Overachievers: Forget the finish, BYU football exceeded expectations in 2021
Disappointing 31-28 loss to UAB in Independence Bowl dropped Cougars’ record to 10-3, but shouldn’t hide the fact that BYU overachieved in 2021
A healthy dose of perspective is needed to evaluate BYU’s recently completed 2021 football season, especially after it ended with a totally unsatisfying upset loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl.
Seeing as how the Cougars, who finished with a 10-3 record, lost more than a dozen key contributors from the 2020 team that went 11-1 and that they were supposed to be in a rebuilding year — to everyone but themselves — the 2021 season has to be considered a resounding success.
By almost every measure, the Cougars overachieved. Did anybody except the diehards really think they would post 10 wins against a schedule that included seven Power Five opponents and upper-tier Group of Five foes Utah State and Boise State?
“Once the season is done, I have to evaluate everything and find ways to get better as a program. We did that last year. We just didn’t end with a win in the bowl game this year like we did last year. We just lost and so hopefully we get our guys hungry. That would be the key for us.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
Sure, they were probably a little overrated by the time the calendar turned to November, depleted by season-ending injuries to key players such as Keenan Ellis, Keenan Pili, Chaz Ah You, Lorenzo Fauatea, Payton Wilgar, James Empey, Neil Pau’u and Isaac Rex, to name a few.
Even when they were knocking off the likes of Rose Bowl-bound Utah, Arizona State, Washington State, Virginia and the Mountain West champion Aggies of USU, the Cougars were never really dominant like they were in 2020.
Every game except the 59-14 blowout of Idaho State was a grinder, and not decided until the fourth quarter — even the 35-27 win over South Florida and the 34-16 conquest of Georgia Southern did not allow Cougar fans to breathe easy until the final moments.
“I feel like this entire season, when you’re looking at who we played, it was difficult because I don’t know if we ever put together 60 minutes together as a team, and that’s my job as a coach,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake after the 31-28 loss to a more motivated UAB team in Shreveport.
Actually, the fact that BYU went 6-1 against Power Five foes and 5-0 against the Pac-12 — which clearly was not at the level of other P5 conferences this season — despite not being a highly talented, dominant team is a testament to outstanding coaching.
Sitake (and his assistants, eventually) was rewarded with a new contract good through 2027 just before the bowl game, another development of which the 2021 season should be remembered.
“Once the season is done, I have to evaluate everything and find ways to get better as a program,” Sitake said. “We did that last year. We just didn’t end with a win in the bowl game this year like we did last year. We just lost and so hopefully we get our guys hungry. That would be the key for us.”
Even as the wins were piling up — and teams that BYU beat by two scores or more were winning their conference championships, such as USU and Utah, and the pollsters were giving the Cougars adequate respect, the computers provided a more accurate picture of BYU’s overall strength.
As of Monday, the Cougars were No. 34 in Jeff Sagarin’s college football ratings for USA Today and No. 41 in ESPN’s College Football Power Index.
Sagarin says BYU had played the 65th most difficult schedule in the land. By way of comparison, USU’s was 77th and Utah’s is 34th before the Rose Bowl showdown with Ohio State this Saturday.
“We still had a fantastic season,” Sitake said. “It just hurts because of this (loss to UAB). … Today was gonna hurt anyways because we have to say goodbye to some people that will be hard for us to lose. It’s a lot easier to say goodbye, when you win, but it’s been a great experience for us throughout the season.”
The Cougars refused to use the injuries as an excuse, and in truth they weren’t the reasons for the losses to Boise State and Baylor. Against Boise State, four turnovers were the culprit, while against Baylor they were simply overwhelmed by a superior team with superior talent in the trenches.
Against UAB, some have suggested the Cougars didn’t want to be there, and weren’t motivated to prepare correctly and play hard because of the caliber of the competition.
This observer didn’t see it that way. The guys who did play appeared to be dialed in and hungry. Shorthanded, they just couldn’t stop the run, despite their best efforts. And not having starting quarterback Jaren Hall in a windy, rainy game was not optimal.
