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BYU registers businesslike win over Arizona in Allegiant Stadium

Cougars enter Utah week with plenty to improve upon, like tackling

Brigham Young Cougars sing the fight song during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. BYU won 24-16.
Brigham Young Cougars sing the fight song during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. BYU won 24-16.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — Some of it was businesslike, other parts a little puzzling, but in general BYU’s season-opening 24-16 victory over Arizona Saturday night in the Las Vegas Kickoff Classic in Allegiant Stadium simply got the job done.

Cash the chips.

Prepare for Utah.

Listen for a call from the Big 12.

It’s good times in Vegas for the Cougars, a home away from home.

Allegiant Stadium was nearly packed, most of it with passionate, screaming BYU faithful, who trekked in from all over the country to register the largest college event in Nevada history.

In control 21-3, the Cougars lost momentum, kind of “settled” for riding the lead and then made enough sacks, defensive stands and an interception by Hayden Livingston to hold Arizona at bay and walk out of the snazzy NFL stadium with a 1-0 record heading into Utah week.

Opening games are crapshoots, a measuring up of an opponent and in the process, coaches hope they don’t learn lessons in a loss.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake got all of that.

And Saturday in a town where there are plenty of losers, he got enough to start the workweek with plenty to fix, namely some poor tackling. You can either credit the footspeed of Arizona’s back and receivers for their juke-manship in stepping out of tackles, or say BYU’s corners need practice tackling.

Still, BYU gave up just one touchdown to Arizona. The Wildcats then got three FGs and a safety. Any time a defense can give up just one TD, that ain’t bad.

“We played an overall clean game,” said quarterback Jaren Hall. “We took the plays they gave us and took care of the ball. We take this win and go on from here.”

The Cougars came into Saturday’s opener with some big missing parts, namely No. 2 draft pick of the New York Jets Zach Wilson — who was visiting on the sidelines as a celeb. But they came away with enough positives to show this team has potential.

Neil Pau’u put on a show on the night, proving he’s one slippery eel. Arizona’s secondary had a tough time keeping a body on him. Making scissor-like routes, Pau’u caught eight passes for 126 yards. Running back Tyler Allgeier carried 17 times for 94 yards.

You didn’t see much of tight end Issac Rex or Dallin Holker or the Nacua brothers but BYU used a lot of 12 personnel — double tight ends — for both protection and power runs.

And starting QB Hall?

Isn’t it all about the QBs?

Hall was fine. He finished 18 of 28 for 198 yards, two touchdowns and a 147.3 pass efficiency rating. That’s not too shabby. But had some drives kept up steam, Hall could have had much more and his fourth-quarter fumble of a shotgun snap was a let-down.

Hall started slow, completing just one of his first six passes. He then heated up.

Hall began the game using a lot of sprintout action, passing on while on the run, sometimes with bootleg action. Perhaps BYU offensive coaches believed Arizona would blitz him because of that emphasis by defensive coordinator “Dr. Blitz” Don Brown from Michigan.

Once Hall began to drop back, use protection, and fire downfield, he ended the first half a perfect 8 for 8 passing for 125 yards. That streak included a 67-yard bomb to Pau’u that had Zach Wilson written all over it.

On that TD pass, Hall looked to his left, freezing the safety covering Pau’u, and then turned to his right and fired a rocket to Pau’u in stride and the senior out-raced the Arizona secondary to pay dirt and after the two-point conversion pass to Lopini Katoa, the Cougars led 14-0.

Hall’s 39-yard run out of trouble in the third quarter set up his 6-yard TD toss to Pau’u to give BYU a 21-3 lead with seven minutes left in the third. On Hall’s run, he showed the kind of burst he has, easily sprinting away from defenders before stepping out of bounds as Arizona’s safety came over at an angle to get a hit.

An overall impression of the offense was it was good enough to win.

On defense, the Cougars got four sacks, all of them impressive. And linebacker Payton Wilgar was a bear, fun to watch.

Punter Ryan Rehkow? Simply awesome. He hit five for an average of 48 yards.

The most impressive thing is what Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said afterward, crediting BYU for coming ready to play. “They had to overcome a significant injury to begin the game.”

Indeed, just five minutes into this matchup, BYU corner Keenan Ellis was rolled off the field on an isolation board after a 17-minute delay and taken to a trauma center at nearby University Medical Center.

It was a sobering, humbling sight to behold to see BYU’s entire medical staff working on him for transport.

After that, the game didn’t seem so important as his life and health.

But Sitake’s team rallied and played some tough football — good enough to roll out of Vegas as a winner.

And that’s what everyone in this town comes seeking.