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Who’s to blame for BYU’s loss?

Cougars turned the strengths that helped them go 5-0 into weaknesses in surprise loss to fired up and revenge-minded Boise State Broncos

Brigham Young running back Tyler Allgeier (25) close his his eyes as he warms up ahead of an NCAA college football game against Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Brigham Young running back Tyler Allgeier (25) close his his eyes as he warms up ahead of an NCAA college football game against Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Nationally ranked BYU now knows the pain of a 4-0 deficit in turnovers, undisciplined play from its veteran players, questionable coaching decisions and a 26-17 final score that was celebrated a month ago but has now resulted in the end of what was looking like another magical season.

Doing everything that BYU did to Utah on Sept. 11 and Arizona State on Sept. 18, unranked rival Boise State capitalized on mistake after mistake from the supposed No. 10 team in the country, and handed the Cougars a 26-17 upset loss Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 63,470 that almost certainly will cost BYU (5-1) a shot at playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

“Not a fun one to lose,” said BYU receiver Puka Nacua.

A devastating one to lose, actually.

It was eerily similar to what BYU did to Boise State two years ago, when the Broncos headed to LaVell Edwards Stadium with a No. 14 record, dreaming of an undefeated season in mid-October. The Cougars used big plays and turnovers to eke out a 28-25 upset win, but this time they got the tables turned on them.

“It stings. It stings, being 5-0 and then losing to Boise State,” said BYU linebacker Ben Bywater.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake rightfully credited the Broncos (3-3) for making more plays and being more ready to play in a game that featured sporadic rain and wind, then sunshine. He also acknowledged that it wasn’t just the Cougars who didn’t get the job done.

“We weren’t really error-free in any part of the game,” he said.

And that includes coaching.

Hindsight is obviously 20-20, but some coaching decisions backfired that, in the end, could have given the Cougars a chance to tie or win the game in the fourth quarter.

Of course, the three fumbles, including one on a kickoff return, were also too much to overcome. The fourth turnover, an interception, came when BYU was desperately trying to score in the fourth quarter. The previous three were as costly as any in recent memory.

“I give a lot of credit to Boise,” Sitake said. “They were ready to play. I can’t sit here and say the mistakes were all our fault. But that is uncharacteristic of what we do as a team. And that is in all three phases.”

Boise State came in as the 127th team in the country in rushing offense, then proceeded to run for 140 yards on the Cougars despite not having the services of its best back, George Holani. Cyrus Habibi-Likio and Andrew Van Buren combined for 135 yards on 18 carries apiece.

The Broncos turned their weaknesses into strengths; the Cougars turned their strengths that built the five-game winning streak and 13-game home winning streak — ball security, punishing run attack, disciplined play — into weaknesses.

And it cost them dearly.

“Too many penalties and turnovers,” said BYU starting quarterback Jaren Hall, who played for the first time since the 27-17 win over Arizona State and threw for a career-high 302 yards for a passer rating of 131.5. “Just too many uncharacteristic things of ourselves.”

BYU committed nine penalties for 75 yards, including four defensive pass interference/defensive holding calls from the secondary.

Both teams had 24 first downs and the Cougars had 413 total yards to Boise State’s 312, but the Broncos committed just four penalties and didn’t have a turnover. Boise State put the ball on the ground twice, but each time recovered.

Those kinds of breaks that the Cougars used to upset the Utes 26-17 and wildly undisciplined Sun Devils didn’t go their way this time around.

First down was particularly bad for BYU, which could usually count on big back Tyler Allgeier to get them in front of the chains in past games. Not so this time. Allgeier finished with just 73 yards on 19 carries after going over the 200-yard mark last week in the 34-20 win over Utah State.

“Their defense had great calls and we didn’t make plays,” Hall said tersely about BYU’s first-down woes.

The same could be said of BYU’s red zone woes. With about 12 minutes remaining in the game, the Cougars had a first-and-goal at the BSU 3-yard line after the Broncos were flagged for pass interference.

But an incomplete pass was followed by Allgeier and Hall getting stuff on runs, and Hall’s fourth-down pass — which wouldn’t have counted anyway because of illegal motion — sailed wide.

Sitake defended the decision to go for the TD there, rather than settle for a field goal, by saying that the Cougars have been effective on previous fourth-and-goal situations this season.

Not this time.

“In the second half, we felt like we needed two touchdowns,” he said of the call that came with Boise State leading 23-10. “We were so close. It felt like we have had some success with fourth downs, being aggressive and trying to get the score.”

As for going for the first down in the first half on fourth-and-2 from their 45 — a call that resulted in Allgeier getting stopped for no gain — Sitake said that in hindsight it probably wasn’t the right decision. The Broncos went 43 yards in the final two minutes of the half and kicked a 20-yard field goal to take a 20-10 lead at halftime.

“In the moment, when we are looking at analytics and our gut feelings, and our matchups, we felt those were the right decisions to make,” Sitake said. “That is on me as a head coach. I make those decisions and you gotta live with it.”

Obviously, a coach can’t do much about three costly fumbles, including the two that came on back-to-back touches in the first half and basically handed Boise State 14 points and a 17-10 lead — and the one committed by Lopini Katoa in the third quarter that cost the Cougars a probable touchdown.

“I don’t think we fell apart,” Sitake said, when asked where it went wrong as the Cougars faltered. “We battled and had a chance to win the game. We had some turnover issues. That’s what you go to first. But it is hard to win games when you turn the ball over. I look at the fourth down stops as turnovers as well, so we had a couple of those.”

Six costly mistakes, basically.

“Those opportunities that we had in the red zone, you have to take advantage of that if you are looking at it from the offensive point of view. On defense, we felt like we were on the field too long, from my perspective. … Our offense had tons of yards, but we gotta have more points.”

Despite all that, the Cougars had a chance after Allgeier’s TD plunge with 7:27 remaining cut Boise State’s lead to 23-17.

But in arguably the biggest defensive series in a season that has already featured a lot of memorable ones, the Cougars simply couldn’t stop BSU quarterback Hank Bachmeier and the Broncos’ best player, all-world receiver Khalil Shakir.

On third-and-6 from the 46, the Cougars gambled that the Broncos would run the ball. Bachmeier found Shakir for an 8-yard gain and first down.

On the next play, when everybody in the place figured BSU would milk the clock, Bachmeier and Shakir combined for a 36-yard gain, the QB making a great throw and the senior receiver making a great catch.

Jonah Dalmas’ 21-yard field goal made it a two-score game again with 3:27 left, and that was that.

“I saw a lot of mistakes, and against a good team it is hard to overcome those mistakes, and it was not just on one side,” Sitake said. “There were a lot of mistakes to go around. I have to do a better job as a coach, to get these guys ready for this game and minimize the mistakes.