Baylor Romney performed reasonably well, and the loss was far more on the defense than the offense, but Hall’s ability to keep defense’s honest with his running ability was missed.
Sitake said injuries “were part of it,” but not the entire reason for the Cougars’ late-season drop-off.
“I don’t know if we can really put it on one thing, but we do have a lot of different bodies playing now,” he said. “I think if you can have the same 11 that started the season for the bowl game on both sides of the ball on offense and defense, I’d say you would be in a pretty good spot. But that’s the game.”
Bottom line is the program improved in 2021, and seems to be on an upward trajectory, the disappointing ending notwithstanding.
“We knew going into this season that we would have to rely on our depth and we knew six years ago (when he was hired), that we had to improve our depth,” Sitake said. “Our depth was really good, just not good enough. But we have a lot of guys returning, and now the (responsibility) is on us as a coaching staff, getting our guys ready to be more experienced but also keep our depth rolling and then see what happens in the 2022 season.”
Here’s a closer look at how the 2021 Cougars performed in the three phases of the game, and the MVP of each unit:
Offense: Partly due to injuries suffered by brothers Puka and Samson Nacua before the season started and top returning receiver Gunner Romney in the first game, BYU’s offense started slowly. But by the end of the season, it was clearly the strength of the team, even though the offensive line became riddled by injuries to starters Empey and Harris LaChance.
The Cougars hit full throttle in the 66-49 win over Virginia, racking up 36 first downs and 734 yards against a Bronco Mendenhall-coached defense.
Hall started the season, directed the 26-17 win over Utah to snap a nine-game losing skid to the Utes, and then suffered a rib injury in the last minutes of the 27-17 win over ASU. Romney stepped in nicely, threw a touchdown pass to seal the win over the Sun Devils, and then beat South Florida 35-27 before sustaining a concussion in the first half against Utah State.
Freshman Jacob Conover did just enough to finish off the Aggies, 34-20, with a huge assist from superstar running back Tyler Allgeier.
Hall returned on Oct. 9, but didn’t appear to be his usual self in the 26-17 loss to Boise State. He made all kinds of great deep throws the remainder of the season to the likes of Pau’u, the Nacua brothers and Romney, but his signature plays in 2021 were runs — a 23-yarder to keep the game-sealing drive alive against Utah and a 56-yarder for a touchdown against Baylor.
Hall finished the season completing 189 of 296 passes (64%) for 2,583 yards and 20 touchdowns for a passer efficiency rating of 156.1. Romney completed 70% of his 80 throws for 779 yards and six TDs and had a 176.5 efficiency rating.
Pau’u, who suffered a broken ankle against Idaho State in Game 10, had the most catches (46 for 526 yards), while Puka Nacua had the most receiving yards (805, on 43 catches) and Gunner Romney — who had not announced his plans for 2022 as of Monday — finished with 34 catches for 594 yards.
It was arguably one of the best groups of receivers in school history, as Samson Nacua (21-329) and Keanu Hill (18-343) also contributed and tight end Rex had 18 grabs for 191 yards before breaking his ankle against USC.
As of Monday, with several bowl games yet to be played, BYU was 29th in scoring offense (33.1 ppg.) and 17th in total offense (452.2 ypg.).
Almost any way you slice it, Aaron Roderick’s first season as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator was outstanding, given the quality of defenses they faced. The Cougars took care of the football remarkably well — aside from the Boise State game and Samson Nacua’s costly drop in the bowl game that probably should have been ruled an incomplete pass instead of a fumble.
BYU is a respectable 26th in red zone offense, scoring 49 times (41 TDs, eight FGs) in 55 trips inside the 20. The Cougars are currently 16th in third-down conversion percentage, 45.9%.
Offensive MVP: Allgeier is an easy pick, as he put together the best single-season rushing performance in BYU history. The fourth-year player who had not announced his future plans as of Monday rushed for 192 yards in the bowl game and finished with a school-record 1,601 rushing yards in 2021, passing Luke Staley (1,582 in 2001).
