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Should BYU have been more dominant against Idaho State?

Two turnovers, some shoddy tackling and giving up a long kickoff return to an overmatched opponent will give BYU coaches plenty to talk about heading into the bye week

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Puka Nacua goes high over Idaho State Bengals defensive back Jayden Dawson for a touchdown.
Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Puka Nacua (12) goes high over Idaho State Bengals defensive back Jayden Dawson (2) for a touchdown catch as the BYU Cougars and Idaho State Bengals play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What was learned about the No. 15 BYU Cougars on Saturday afternoon against overmatched-but-undeterred Idaho State of the Football Championship Subdivision?

One, the Cougars’ starters are still really good when they aren’t gifting opponents easy touchdowns with head-scratching turnovers.

Two, the backups really aren’t that great — yet.

Three, BYU’s crowd deserves some sort of special recognition, seeing as how more than 67,000 fans bought tickets (a sellout), and only a couple thousand didn’t show up to watch BYU roll to a 59-14 win that would have been satisfying to almost everyone at LaVell Edwards Stadium had the aforementioned giveaway in the first half and the entire second half not happened.

What other program in the West can sell out a game in November against an FCS team?

“How awesome was it to see the fans pack the stands for this FCS game?” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who went into the seats after the game and became the band leader as the Cougars sang their school song. “I know our players really appreciate it.”

Give the fans the game ball. It was BYU’s third sellout this season, and fifth game with an attendance of 60,000 or more. Only the late-night Virginia game fell short of 60,000, despite the return of former coach Bronco Mendenhall.

Speaking of giveaways, that the Cougars gave the ball away — twice — is the primary reason why thousands of those patrons went home not quite satisfied with the performance that was a bit on the sloppy side, not as dominant as they would have liked and just might give coaches plenty of fodder as they talk about improvement before they take the field again in two weeks at Georgia Southern.

“I think we performed like we expected to play,” said receiver Keanu Hill, who caught his first touchdown pass of the season and also blocked and recovered a punt for a TD.

He did say the coaches weren’t happy with the first-half turnover and the inability to stop the Bengals after the sudden change in momentum.

Until late in the first half, it appeared the Cougars (8-2) would send everyone home completely, unabashedly happy instead of just relatively happy. They scored on their first five possessions to take a 35-0 lead, the first time they’ve scored touchdowns on their first five drives since last year against Western Kentucky.

“I think we showed how dominant we were in the first half,” said safety Matthew Criddle.

That quest for a perfect game got scuttled when a handoff exchange between Jaren Hall and Lopini Katoa was botched and Idaho State recovered at the Cougars’ 17.

Three plays later, tight end Jared Scott got free for a 6-yard touchdown pass from Sagan Gronauer, and the first-stringers’ hopes for a shutout were dashed.

In what would be its final possession of the game, BYU’s first-team offense answered the ISU score with a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take a 42-7 lead at the break.

Neil Pau’u caught a pass from the Hall at the 2-yard-line and willed himself into the end zone against two or three defenders, but the play was costly. Pau’u sustained a lower left leg injury on the play and spent the second half on the bench in street clothes, his foot in a protective boot.

Sitake didn’t have an update on Pau’u after the game, but defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua said “it was sad, what happened to Neil,” during his postgame comments.

Aside from the botched handoff, the Cougars played perfect football offensively in the first half, when their starters were on the field.

Hall was 20 of 25 for 298 yards and four TDs and a passer rating of 232.9. Idaho State defensive backs made nice pass breakups on several of his five incompletions, and there was one “drop” — Samson Nacua seemingly had a TD catch in the end zone, but the ball squirted out when he hit the ground.

After joining 11 other “juniors” in pregame introductions on Senior Day that are usually reserved for players participating in their final home game of the season, Tyler Allgeier got seven touches — six rushes for 35 yards and a TD and one reception for 46 yards, a little screen pass deep in BYU territory that he threatened to take to the house before he was uncharacteristically caught from behind by an ISU defender.

The offense’s other first-half star was Puka Nacua, who had six grabs for 120 yards and a TD before sitting the entire second half. Nacua caught three straight passes on the drive that made it 35-0, taking the second pass 42 yards with some nifty running and then making a fine back-shoulder catch for a 23-yard TD.

Idaho State didn’t pick up a first down until its fifth possession, midway through the second quarter. BYU’s Pepe Tanuvasa intercepted Mikey Zele on the ISU backup QB’s first pass of the season, setting up a 1-yard TD run by Hall that gave the Cougars a 21-0 lead just 10 minutes into the game.

The Cougars had 397 yards in the first half to ISU’s 97, but Sitake wasn’t pleased in his halftime radio interview, saying the turnover was unacceptable and the tackling still a bit shoddy.

Then he had to witness the second half, when the reserves for obvious reasons couldn’t do much better. Credit Idaho State (now 1-8) for playing to the final whistle.

“I thought it was good for a bunch of young guys to get meaningful reps,” Sitake said. “… Obviously, there were some mistakes. It is that way every game.”

Even against overmatched opponents who haven’t won since Oct. 9.

One glaring mistake came when BYU’s kickoff coverage team missed at least four tackles on ISU returner Benji Omayebu and saw him return a kick 86 yards to set up the Bengals’ only second-half touchdown.

One defensive highlight came early in the second half, as Criddle came up with his first career interception after being one of 11 juniors honored before the game “just in case” as one of the players possibly moving on.

“It was a dream come true that I got this opportunity,” Criddle said.

Backup quarterback Baylor Romney took over in the second half and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Dallin Holker and directed another drive that resulted in a 39-yard field goal by Justen Smith, but was otherwise just so-so.

Romney finished 5 of 12 for 89 yards and a passer rating of 131.5.

Freshman Jacob Conover got his chance with just over eight minutes remaining but couldn’t keep the drive going after reaching midfield, and BYU punted for the third and final time.

Conover showed some decent escape speed on one particular rollout, but didn’t complete the only pass he attempted.

Hill, who caught the 13-yard touchdown pass in the first half, channeled his inner Taysom Hill, the New Orleans Saints version, and blocked and recovered a punt in the end zone to complete the scoring.

It was BYU’s first nonoffensive touchdown of the year.

“We knew (Hill) was something special when we recruited him,” Sitake said. “He kept telling us he was going to block one.”

It was BYU’s first blocked punt for a TD since Gary Lovely had one against Air Force in 2004.

Because they blocked the punt, the special teamers got to shave the head of graduate assistant Kyle Griffitts, who promised them they could do that if they got one this season.

“In the second half, we played a lot of guys, a lot of reserve players, and I liked that our sideline had a lot of energy from the starters,” Sitake said. “And I liked the stop at the end. I thought that was really good for our young guys.”