young Kwak, Associated Press

Kalani Sitake asked a lot things out of his BYU football players after a two-game losing streak derailed a once-promising season.

Holding high-flying Washington State, revamped coaching staff or not, to just 19 points was not one of them.

Maligned all week for not playing with enough physicality in losses to Boise State and Baylor, especially the Big 12’s Bears, the Cougars from Provo bowed up on both sides of the ball in the trenches and eked out a 21-19 win in front of 22,541 fans at Martin Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

“I would have taken 19 points if you had asked me before the game against a high-powered offense like they have,” Sitake said. “Especially the last three weeks that they have been playing, going through the win streak they had.”

Indeed, Wazzu (4-4) entered on a three-game winning streak, and despite the almost unprecedented disruption in its coaching staff because ex-head coach Nick Rolovich and four assistants refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, was the the pick of most experts to emerge victorious.

But the red Cougars didn’t have Tyler Allgeier.

BYU’s NFL-bound running back strapped the blue Cougars on his back — much like he did in the 34-20 win over Utah State — and carried them to their sixth win and bowl eligibility.

Allgeier had 191 yards on 32 bruising carries and two touchdowns, with a long run of 30 yards.

“I know he got banged up a little bit, but sometimes you gotta gut through those things,” Sitake said. “He is really sore right now, and that’s how he should be every week.”

After all, that’s Sitake’s type of ball, from lessons learned under the tutelage of Kyle Whittingham, and BYU used it all game to grind out a win that Sitake rightfully acknowledged came down to WSU’s mishandling of a PAT snap and BYU’s ability to stop the red Cougars’ two-point try when they scored with four minutes, 14 seconds remaining.

“We (forced) one turnover and were able to get that (two-point stop),” Sitake said. “That and the PAT stop was the difference in the game.”

Allgeier deserves the game ball — he passed the 2,000-yard rushing mark for his career — but don’t forget the offensive linemen who paved the way. Wazzu is no Baylor in the trenches, but it is a Power Five program, and this time BYU didn’t wilt.

Fittingly, after having been called out by their coach for rushing for fewer than 70 yards against the Bears, the BYU O line finished this one in victory formation.

Taking over at their 25 with 4:14 left, the Cougars took every second off the clock to keep the uber-talented WSU QB Jayden de Laura and company off the field.

BYU even overcame a false start on the drive, which came down to a huge third-and-8 situation with 1:48 left. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick went with his horse — calling a play for Allgeier’s 32nd carry, and Allgeier delivered the first down, running behind the left side of BYU’s O line: Blake Freeland and Clark Barrington.

“Felt good to get that done,” said Barrington, who grew up about 90 minutes up the road in the Spokane Valley.

Especially after what happened last week.

Sitake said, perhaps only half-joking, that he probably would have gone for it on fourth down if Allgeier hadn’t picked up the first down. Then again, BYU has a weapon in punter Ryan Rehkow, another Spokane native, and Sitake says he probably would have been talked into letting the big boomer try to pin the red Cougars deep.

But it didn’t come to that.

“That seems kinda normal for this year,” Sitake said, remembering how the Cougars closed out games against Arizona, Utah, Arizona State and South Florida by milking the clock at the end.

“It seemed like we like having our offense on the field (at the end). Close games are difficult, but when you are playing some really tough teams, they are that way. The schedule and the high level of opponents we are playing takes its toll on you, and I thought our guys responded this week.”

In all, BYU ran the ball 48 times for 238 yards, part of a 69-60 advantage in plays.

Credit should also be given to freshman Connor Pay, who filled in for James Empey (lower leg injury) in the second quarter at center and finished out the game. Receiver Gunner Romney also left the game with an injury and didn’t return; Sitake said neither injury is season-ending, but called both players “doubtful” for next week against Bronco Mendenhall and Virginia.

“Yeah, Connor Pay was big time for us, and to have him fill in and play on the road and snapping the ball when he has gotten most of his reps at guard was big time,” Sitake said. “I think he is one of our top players of the game. The guy made a lot of plays and made a lot of checks at the line of scrimmage and led that O line. That O line was really physical, played hard, and it shows in the stats in the run game.”

Defensively, BYU was just stout enough. Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki employed a nickel defense to combat WSU’s spread attack that had four, sometimes five wideouts on the field at once. Aside from WSU’s first possessions of each half when it scored TDs on drives of 75 and 69 yards, BYU’s defense was fantastic.

Had sophomore safety Malik Moore held on to a couple of de Laura’s errant throws in the second half, he would have had three picks. As it was, his interception in the end zone stood as the only turnover of the game.

BYU’s tackling was shoddy early, which contributed to WSU’s opening 10-play drive for the TD, but it gradually got better.

“There are some great athletes on the field,” Sitake said. “Washington State makes a lot of people miss. … I don’t think it is out of the ordinary to miss some tackles in space when you are going against great athletes.”

BYU’s defensive line, which saw Baylor rush for 303 yards, also contributed to the win despite not having the services of Lorenzo Fauatea and Caden Haws.

“Really pleased that those guys showed up and the physicality they showed on the field,” Sitake said.

Walk-on nickel back Jacob Boren got his first start and tied Ben Bywater for the team high in tackles with five.

Washington State’s Jahad Woods was all over the field and led his team with 16 takedowns.

He’s probably as sore as Allgeier is.

But not nearly as happy.