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For Cougars, 2021 was all fun and games until ...

Rash of injuries took a toll on BYU as the season progressed, leaving many to wonder what if?

BYU coach Kalani Sitake watches the action as BYU and UAB play in Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, Dec. 18, 2021.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake watches the action as BYU and UAB play in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. UAB won 31-28.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.”

Is that not the most-used phrase among parents with children who are wrestling or playing football in the family room?

As one of 10 McCann kids growing up in Orem, there were plenty of what our mom would describe as “roughhousing” events that would typically end with tears and an occasional bloody nose.

That’s life in the fast lane of a big family.

BYU’s football season was all fun and games until the Cougars started getting hurt and for many, once they became injured, they stayed that way.

That’s life in college football.

Keenan Ellis, a junior from San Diego and arguably BYU’s best defensive back, went down with a concussion in the first quarter of the first game against Arizona and never played another down all season. We’ll see him in September.

Keenan Pili, a sophomore from Provo and arguably the Cougars best overall linebacker, suffered a torn ACL in the third game against No. 19 Arizona State and never played another down all season. We’ll see him in September.

Payton Wilgar, a sophomore from St. George, BYU’s emotional leader and another NFL prospect at linebacker, missed the last three games with a shoulder injury. We’ll see him in September.

Chaz Ah You, a sophomore linebacker/strong safety from Westlake tore his hamstring against Baylor and missed the last six games. We’ll see him in September.

Jakob Robinson, a freshman defensive back from Orem, who had two interceptions to help beat Georgia Southern on Nov. 20, broke his ribs at USC and missed the bowl game. We’ll see him in September.

Lorenzo Fauatea, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound junior from West Valley was supposed to bolster a young and inexperienced defensive line. He was lost for the season with a lower leg injury against Utah State. We’ll see him in September.

Isaiah Herron, a 6-1 sophomore cornerback from Las Vegas, played in 10 games, but stayed in Provo during the bowl game with an illness. We’ll see him in spring practice.

Not to be forgotten is freshmen defensive back Micah Harper. The projected starter from Chandler, Arizona, tore his ACL last March and missed the entire season. We will see him in spring practice.

The injury bug bit into just about everybody on the defense. Only three of the starters that suited up against Arizona went on to start all 13 games — Ben Bywater (freshman), DeAngelo Mandell (junior) and Malik Moore (junior).

The story is just as painful on the offensive side of the ball.

Quarterback Jaren Hall missed the end of the Arizona State game and all of the South Florida and Utah State games with broken ribs. The sophomore from Spanish Fork, Utah, also missed the bowl game against UAB with a foot injury he suffered at USC. We’ll see Hall in spring practice.

Sophomore Baylor Romney, Hall’s backup, missed the second half of the Utah State game with a concussion on Oct. 1 and didn’t play again until Idaho State on Nov. 6. If he chooses to return for another season, we’ll see him in spring practice.

Freshman tight end Isaac Rex missed most of the USC game and the bowl game with a broken ankle. We’ll see the San Clemente, California, product in September.

Neil Pau’u, a junior from Santa Ana, California, and BYU’s leading receiver through the first 10 games, missed the last three with a broken ankle. It’s up to Pau’u whether we see him in September.

Gunner Romney, a junior from Chandler, Arizona, missed the USC game and played through two sprained knee injuries that kept him from competing at full speed. Like with Pau’u, Gunner Romney has yet to decide if he will return for his final season.

Describing BYU’s offensive line might best be done by turning a snow globe upside down.

James Empey, a preseason All-America center candidate from American Fork, spent half the season on the sideline, including the last five games with a lower body injury. Freshman Connor Pay, from Alpine, was called on to replace him. Empey has yet to decide if we will see him in September.

Two position spots to the right of the 6-4, 303-pound Empey was supposed to be 6-8, 310-pound Harris LaChance. The sophomore right tackle from Herriman sprained his ankle against South Florida and missed the next eight games. He did start in the Independence Bowl but was out again after only a few series.

The absence of LaChance forced BYU to play freshmen Campbell Barrington and Brayden Keim much earlier than expected. They struggled at times, as most young players do, but they gained a lot of experience. We’ll see LaChance, Barrington and Keim in spring practice.

Of the 11 Cougars that opened the season in the starting lineup on offense against Arizona, only six were still starters in the bowl game — Tyler Allgeier, Gunner Romney, Dallin Holker, Blake Freeland and Clark Barrington.

Injuries also sidelined the special teams. Jake Oldroyd, a sophomore kicker from Southlake, Texas, missed two games with a stiff back and was a game-time decision for several others. Kick returner Caleb Christensen, a freshman from Smithfield, missed four games with a sprained knee.

These aren’t all of the injuries, but they do paint a clear picture that despite a disappointing bowl performance, what BYU accomplished this fall is nothing short of remarkable. The Cougars went 6-1 against P5 schools, beat Pac-12 champion Utah and Mountain West champion Utah State and spent most of the season ranked in the top 20 polls.

Even more impressive was the play of Allgeier. No matter the injuries to his receivers, his quarterbacks and his ever-shuffling offensive line, the sophomore from Fontana, California, showed up for work in all 13 games.

Allgeier rushed 276 times for a new school single-season record 1,601 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also caught 28 passes for 199 yards. No Cougar was hit harder or more often than Allgeier and like a Timex — he took a licking and kept on ticking.

Now he is on the clock.

Whether we see Allgeier in September or in the NFL is up to him.

As BYU moves forward, with the Big 12 Conference looming in 2023, recruiting to be bigger, stronger and faster will always be a priority — but staying healthy with the guys that are on the roster is no less important.

Whether that means tweaking the way conditioning and weightlifting is done, or how injuries are evaluated and treated, a round of introspection is recommended. Late season health is an area of the game that has had the Cougars playing on thin ice when the weather turns cold.

In hindsight, it’s possible to consider a healthy BYU team may not have lost during the regular season and today they would be preparing for a major bowl game in warm weather. But reality screams otherwise and the wounded Cougars, who dominated the Pac-12, couldn’t even beat the third-place team from Conference USA.

Even more stunning is the fact that even with those injuries, BYU finished 10-3 and capped a two-season run of 21-4. Competition on the field among starters showed no talent gap between the Cougars and their lofty opponents, but the difference between healthy and hurt certainly showed up down the stretch.

The next time BYU will take the field is Sept. 3 against South Florida in Tampa, in the same stadium where former Cougars star Taysom Hill and the New Orleans Saints beat Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday night ,9-0.

Hill knows all too well what injuries can do to a season as he was sidelined three times at BYU.

The forecast for Tampa will be opposite of what the Cougars saw at the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, and once the team’s health is restored, the results should be different too.

No doubt, optimism will again be sky-high as BYU rolls out its final season as an independent with dates against soon-to-be P5 associate Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Stanford.

Hope springs eternal with the start of every season because it’s all fun and games — until someone gets hurt.

See you in September!

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.