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Baylor Romney made the most of it, when given the opportunity to start

Romney completed 20 of 25 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns, while BYU’s injured defense had a hard time getting off the field

BYU quarterback Baylor Romney looks to make a throw as BYU and South Florida play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.
BYU quarterback Baylor Romney looks to make a throw as BYU and South Florida play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU’s historic back-to-back 4-0 starts, a feat never accomplished in school history, found out why that feat is so tough Saturday night when the No. 15 Cougars held on to beat South Florida, 35-27, in LaVell Edwards Stadium.

On a day No. 9 Clemson lost to unranked North Carolina State and No. 14 Iowa State lost to unranked Baylor, the Cougars discovered it is hard to win, even over a struggling 1-3 Bulls team that fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter.

South Florida took that kick-in-the-teeth start, then basically stole all the momentum from the Cougars after trailing 28-6 at halftime.

Starting a season 4-0? Doing it twice?

Not easy.

Seeing some long faces in the locker room, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said he had to remind his players they should be grateful to grind out a win. “It’s hard to win a game in college football,” he said.

But defensive ugly got it done for the Cougars this night.

Sitake held out defensive linemen Atunaisa Mahe and Tyler Batty after leading tackler Keenan Pili was lost for the season with an ACL tear in the Arizona State game. He then saw defensive linemen Caden Haws and Gabe Summers get injured along with starting corner Kaleb Hayes, offensive tackle Harris LaChance, fullback Masen Wake and defender Caleb Christensen.

South Florida wore down BYU’s defense, keeping the Cougars on the field for scoring drives, including a 97-yard 19-play drive in the fourth quarter to narrow the score to 35-27.

“You have to give them credit,” Sitake said.

South Florida ran 72 plays to just 50 for BYU. When your defense is limping and winded, that kind of disparity could have spelled doom for the Cougars. BYU scored 35 points on just eight possessions.

But thanks to the Romney brothers, BYU had enough firepower to outlast the Bulls and did so in dramatic fashion.

When Romney had the ball.

Sitake said he does expect his wounded, and those held out of USF game, to return for the Utah State game next Friday.

Except for a fizzled BYU drive that ended in a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter, Romney was exceptional. On that drive inside the 5-yard line, he missed Puka Nacua on a slant in the end zone and then was high on a pass to big tight end Isaac Rex on third down.

Romney completed a sizzling 20 of 25 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns. He had a pass efficiency rating of 221. His accuracy was 80 percent.

It would have been nice to see what he would have ended up with if he’d had the ball more in the second half.

But BYU’s defense looked gassed being on the field too long. They could not contain USF’s freshman QB Timmy McClain and tackling once again was an issue.

BYU led 28-6 and scored on four of five possessions to start the game. But South Florida then had the ball 11 minutes more than the Cougars, essentially keeping Romney, his weapons, his protectors, ball runners and coordinator Aaron Roderick idle most of the second half.

This was Romney’s first start of the season in place of Jaren Hall (bruised ribs). He put on a show against a poor USF defense. On BYU’s first two possessions, he threw bombs to his brother Gunner (49 yards) and Washington transfer Puka Nacua (50 yards) to set up a pair of touchdowns.

Romney looked as accurate as Zach Wilson in finding fullback Masen Wake for a first-quarter scoring strike, completing a pretty 10-yard touchdown pass to Neil Pau’u, and then found Gunner for a post bomb of 47 yards. On that play, he found his brother in stride off a play-action call and Gunner ran untouched into the end zone.

“Yeah, it’s all right, I guess,” Baylor said of his hookups with Gunner.

The most impressive thing, however, was how he stood up for BYU’s defense in the interview room after the game.

BYU’s defense struggled and could not get off the field.

“They’ve had our backs the last three games and it was our turn to have their backs in this one,” Baylor said.

“We’re not completely there and not hitting on all cylinders,” Nacua said. “We’ll improve. We are right on the verge of going off in the passing game.”

Nacua had a career night with four catches for 102 yards. Gunner Romney added 119 yards on five catches.

BYU averaged nine yards a play. The Bulls could not stop the Cougar offense. But what they did was keep the ball away from Romney and company and made the most of their chances for 27 points — the most scored against the Cougars this year.

This was the kind of offensive fireworks BYU has been looking for. But it was not the kind of defense that gets wins against USU and Boise State coming up next.

“We trust our defense,” Nacua said. “We go up against them every day. They got a lot of different looks going against USF and now they’ll work on what they saw and get better.”

They’ll have to if BYU is to keep this undefeated run going.