STATESBORO, Georgia — Conventional wisdom surrounding No. 14 BYU heading into Saturday’s almost ill-conceived foray into Sun Belt territory for the second-straight season — this one planned more than two days ahead — was that the Cougars needed some style points against lowly Georgia Southern at sold out Paulson Stadium.

But what was supposed to be a cakewalk in the Deep South turned into quite the tussle for the 20-point favorites, and there came a point when head coach Kalani Sitake’s team had to think more about simply winning the game than anything else.

BYU did just that, scoring 20 unanswered points after falling behind in the first half and escaping with a 34-17 win in front of 20,862 fans.

For the first 50 or so minutes, the Cougars were getting all they wanted from a 3-7 team that needed a win last week over Texas State to snap a four-game losing skid and was playing with a third-string, maybe even fourth-string, quarterback playing college football for the first time.

“Georgia Southern showed up and was ready to play. I thought we got their best shot. The first half, I don’t think we played our style of football. We had to regain our composure.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

“Georgia Southern showed up and was ready to play,” Sitake said. “I thought we got their best shot.

“The first half, I don’t think we played our style of football. We had to regain our composure.”

Speaking of style, for most of the interesting intersectional game, the Cougars (9-2) didn’t display the swagger and ability of a top-15 team looking to move up in the College Football Playoff rankings.

They looked more like the team that struggled to put away South Florida than the one that knocked off Power Five opponents such as Utah, Arizona State, Washington State and Virginia.

Until the fourth quarter, anyway.

Then, the Cougars did what they’ve done in about a half-dozen games this year in putting together back-to-back stellar seasons.

They seized the football from the Eagles and wouldn’t give it back.

Credit to Sitake in the final few minutes for sticking to his word and not going after style points.

After having taken over with 7 minutes, 45 seconds remaining and the 17-point lead, the Cougars drove to the Georgia State 23 and then began taking a knee with 1:47 remaining.

Even after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on GS put the ball at the 6, Sitake kept having quarterback Jaren Hall take a knee.

“That’s our style,” Sitake said. “We like doing that, and I think style points for us is trying to get some younger guys on the field and trying to get them some opportunities.”

The coach reiterated that he’s not worried about style points, even if it means the Cougars won’t impress the CFP committee if all they do is look at the final score.

“I am not worried about that,” he said. “We are going to play with sportsmanship and try to do the right thing.

“Kneeling the ball at the end was the right thing to do.”

And so ended a quirky, chippy game and uneven performance the Cougars will take into next Saturday’s showdown at USC in the Coliseum. 

“I think we did well,” said BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, who completed 17 of 29 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns and also picked up 21 yards on the ground with some timely runs for first downs.

His passer rating was a solid 171.8.

“We eliminated a lot of distractions after taking the week off with the bye week, the long bus ride, the early start.

“I thought we did a good job of coming out and being focused, but there is always room for improvement.”

3 takeaways from No. 14 BYU’s tougher-than-expected win over Georgia Southern
Highlights, key plays and photos from No. 14 BYU’s 34-17 win over Georgia Southern

Indeed, there is.

Let’s start with the defense, which had to go without star linebacker Payton Wilgar (out for the season after having shoulder surgery) and then lost starter Max Tooley when he was flagged for targeting GS quarterback Connor Cigelske just after the freshman released a pass.

It wasn’t the dominating start the Cougars were hoping for to take the wanting-to-believe Eagles and their boisterous, burrito-throwing crowd out of the game early, as Georgia Southern scored on its first, third and fourth possessions to take a 17-14 lead with 6:25 left in the second quarter.

The Eagles had 175 yards of offense, including 108 on the ground, at that point and were gashing the interior of the BYU defense and blowing the Cougars off the ball repeatedly.

Cigelske was playing like fellow Sun Belt QB Grayson McCall of Coastal Carolina, who upset BYU last year with timely runs and throws.

The Cougars looked OK when they drove 84 yards on their first possession and then 75 on their second to take a 14-3 lead.

But the Eagles picked up where they left off after the first possession, going 72 yards on eight plays to trim the lead to 14-10.

Georgia Southern almost recovered an onside kick, but replay officials ruled that a GS player touched the ball when he was out of bounds before the football was recovered by the Eagles.

BYU couldn’t take advantage of that huge break and was stopped on fourth and-2 at the GS 43 a few plays later.

Hall’s throw to a wide open Isaac Rex was short, after he took a short backward pass from Lopini Katoa.

After Tooley was disqualified, the Eagles used that controversial ruling to go on another TD drive to take the 17-14 lead.

The crowd was into it — although about 10,000 or so were cheering for BYU — and the Cougars were in a dogfight.

Jake Oldroyd’s 39- and 38-yard field goals gave BYU a 20-17 lead at halftime.

Hall said the Cougars didn’t panic.

“We got everybody together, said, ‘Stay focused, stay poised,’” he said. “We knew they were going to play hard, because they are a good team, man.

“People looked past these guys because of their record. They are really good, really physical, had a great scheme. But yeah, we had to keep the energy up and tried to be consistent all game.”

The Cougars owned the second half, finishing with 507 yards of offense and holding the home team to just 93 in the second half.

“We talked about it at halftime, just playing our style of football,” Sitake said. “And I thought we did that in the second half.

“I thought we did some really good things in the first half, too, but it was pretty chippy out there. I just wanted to get our guys focused. Our offense played well the entire game, but the defense played more fundamentally sound and we played with a little bit more poise — most of us — in the second half.

“We have some things to work on, but there were some great learning moments for us.”

Ranked No. 10 nationally in third-down conversion percentage, BYU was 0 for 4 on third down in the first half, resulting in the field goals, but got that turned around and was 3 of 6 in the second half.

They set the tone for the second half by driving 78 yards for a TD to take a 27-17 lead the first time they touched it, then forced GS into punting.

Then Utah State transfer Jakob Robinson stepped up in a big way, picking off passes on two consecutive GS possessions to save the Cougars.

An Orem High product, Robinson made a spectacular interception of Cigelske.

His first pick came against Amare Jones, as the Eagles had their splendid receiver try a pass after they had driven from their 7 to the Cougars’ 28, for some reason.

“Jakob is a stud,” Sitake said. “We put him into position to play with his eyes on the quarterback and to make the plays, and he has great ball skills.

“I thought he tackled really well tonight, too. A lot of young guys made plays, and that makes me really happy.”

So did Puka Nacua, who finished with five catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. His second TD catch, from 29 yards, made it 34-17 with 10:38 left and came after he was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for shoving a guy who had shoved his brother, Samson.

Another game ball should go to freshman Brayden Keim, who filled in admirably at right tackle after Campbell Barrington was injured in practice last week and helped the Cougars rush for 195 yards.

Hall was never sacked.

“I don’t know what we ran for, but close to 200 yards,” Sitake said “That’s a good sign for us. If we can do that every week, that is a good sign that the O-line is doing a good job. From what I saw, Brayden Keim did some really good things.”

In a really unusual game.