BYU football: How the shorthanded Cougars are approaching regular-season finale at USC
Shortly after escaping Georgia Southern with a 34-17 win, No. 14 BYU turned its attention to regular-season finale at tradition-steeped USC in Los Angeles on Saturday
Maybe it will happen this week against struggling USC, or in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Dec. 18, barring a miraculous turn of events that leaves No. 14 BYU in a New Year’s Six bowl game as a fitting reward for another outstanding season.
Cougars on the air
No. 13 BYU (9-2)
at USC (4-6)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST
At the Coliseum, Los Angeles, California
Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM
One day, injuries to key players — indispensable players, really — will catch up to the Cougars, who improved to 9-2 on Saturday with a gritty, sloppy 34-17 win over an angry Georgia Southern team 2,000 miles away from Provo in Statesboro, Georgia.
BYU picked up its fourth straight victory since that midseason swoon — losses to Boise State and Baylor — without arguably its two best defenders, linebacker Payton Wilgar and hybrid safety Chaz Ah You — and with a makeshift offensive line that continues to impress even as injuries leave it a shell of its former self.
“Obviously, we are dealing with some injuries, but depth helped us win this game. We need to get a little bit healthier by the time we get to the USC game. If not, then we have to be ready to go anyway.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.
“They just continue to get the job done,” said BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk as he left the Paulson Stadium field after the Cougars had rolled up 507 yards, including 195 on the ground, against the fired-up Sun Belt foe.
It probably could have been more, but BYU ran the final eight minutes or so off the clock without trying to score, which head coach Kalani Sitake is wont to do.
“We like ending the game milking the clock,” Sitake said. “That’s our style. We like doing that.”
Sitake likes using his depth, years in the making, but this is getting ridiculous for a team trying to duplicate last year’s 11-1 season and final No. 11 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25.
Along with Wilgar, out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, BYU played Saturday without right tackle Campbell Barrington, who had been filling in for starting right tackle Harris LaChance.
Sitake and Funk said both linemen might be back for the USC game.
It does not appear that receiver Neil Pau’u will be back, although Sitake said nothing can be ruled out, alluding to the case of Gunner Romney, who has sustained two injuries this season and returned rather quickly from both.
“Obviously we are dealing with some injuries, but depth helped us win this game,” Sitake said, echoing statements after the Cougars overcame the loss of key players to beat Washington State and Virginia in October.
“We need to get a little bit healthier by the time we get to the USC game. If not, then we have to be ready to go anyway.”
The Cougars also lost linebacker Max Tooley, who was disqualified for targeting with about eight minutes remaining in the first half.
Sitake said defenders such as Morgan Pyper, Jackson Kaufusi, Ammon Hannemann, George Udo and Matt Criddle stepped up.
Cornerback Jakob Robinson, the transfer from Utah State who wasn’t a starter when the season began, came up with two huge interceptions in the second half.
“Coaches just told us to play our brand of football, focus on what needs to be focused on,” Robinson said.
There was a scary moment for BYU fans in the second quarter when receiver Puka Nacua, who is emerging as the superstar pass-catcher he was billed to be out of Orem High before starting his college career at Washington, left the game and was taken to the locker room with what appeared to be a hip injury.
He returned in the second half, however, and had a couple big runs and a 29-yard touchdown reception.
“He is still hurting right now. He’s not feeling great right now, but that’s OK. Like I said, there are a lot of guys that are banged up. I am just grateful he was able to get back in there and make some plays for us,” Sitake said.
“You know, I think a lot of guys stepped up. Keanu Hill stepped up. With Neil being out, Gunner stepped up. It was good to have Gunner back on the field.”
Sitake said freshman Brayden Keim filled in admirably for Barrington/LaChance.
“We are missing a lot of guys on the field, but we have done some really cool things with the depth and younger guys taking advantage of the reps,” he said.
Nacua, who had 103 all-purpose yards, said he “was a little banged up,” but just needed to catch his breath.
“I got hit in an awkward area, but we will see tomorrow and kinda let the adrenaline and all the other pain go away and see what we are left with,” he said.
Quarterback Jaren Hall, who turned in another near-flawless performance, also came off the field in the first half favoring his ribs and running gingerly, but didn’t miss a play.
Hall ran five times for 21 yards and was not sacked.
“Yeah, I am good,” he said. “I just got the wind knocked out of me, so a little deja vu (from the Arizona State game). Just making sure I am all pieced together. But yeah, I am good.”
So the Cougars turn their attention to USC, a game they have had circled on their calendars since the three-game series was announced in 2013.
Zach Wilson-led BYU won the first game 30-27 in overtime in 2019 in Provo; Game Two of the series is Saturday at 8:30 p.m. MST on ESPN, while Game Three is scheduled for Nov. 25, 2023 in Los Angeles but may be scrapped because BYU is joining the Big 12 that season.
The Trojans (4-6) were embarrassed by crosstown rival UCLA 62-33 at the Coliseum Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 68,152.
It was the most points USC has given up since like totals against Oregon in 2012 and Arizona State in 2013.
The Bruins rolled up 609 yards in getting their first win at USC since 2013.
Former Corner Canyon High quarterback Jaxson Dart, an LDS player who BYU recruited heavily, completed 27 of 47 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown in his first career start, but was picked off twice.
The Trojans have lost four of their last five games under interim coach Donte Williams.
Still, the Cougars are approaching the game as if USC is the USC of old, Hall said.
“Yeah, it is a historic site,” he said. “I have never played there before. I know a lot of guys are from the area, so I am sure they will be excited. It will be fun. We will enjoy this win, enjoy the weekend and then start getting ready for USC.”
Nacua said he didn’t get to face USC last year when he played for Washington, but knows the Trojans are steeped in tradition.
“That is a talented team, everybody knows that,” Nacua said. “We just gotta go in there and play hard for all four quarters.
“We didn’t execute the way we wanted to tonight. There were some things that we left out there and some things we game planned that we didn’t execute on.”
Nacua said if people were impressed by the 10,000 or so BYU fans who showed up in Georgia, they will be blown away by the size of the BYU crowd in Tinseltown.
“It will be like a dream going out there and it will be fun,” he said. “It will be a crazy environment for us. We know as much as there will be some USC red out there, there will be a lot of BYU blue.”
Sitake said the Cougars will need to play more crisply, eliminate mistakes and be ready to face a proud program that needs to win two games to get bowl eligible.
USC plays at Cal on Dec. 4 in a game that was rescheduled due to a COVID-19 outbreak at Cal.
“They are a very talented team. I think that will be their senior night as well,” Sitake said. “They are going to play with a lot of emotion, and they have tons of athletic ability and speed, so we have to be on top of it.
“Looking forward to our guys relishing the moment and playing a lot better and learning from how we played this week.”