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The Cougars didn’t play the part of a top 15 team against USF, especially on defense

BYU has started consecutive seasons with a 4-0 record for first time in school history, but Saturday’s win over the Bulls was as unsatisfying as wins can get

SHARE The Cougars didn’t play the part of a top 15 team against USF, especially on defense

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Puka Nacua (12) is tackled after a catch by South Florida Bulls defensive backs Jalen Herring (19) and Matthew Hill (1) as BYU and USF play a college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. BYU won 35-27.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU’s 35-27 win over a South Florida team that has now lost 15 straight games to Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponents marked a milestone for the Cougars.

It is the first time in history that BYU has started consecutive seasons with a 4-0 record. That’s nothing to sneeze at. The Cougars are off to the kind of start not a lot of people imagined back in August.

But Saturday’s victory also might have been one of the least satisfying in school history, too, seeing as how the Cougars have a No. 15 national ranking and held three straight Power Five opponents to 17 points or fewer earlier this month.

Who could have seen this coming?

Lowly USF waltzes into LaVell Edwards Stadium, faces down 60,217 fans, a late-night kickoff, altitude and many more disadvantages, including an early 21-0 deficit, and makes the Cougars squirm all the way to the end.

Head coach Kalani Sitake used words like “dark cloud” and “long faces” and even “disappointing” to describe the win, and the sixth-year coach is right.

BYU (4-0) didn’t play like a top-15 team, especially on defense.

“We found a way to grind it out and get the win,” Sitake said. “Wins are hard to get in college football.”

Apparently, they are even tough to get against a team playing thousands of miles away from home that had lost seven straight road games and started the season with a 45-0 loss to NC State and a 42-20 setback to Florida.

“Disappointed, but thankful we got the win,” Sitake said.

The Cougars will play five games in October, and suddenly every one of those games looks losable — even Friday’s quick turnaround at Utah State. The Aggies lost 27-3 to Boise State Saturday morning, but showed enough offensive firepower to cause some considerable consternation for Cougar fans.

BYU lost a bit of its invincibility on a picture-perfect night in Provo. Talk of an undefeated season will surely be muted by what fans saw Saturday night.

“We are hoping to show better than we did tonight,” Sitake acknowledged.

The good news for BYU is that the game started at 10:20 p.m. on the East Coast, and after the Cougars jumped out to a 21-0 lead, presumably many of those AP poll voters hit the sack or flipped over to the Oregon State-USC or Arizona-Oregon game.

After taking that three-touchdown lead, BYU gave up two long scoring drives to the Bulls before closing the half with a 75-yard touchdown drive to take a 28-6 halftime lead. USF coach Jeff Scott is probably second-guessing his decision to go for a pair of field goals in the first half.

For BYU, it was too bad it had to play the second half. The Cougars might have been exposed. Some defenders looked like they were running in mud.

The Bulls, who will host the Cougars in Tampa, Florida, next September, really started to punch holes in the Cougars’ sheen in the first half with those FG-producing drives, then outscored BYU 21-7 in the second half.

BYU’s defense — playing without starters Keenan Pili, Tyler Batty, Isaiah Herron and Atunaisa Mahe — simply could not get off the field. 

USF would finish running 72 plays to BYU’s 50. The Bulls had the ball for more than 35 minutes, the Cougars for less than 25. BYU had only three possessions in the second half.

“It’s pretty evident that the defense has to get off the field (faster),” Sitake said. “… I know we can play a lot better, especially on defense.”

Quarterback Baylor Romney was masterful in his first start of the season, filling in for Jaren Hall. Sitake said Hall wanted to play, but BYU’s medical people advised that he should sit out.

Romney said he began taking first-team reps on Monday — Hall was injured late in the 27-17 win over No. 19 Arizona State last week — and figured on Wednesday that he would likely start.

The Cougars averaged 8.9 yards per play, and Romney came out slinging.

“That’s always the game plan — run the ball, throw the ball deep, and it worked for us tonight,” said Romney, who was 20 of 25 for 305 yards and three touchdowns and a passer rating of 222.1. Maturely, Romney said he doesn’t believe a starter should lose his job because of injury, when asked if there’s a quarterback controversy brewing in Provo.

Sitake said Hall should be ready to play against the Aggies.

Problem is, Pili won’t be. He sustained an ACL tear in the third quarter of the ASU game, and will have surgery soon. His season is over.

Saturday, Pili was greatly missed. South Florida true freshman quarterback Timmy McClain hurt the Cougars with his arm and his legs, keeping drives alive even while a BYU linebacker was often spying on him.

“The QB, I can’t believe he’s a young freshman,” Sitake said.

McClain passed for 186 yards and ran for 86, including on one play in the first half where he calmly stopped near the line of scrimmage, looked around to see if a receiver could get open, then waltzed about 10 yards for a first down.

“We were focused on playing assignment sound football, but in the second half we weren’t able to do that,” BYU defensive end Pepe Tanuvasa said.

It was an outstanding job of keeping BYU’s outstanding offense off the field. The Cougars’ 49 plays is the fewest since 2018 against Washington.

USF had scoring drives of 13, 12, 14, 6 and 19 plays.

That 19-play drive took nine minutes and five seconds off the clock and even elicited a few boos from the Cougar faithful. USF was 4 of 5 on fourth down, and picked up 23 first downs, to BYU’s 21.

On BYU’s third and final possession of the second half, it burned 5:41 off the clock to seal it.

“Tonight, we were able to have the defense’s back, in a sense,” Romney said.

Tanuvasa said USF controlled the clock by being patient, “and waiting for soft spots to show up.”

The Bulls didn’t have to look far.

The forgettable victory will be remembered for tons of BYU injuries, as starting cornerback Kaleb Hayes, starting defensive lineman Gabe Summers and offensive right tackle Harris LaChance all left the game early. 

It could also be the night that Washington transfer Puka Nacua finally broke out. He caught four passes for 102 yards.

“We are not hitting on all cylinders yet, but we are definitely making progress, that’s for sure,” Nacua said.

Offensively, BYU played the first half like a top-15 team, save one possession where it had to punt after a check down throw to Allgeier near midfield.

The other four drives were impressive, particularly the first two as offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick had Romney firing from the get-go.

His first throw went 48 yards to his brother, Gunner, who made a diving catch, and set up a five-yard TD pass to Masen Wake, who later left the game with a lower leg injury.

On BYU’s next possession, Romney hit Nacua for a 55-yard gain, setting up a 1-yard TD run by Allgeier, albeit on fourth down.

“We need work in the red zone, but it was a pretty good day (for the offense) overall,” Romney said.

Trailing 14-0 and looking entirely overmatched, the Bulls fumbled the snap on fourth down and Lorenzo Fauatea recovered. 

Eight plays later, Allgeier added another 1-yard TD on fourth down, and BYU was rolling.

However, USF sandwiched a couple decent drives around BYU’s lone punt of the first half.

A 13-play, 69-yard drive spurred by McLain’s shiftiness set up a 30-yard field goal by Spencer Shrader.

The Cougars used most of the remaining five minutes to go 75 yards in seven plays, and Romney threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Neil Pau’u to finish a fantastic first half. 

He was 13 of 16 for 181 yards and two TDs in the first half, with a passer rating of 217.5.

“Yeah, it was super fun,” Nacua said. “That’s been our objective since Day 1, to start fast and throw it around. … Today was definitely a heyday for us.”

Then again, he doesn’t play defense.