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Why BYU’s defense struggled to stop UAB in crunch time at Independence Bowl

No. 13 Cougars finish the season defenseless and without fourth quarter answer

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UAB Blazers quarterback Dylan Hopkins makes a pass as BYU and UAB play in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl.

UAB Blazers quarterback Dylan Hopkins (9) makes a pass as BYU and UAB play in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. UAB won 31-28.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU’s spirited 2021 season ended in a humble fashion in Shreveport.

The Cougars arrived as the highest-ranked team to ever play in the Independence Bowl. They left the highest-ranked team to lose.

The No. 13 Cougars became a bowl of gumbo for inspired UAB 31-28 Saturday in the Radiance Technology Independence Bowl.

Exclusion from a New Year’s Six bowl was a good thing. BYU’s defense looked like survivors at Shiloh. 

The game ended with UAB backs bouncing off BYU tacklers, running to the outside for first downs. UAB refused to give up the ball and give BYU one last chance after Samson Nacua fumbled following a 19-yard catch to prevent a possible game-winning possession.

Before that, UAB took eight minutes of ball-hog football to erase a 28-24 BYU lead, dominating the Cougars in a clear message that they were the superior team on the field.

Kalani Sitake will now head into the offseason with plenty of work to do. First and foremost is to repopulate his defense, hopefully with the return of defenders Keenan Pili, Payton Wilgar and Chaz Ah You.

BYU finishes the season with a strange resume, 6-1 against Power Five teams — including 5-0 versus the Pac 12 — but 3-2 against Group of Five competition.

BYU may have come to Shreveport with hope and confidence it could compete, but the Cougars got off to a 14-0 start and the entire day was an uphill battle.

Sitake watched his depth get tested. It failed.

BYU just didn’t have enough in the tank. When senior receiver Nacua fumbled to kill BYU’s last gasp drive to try and regain the lead, it was obvious: The Cougar defense didn’t have what it would take to hold back the Blazers.

BYU’s defense was, well, basically done.

It was almost done in the USC game. 

To take it on the road to a bowl game may have been asking too much.  

This is not the same defense that dominated the line of scrimmage and made plays against Utah, ASU and Arizona in September.

The game-winning Blazers drive came with BYU’s defense blowing coverage on a UAB fourth-and-seven touchdown pass midway in the fourth quarter. 

It was the end of a dominating 15-play, 75-yard drive in which BYU’s defense had no answer. UAB took a 31-28 lead on that play.

That small but final lead was all the Blazers needed.

The Cougar defense ended the season beat up and limping and in crunch time. Needing to make stops, it came up woefully shorthanded.

This loss showed that at the end of a 10-3 season, the Cougars are not a top 10 football team. At times this season they were, but not in December. 

Not in Shreveport.

BYU’s defense couldn’t cover, couldn’t tackle, couldn’t get off blocks, lost containment, had feeble gap control and failed to get any pressure on UAB QB Dylan Hopkins (19-23 for 189 yards). 

The Cougar defense watched — literally watched — as Blazer running back DeWayne McBride and Jermaine Brown created highlight videos on them in the second half.

In this regard, the season’s end couldn’t come soon enough.

The loss at the hands of a fired-up UAB team tarnished what was a magnificent performance by BYU sophomore running back Tyler Allgeier, who broke Luke Staley’s single-season rushing record with 193 yards on 27 carries for three touchdowns.

The 28 points by BYU’s offense should have been enough to defeat UAB, the second-place team in Conference USA. Even without starting QB Jaren Hall, this was doable, if there had been a close to serviceable defense.

Back to Allgeier.

It is sad he couldn’t enjoy a victory on this day.

His 193 yards lifted him past Doak Walker winner Luke Staley as BYU’s single season rushing record holder with just over 1,600 yards. Staley had 1,584 in the 2001 season. 

Allgeier’s three touchdowns set a BYU bowl record on Saturday. His 23 rushing TDs this year was one shy of Staley’s single-year record of 24.

Allgeier is simply the best running back BYU has fielded in a single season.

A former linebacker and walk-on, he is the best BYU rusher ever after contact.

Allgeier runs with the strength of Harvey Unga.

He has a similar speed to Staley.

He breaks tackles like Curtis Brown and runs with the passion and energy of Jamaal Williams.

Allgeier had the team’s play of the year with his hammer hit forced fumble late in the win over Arizona State when he chased down a linebacker and got the ball back after a Hall interception.

He is BYU’s version of Sir Thomas More, a man for all seasons.

If he chooses to not return and play next season, it is sad his BYU career ended this way in a bowl game against a UAB team that pulled off the upset and deserved the trophy.

All Allgeier has done all year long is be a consummate teammate and team player, delivering game after game, even when banged up.

If Allgeier does return, he has a great chance to become BYU’s all-time leading rusher, erasing the career mark made by Williams.

He is that good.