Like the loss to former rival Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl two years ago on Christmas Eve, Saturday afternoon’s 31-28 loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl is going to linger for a long time for the BYU Cougars.
“There are a lot of guys in that locker room feeling bad, but they have to pick themselves up and get better,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake after the No. 13 Cougars were upset by a seven-point underdog in a game where they fell behind 14-0 early, battled back to take a 28-24 lead, and then surrendered a 15-play, 75-yard go-ahead-for-good touchdown drive to the Blazers that took eight minutes, 16 seconds off the block.
That drive, and the final possession that took the final 3:36 off the clock when BYU was desperately trying to get the ball back, showed that UAB was the more determined, more physical team on this rainy day and deserved the victory.
“They said they reviewed it. They were reviewing it during that time. No one feels worse than Samson right now. But we love that kid. He’s a big part of our program and a big part of our family. So we forgive him. It’s OK. The game is full of little plays like that.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, on Samson Nacua’s fumble
It wasn’t a fluke, which Sitake acknowledged several times in his remarks to reporters after the game.
“The game did not go as we wanted, but a lot of credit to UAB,” Sitake said. “They played a fantastic game.”
Still, the game featured a controversial play that, had it been ruled differently by an American Athletic Conference crew, may have changed the outcome.
It was a bit reminiscent of the Hawaii Bowl loss when then-quarterback Zach Wilson seemingly crossed the goal line with the football before losing it, but officials ruled it a fumble before he broke the plane and Hawaii recovered it. The Warriors went on to a 38-34 win largely because they had their way with BYU’s soft defense that day.
Sound familiar? The Cougars didn’t lose because of a bad call or two, or because starting quarterback Jaren Hall couldn’t play on a gimpy ankle. They lost because they couldn’t stop the run late in the game and their defensive backs inexplicably made several critical errors.
However, a decision that senior receiver Samson Nacua had possession of the football long enough for it to be ruled a catch before losing control of it — UAB recovered the “fumble” — had Cougar fans seeing red because BYU never got the ball back.
It was unclear whether the play was ever officially reviewed. Head referee Luke Richmond, the “white hat,” never appeared to discuss the play with the replay booth in the press box, although Sitake said he was told it had been reviewed.
“They said they reviewed it,” said Sitake, who didn’t challenge the call. “They were reviewing it during that time. No one feels worse than Samson right now. But we love that kid. He’s a big part of our program and a big part of our family. So we forgive him. It’s OK. The game is full of little plays like that.”
Had the play been ruled an incomplete pass, BYU would have had the ball at the 50-yard-line facing a second-and-10, so it still would have had a long way to go to score.
Instead, UAB took over at its 28-yard line and ran out the clock with eight straight running plays and a kneel-down in victory formation.
To be fair, BYU had a chance to right the perceived wrong, and couldn’t do it. In a game played amidst heavy rain and wind, at times, the Blazers won the all-important time-of-possession battle, keeping the ball for 35:27 to BYU’s 24:33.
It probably didn’t help the crew’s cause when former NFL referee Terry McAulay, who was Coordinator of Officials for the AAC from 2008-17, incidentally, took to Twitter to criticize the ruling.
“Seriously? This was ruled a catch/fumble?” McAulay wrote. “He absolutely did not have control with a foot down and then perform an act common to the game with control. This is not difficult.”
Only five penalties were called — three on UAB and two on BYU — as officials mostly looked the other way after some post-play pushing and shoving from both teams and a ball toss by UAB receiver Trea Shropshire after his 14-yard touchdown catch that earns a flag for excessive celebration more often than not.
BYU running back Tyler Allgeier, voted the game’s offensive MVP after setting a BYU bowl record with three rushing touchdowns, said nobody was blaming Nacua, or the officials, for the loss.
“It’s just part of the game,” Allgeier said. “You can never expect anything, or you can expect the unexpected, I guess. It was an unfortunate event for him, but he has a team and a family that loves him so much. You live and you learn.”
Bottom line is the Cougars (10-3) did not play defense well enough to win the game, regardless of the competition. UAB was 9 of 14 on third down and 2 for 2 on fourth down, including the back-breaking 14-yard touchdown pass from QB Dylan Hopkins to Shropshire.
BYU punted only once the entire game, partly because the Cougars turned the ball over on downs three times. Fourth down was not good to them.
“They played a physical style of game,” Sitake said. “So credit to those guys for getting this win. … I have to find ways for us to get better, and that starts with me as the head coach, and then we will go from there.”
Hall arrived at the stadium with his right foot in a protective foot. He apparently suffered an ankle sprain in the 35-31 win over USC on Nov. 27.
But Sitake refused to use that as an excuse, saying backup Baylor Romney, who fell to 4-1 as a starter, played well in relief.
Romney was 15 of 23 for 195 yards, did not throw an interception, and was sacked only once.
“You know, (Hall) had been practicing a little bit here and there, but overall we felt like a healthy Baylor was better than a banged up Jaren,” Sitake said.
For BYU, going into the bowl game shorthanded was par for the course this season. Sitake was asked what can be done to cut down on the injuries, or build the depth, so the Cougars don’t fade down the stretch like they seemed to in 2021.
“We can always improve a lot of different areas, but I think the best way for us to improve is just to make sure that second- and third-stringers are ready to roll and that they have this mindset about them to study the game, find a way to perfect their craft and, and really master their position,” he said.