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BYU will need to make major improvements —and get healthy — if it hopes to knock off rival Utah

Cougars were rather unimpressive in the win over Arizona and also sustained some injuries that could prove to be troubling.

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Morgan Pyper (10) dives for Arizona Wildcats Stanley Berryhill during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. BYU won 24-16. 
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As several players and coach Kalani Sitake said after BYU defeated Arizona 24-16 Saturday night in Las Vegas in the season opener for both teams, the Cougars have a lot of work to do if they hope to come close to last year’s 11-1 performance.

If they hope to snap their nine-game losing streak to Utah in the rivalry game this Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN), they not only need to improve immensely from Week 1 to Week 2, they need to get healthier.

Weird as this sounds after an opener, the Cougars left Allegiant Stadium a banged up football team. And that doesn’t account for four starters who weren’t able to play much, if at all, due to nagging injuries: kicker Jake Oldroyd, linebacker Max Tooley and receivers Puka and Samson Nacua.

Samson Nacua got in at the end of the game and recovered an onside kick that Sitake said “helped win the game for us.”

Obviously, the most sobering injury happened to starting cornerback Keenan Ellis, whose future playing time is now unclear after he had a collision with an Arizona defender and lost consciousness.

BYU said a couple hours after the game that Ellis’ CT scans “were normal” and he would spend the night in a local hospital.

Sunday, fellow defensive back Chaz Ah You took to social media to say Ellis “will be back” and is “gonna open a lot of eyes this year.”

So that’s obviously encouraging news, after moments that Sitake called Saturday night “really, really scary” and the game was delayed for nearly 20 minutes while BYU’s entire medical staff attended to Ellis and he was eventually carted off the field on a stretcher.

Around 3 p.m. MDT Sunday, BYU officials said Ellis spent the night at University Medical Center in Las Vegas for additional testing.

“Keenan is out of bed, walking and reports no neck or back pain,” BYU football spokesperson Brett Pyne reported.

Perhaps the most worrisome injury sustained by a Cougar, in the long run, is an apparent knee injury suffered by one of the best receivers on the team, Gunner Romney. His left knee got rolled up on in the first quarter and he left the game, never to return.

“Gunner got banged up,” Sitake said. “… He didn’t come back and play. So we are going to evaluate that.”

Defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua left the game for a couple series in the first half, but returned and made a sack.

Sitake said the Nacua brothers were game-time decisions and “we feel really good about (them) for next week.”

If Romney can’t go, getting the Nacua brothers healthy is paramount because aside from Neil Pau’u, the offensive star of the game with eight catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns, the Cougars don’t have a lot of proven players at the receiver positions.

Keanu Hill caught three passes for 22 yards and Chris Jackson caught two passes for 20 yards as starting quarterback Jaren Hall targeted Pau’u 11 times and finished 18 of 28 for 198 yards and two touchdowns.

“When Gunner went down, that caused some issues,” Sitake said. “We had some guys that we tried out (in warmups). They practiced all week and then tried to play, and when game time came we tried what was best for the young men — I am talking about the Nacuas and Max Tooley and (backup linebacker) Jackson Kaufusi.”

Sitake said the decision was made to hold them out, “and find a way to keep them healthy for next week. So I am glad we were able to get that done.”

He agreed that Hall will need more weapons next week against the Utes, who downed Weber State 40-17 and will have a couple more days to prepare for BYU and get healthy, although Utah did come out of its opener relatively unscathed.

“Hopefully we can get all those weapons back for Jaren to use on offense and get some more weapons back on defense and create more depth for us as a team,” Sitake said.

Surprisingly, BYU didn’t involve the tight ends much. Isaac Rex was targeted three times and caught just two balls for nine yards, while Dallin Holker was targeted twice and didn’t have a reception.

Arizona’s linebackers and safeties did a nice job on BYU’s tight ends.

If there was an unsung hero for the Cougars, it was backup kicker Justen Smith, a Brighton High product. With Oldroyd ailing, Smith made a PAT and a 40-yard field goal.

“Jake wan’t able to go today as well,” Sitake said. “We are still working with him on some things, an injury. We were hoping that he would be able to kick for us. He did (in practice) this week. Just wasn’t feeling right before the game.”

Oldroyd has dealt with a meniscus tear and a back injury in previous seasons.

Add it all up, plus consider that Arizona out-gained BYU 426-368 and ran 20 more plays than the Cougars, and it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence among the faithful that BYU can upset Utah and keep the Utes from claiming a record 10th straight win in the series.

“We gotta find ways to get off the field,” Sitake said. “They went for it on fourth down quite a bit (and were 3 for 3). They had a lot of third and shorts. So we got to create longer third downs and get some disruptive plays.”

Linebacker Keenan Pili, who made a career high 17 tackles, said tackling needs to improve, especially in the open field.

“I think we had the effort,” Pili said. “The intensity was there. We definitely have a lot of stuff we can improve, smooth some edges. But I am proud of the defense. … We will hit the film room, see if we can get those numbers right.”

As for facing the Utes in six days, the Cougars said they were inspired by their huge crowd in Las Vegas and expect a similar showing in Provo.

“I want to see LaVell Edwards Stadium packed,” Leiataua said.