Analysis: Late-season swoon, injuries catch up to BYU in Independence Bowl loss
Lethargic, shorthanded Cougars get outplayed on both sides of the ball by underdog UAB, fall 31-28 in soggy Shreveport, Louisiana, to end standout season on a sour note
SHREVEPORT, La. — Let’s face it, the BYU football team that lost 31-28 to unranked but highly motivated UAB in the 45th annual Independence Bowl on a soggy Saturday afternoon in the Deep South was nothing like the Cougars team that knocked off a couple conference champions — Utah and Utah State — and went 5-0 against the Pac-12.
Not even close.
That’s not offered as an excuse for the Cougars, who fell to 10-3 and were denied in their quest for a second-straight 11-win season in front of an announced crowd of 26,276 and a national television audience.
They were simply outplayed by a less-talented, but more motivated, UAB team and did not make enough plays, particularly on defense, to stave off the upset.
“This is a step backwards, I get it. No one likes to lose. But I promise you, we are going to learn from this, and we will be a better team.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
Anybody who has watched this team closely the past month knows that this loss as touchdown favorites should not come as a surprise.
Truth is, the Cougars were limping toward the finish line long before the calendar turned to December.
That was especially evident on defense, where the Cougars were able to mask the losses of starters Keenan Pili, Chaz Ah You and Keenan Ellis early and midway through the season, but not the loss of starting linebacker Payton Wilgar when November got here.
Saturday, they played without one of their best defensive backs, Jakob Robinson, and it showed.
UAB won the game because it was able to play keep-away more effectively than any team BYU has faced this season not named Baylor, and because the Blazers were able to run the football down BYU’s throat, particularly at the very end after Samson Nacua’s fumble gave the Conference USA team the ball with three minutes, 36 seconds remaining.
The Blazers ran the final time off the clock and celebrated their second bowl win in school history, remarkable considering the program was eliminated in 2015 and 2016 and then revived.
“I feel like the entire season, and when you are looking at who we played, it was difficult because I don’t know if we ever put together 60 great minutes together as a team,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who fell to 3-2 in bowl games in his six seasons.
All those little issues that surfaced early — the inability of the defense to get off the field — and got worse in November despite wins over Georgia Southern and USC rose up again, and UAB took full advantage.
“Looking to next year, it will be about cleaning up the little things,” said BYU defensive end Tyler Batty, who was in on four tackles for losses.
“That’s really what it came down to tonight, was everybody not doing their jobs.”
Batty and BYU’s Tyler Allgeier were voted the game’s MVPs — ballots are collected midway through the fourth quarter, generally — but really the honors should have gone to UAB quarterback Dylan Hopkins or running back DeWayne McBride or the defensive back — Mac McWilliams — who jumped on Nacua’s noncontact fumble after his 22-yard catch.
McBride rushed for 188 yards and a touchdown (64 yards) on 28 carries, and Hopkins was 19 of 23 passing (a bowl completions percentage record) for 189 yards and three TDs.
The Blazers put up 412 yards to BYU’s 394. Both teams had a turnover — Hayden Livingston intercepted a ball that popped out of UAB receiver Trey Shropshire’s hands and McWilliams alertly jumped on Nacua’s fumble, although the ball hit the ground five other times in wet, miserable conditions.
“As a team they made more plays than us and got the win,” Sitake said. “When it comes down to close games like this, you have to make the plays, and we didn’t make enough to get the win.”
Although Nacua’s fumble will be pointed to as perhaps the difference — Sitake said officials told him they reviewed it and deemed it to be a catch before the ball popped out — BYU’s defense, as shorthanded as it was, has to take most of the blame for this loss.
“Breakdowns,” said Sitake, when asked why BYU gave up so many big plays — McBride’s 64-yard TD run, wide-open TD catches by tight end Gerrit Prince and the biggest back-breaker of all: Shropshire’s 14-yard TD catch from Hopkins on fourth-and-7.
Sitake said UAB called the perfect pass protection on that play, BYU brought pressure and cornerback D’Angelo Mandell wasn’t able to stay with one of the leading receivers in the country.
“Excellent game plan in all three phases from UAB,” Sitake said. “Hopefully this will get our guys hungry and be a learning moment for us.”
To his credit, Sitake also said he needs to get better as a coach, and find ways to get better.
But there is no accounting for injuries, or nothing to do about them. In all honesty, BYU’s defensive coaches were doing it with smoke and mirrors the last few games.
It all caught up to them on a chilly, windy and often rainy day at Independence Stadium.
Of the 15 players who were listed as starters on BYU’s defensive depth chart when it opened the season against Arizona, six were not available Saturday afternoon due to injury.
“Injuries are part of (BYU’s late-season swoon),” Sitake said. “I don’t know if you can put it on just one thing.
“We were down a lot of starters. I think everybody wants to have the same 11 guys who started the season on offense and defense and stay in the same spots, but that’s the game.”
Sitake set out to improve BYU’s depth six years ago when he took the job, and he has done a remarkable job growing that depth, particularly in the trenches.
But BYU’s defensive line was manhandled for a lot of the game. The Blazers were 9 of 14 on third down and 2 of 2 on fourth down and converted rather easily on most of those opportunities.
“We knew going into the season that we would have to rely on our depth,” Sitake said. “Our depth is pretty good, it is just not good enough.”
The fourth-quarter mistakes will weigh heavily in the offseason, but don’t forget how the Cougars came out looking as if they didn’t want to be here.
Energy and focus were lacking the entire first quarter, and the Cougars saw their 18-quarter scoring streak snapped because of it.
The Blazers went 60 yards on their second possession to take a 7-0 lead, with Prince catching a 10-yard push pass and taking it in for the score.
After the Cougars went three-and-out on their first possession and turned the ball over on downs at the UAB 33 on their second, UAB went up 14-0 on McBride’s 64-yard touchdown run. Safety Malik Moore missed a tackle and the Blazers’ leading rusher was gone.
The Cougars were reeling, their sideline dead.
Credit Allgeier for getting them out of the funk. He opened BYU’s third possession with a 35-yard run and finished it with a 1-yard TD plunge.
The Cougars forced a three-and-out and looked to have recovered fully when they marched 50 yards on six plays for a game-evening TD.
Samson Nacua’s 2-yard run, the Utah transfer’s first-ever rushing touchdown, made it 14-14.
But UAB rediscovered its offensive mojo after giving up the lead and put together a nine-play, 78-yard drive to regain the advantage.
Hopkins threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Prince in the end zone with 3:18 left in the first half.
Hopkins, who was said to be battling the flu this week, was 12 of 12 at halftime for 106 yards and two touchdowns and a passer rating of 229.2.
He completed his first throw of the second half for 13 straight, but his second throw was batted down by Drew Jensen.
However, Hopkins delivered a 35-yard strike two plays later to put the Blazers in position for a 38-yard field goal that gave them a 24-21 lead with 7:27 left in the third quarter, a field goal that turned out to be the difference.
Gone was not only BYU’s five-game winning streak, its top-20 ranking (probably) and its pride after going 6-1 against Power Five teams, but plenty of momentum garnered from Sitake’s new contract and a record-setting season for Allgeier.
“This is a step backwards, I get it. No one likes to lose. But I promise you, we are going to learn from this, and we will be a better team,” Sitake said. “That’s the momentum. It depends on how we approach it. We have a lot of guys coming back, and a lot of new talent coming into our program.
“Tonight just didn’t work out for us,” Sitake continued. “It will be worse if we don’t learn from it. So we have to find ways to get better. We have made that commitment the entire season, so I don’t see the momentum changing much if we don’t let it change.”