“I’m really proud of the things that he’s accomplished,” Sitake said. “He’s a team guy. … He has tons of football ahead of him. Who knows what jersey he’s gonna be wearing? He’s got some decisions to make, but he knows we love him. We appreciate him and he’s got a bright future. So we’ll just see what happens.”
Midway through the bowl season, Allgeier is tied for the lead in rushing TDs (23) with Marshall’s Rasheen Ali. Allgeier is No. 4 in country in rushing yards with 1,601 and No. 33 in yards per carry, 5.80. He is No. 3 in total points scored — 138.
Defense: Riddled by injuries, BYU’s defense was solid in 2021, but certainly not much more than that. All things considered, coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s unit had a decent year.
However, the defense’s inability to stop the run — reminiscent of 2019 — was its biggest weakness. In the losses to Baylor and UAB, that deficiency was glaring. The Bears rushed for 303 yards and the Blazers rushed for 223 yards.
Obviously, some of those deficiencies can be attributed to the loss of linebacker Pili in the ASU game; Before the sophomore from Timpview High sustained a season-ending knee injury, the Cougars had shut down Utah’s potent rushing attack.
“We can always improve a lot of different areas,” Sitake said. “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, you know, study the game, find a way to perfect their craft and, and really master their position.”
Sophomore linebacker Ben Bywater was pressed into action and finished with 102 tackles, 34 more than second-place finisher Max Tooley, who sustained an ankle injury two minutes into the bowl game but gutted it out the whole way. Wilgar was third in tackles (56) and was really, really missed the final three games of the season after having shoulder surgery.
Malik Moore and Jacob Robinson had three interceptions apiece to lead the Cougars in that category; Robinson missed the bowl game with broken ribs suffered against USC.
Bywater, junior D’Angelo Mandell and safety Moore were the only Cougar defenders who started all 13 games.
Simply put, the defense struggled to get off the field the moment Pili went down against ASU. The Cougars finished 106th in third-down conversion defense (43%) and 111th in fourth-down conversion defense, as opponents picked up first downs or scored touchdowns on 17 of their 26 fourth-down tries.
Their red-zone defense was adequate, as they ranked 73rd in the country, allowing 29 touchdowns and 13 field goals on 50 opponent forays inside BYU’s 20 yard line.
As of Monday, BYU was 75th in total defense (388.8 ypg.) and 54th in scoring defense (24.6 ppg.).
Defensive MVP: After Pili went down, the Cougars clearly didn’t have a big-time playmaker on defense, especially when Ah You tore his hamstring against Baylor.
We will give the MVP to linebacker Wilgar, because the defense really, really struggled when he missed the last three games. Wilgar not only had 56 tackles — third-most on the team — in 10 games, he also had 1.5 sacks and two interceptions and forced a fumble.
Special teams: Aside from a fumbled kickoff return against Boise State that contributed to the 26-17 loss to Boise State and the failure to cover a surprise onside kick in the 38-24 loss to Baylor, special teams were once again a strength for BYU.
The Cougars had a maddening habit all season of bringing kicks out of the end zone when they should have taken a knee.
Perhaps the best ST play was made by backup kicker Justen Smith, who nailed a 40-yard field goal in the 24-16 win over Arizona when starter Jake Oldroyd was out with back issues.
Oldroyd was a respectable 9 of 13 on FG tries and 42 of 43 on PATs, while Smith was 2 of 3 and 11 of 11.
Hobbs Nyberg was solid on punt return, averaging 9.6 yards per return with a long of 42 against South Florida.
Special teams MVP: Punter Ryan Rehkow deserves this honor for the second straight year. He finished with an average of 48.6 yards per punt, with a long of 83 against Arizona State that set a school record. The previous high was an 81-yarder by Scott Arellano against Middle Tennessee State in 2014.
Rehkow would rank No. 4 in the country in punting but doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify. Thanks to a prolific offense and Sitake’s willingness to gamble on fourth down, Rehkow attempted only 40 punts all season, and just one in the bowl game.