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BYU continuing to pile up Power Five wins, but injuries are starting to become a concern

Starting quarterback Jaren Hall should be fine after losing his wind in 27-17 win over ASU, but star defender Keenan Pili’s situation appears to be more dire

BYU players celebrate after winning against Arizona State during an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
BYU players celebrate after winning against Arizona State during an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Aside from a couple of injuries, including one that could possibly be extremely difficult to overcome, things have gone swimmingly well for the BYU football team this season.

With one-quarter of the regular-season already in the books, the Cougars own wins over three Power Five programs/Pac-12 teams, have yet to trail in a game and have soared to No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, No. 16 in the Coaches poll.

As former BYU coaches used to say on social media after a recruiting win, it is a great time to be a Cougar fan, player or coach. Kalani Sitake, who signed a two-year contract extension four days before the season-opening 24-16 win over Arizona in Las Vegas, is having so much success that his name is surfacing in some circles for the open USC job.

Even those who drink the blue Kool-Aid more heavily than most couldn’t have scripted the start to the 2021 season any better. Not only have the Cougars’ last two wins been against ranked teams, they’ve gotten under the skin of Pac-12 fans who are behaving bitterly when jokes about BYU leading the Pac-12 South are bandied about.

“We’re having a lot of fun,” Sitake said after Saturday’s 27-17 win over No. 19 Arizona State, which tumbled out of the rankings with its first loss of the season.

And why not?

Running back Tyler Allgeier, quarterback Jaren Hall, receivers Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u and tight end Isaac Rex are rising stars on offense and the unit defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki calls “our no-name defense” has been even more impressive on that side of the ball.

The only team in the country to have defeated three P5 teams, BYU has not given up more than 17 points in any one game and ranks 38th in the country in scoring defense. Don’t tell us you saw that coming after Khyiris Tonga, Zac Dawe, Bracken El-Bakri, Isaiah Kaufusi, Troy Warner, Chris Wilcox and Zayne Anderson moved on.

“We’re warriors, man,” Hall said after doing just enough to beat the Sun Devils with his arm and his feet. “We haven’t won by the prettiest numbers, by the biggest differences in the score, but we grind it out from the beginning to the end.”

Indeed, all of BYU’s games — even against lowly, 0-3 Arizona — were not decided until late in the fourth quarter.

“It is a group of guys who are bought in, who really love each other,” said Hall, who threw for 214 yards, with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. “We love coach Kalani and we have bought in to this culture, and it is contagious. It is just a different team than what you have seen in the past at BYU.”

Hall was one of at least five Cougars who didn’t finish the game, due to injury. The others were defensive players: linebacker Keenan Pili, defensive linemen Atunaisa Mahe and Tyler Batty and cornerback Isaiah Herron.

Of those injuries, Pili’s seemed to be the most serious, as he was on crutches on the sideline in the second half when the Cougars gave up 10 unanswered points and saw their 21-7 lead cut to 21-17. Sitake said Pili, who made seven tackles before leaving and leads the team with 31 tackles — 12 more than No. 2 Payton Wilgar — was scheduled to have an MRI on Sunday.

“We still have to evaluate it,” Sitake said. “It looks like a leg injury. … He wasn’t able to come back. That tells you a little bit more about his injury. If it is a season-ending injury I will tell you guys on Monday.”

If it is, it would be a huge blow to the defense. Former Olympus High star Ben Bywater has emerged with 18 tackles in three games, and will be counted on even more if Pili is out for awhile, along with Josh Wilson and Drew Jensen.

The Cougars’ kicking situation is suddenly a concern as well. For the second time in three games, Lou Groza Award finalist Jake Oldroyd couldn’t play against the Sun Devils, due to tightness in his back. Justen Smith, a walk-on from Brighton High, has filled in admirably, but he lacks Oldroyd’s leg.

For instance, Smith kicked off five times, but two failed to reach the end zone, allowing ASU’s speedy returners a chance to make a big play. Also, either Smith doesn’t have the range that Oldroyd showed last year, or coaches don’t trust him to attempt long field goals.

BYU opened the fourth quarter by driving to the 31, but Hall was sacked for a 7-yard loss on third-and-10 and Sitake sent Ryan Rehkow on the field for a punt rather than have Smith attempt what would have been a 53-yard field goal.

“Oldroyd isn’t (out) for the season, but Jake, he had some tightness and things like that,” Sitake said. “We needed to move on and get Justen ready for us tonight.”

So what’s next?

Having won 14 of their last 15 games dating back to last year, the Cougars face South Florida on Saturday in another 8:15 p.m. kickoff at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Bulls, who upset BYU 27-23 on Oct. 12, 2019, when Hall was filling in for the injured Zach Wilson, are 1-2 after drubbing FCS Florida A&M 38-17 Saturday in Tampa.

The Cougars, who are 23-point favorites, have a chance to go 4-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.

“We know that we made mistakes and that we can play better,” Sitake said. “We are looking forward to getting better from this game. But again, we have been going against some really good teams.”

And the results have been better than almost everyone expected.