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Analysis: BYU gets bowl eligible despite sloppy, uninspired effort in win over Utah Tech

Cougars improve to 6-5 on Senior Day at LaVell Edwards Stadium, but don’t put away Trailblazers until late in the third quarter

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BYU Cougars wide receiver Chase Roberts (27) makes a catch under pressure from Utah Tech cornerback Antonio Mayes (12) and runs the ball in for a touchdown to put the Cougars up 14-13 after the PAT during the game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

BYU Cougars wide receiver Chase Roberts (27) makes a catch under pressure from Utah Tech cornerback Antonio Mayes (12) and runs the ball in for a touchdown to put the Cougars up 14-13 after the PAT during the game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Barring something totally unforeseen, BYU will go to a bowl game this year for the 17th time in 18 seasons, but the way the Cougars arrived at that long-stated goal on Saturday wasn’t actually picturesque.

In fact, it was on the sloppy, undisciplined and too-close-for-comfort side as much as anything else. Bluntly, it was downright ugly in many stretches, particularly in the first half when BYU’s visitors scored 20 points and probably should have scored more.

Homestanding BYU let instate foe Utah Tech of the Football Championship Subdivision — that’s a division below what the Cougars play in — hang around at LaVell Edwards Stadium for a lot longer than good, bowl-bound teams are supposed to before finally holding off the Trailblazers 52-26 in front of an announced crowd of 56,069 on a frigid November afternoon in Provo.

“We will keep building from this. Obviously, it didn’t go as cleanly as I would have liked, but a lot of these FCS games end up being like that, so just glad that we were able to play all four quarters and own the game like we know we could.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.

Sure, a win is a win as the Cougars improved to 6-5 to get bowl eligible and sent Utah Tech back to St. George with a season-ending loss that snapped its three-game winning streak and ended its season at 4-7.

But the Cougars, who will finish the regular season next Saturday at Stanford, know they will have to play much better in the Bay Area if they hope to take some momentum into the bowl game.

Speaking of which, head coach Kalani Sitake said Monday that he kind of expected to get a bowl invitation as soon as BYU got bowl eligible but backtracked from those comments after the seniors and fourth- and fifth-year juniors (all 35 of them) made the senior walk from the north end zone to the south end zone.

“I probably shouldn’t have said that. I am sure (athletic director) Tom (Holmoe) was really excited when I said that,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.

“But maybe that is just my wish. I just want to know. I want to know right now where we are going to be so we can make plans and organize our schedule and try to utilize the time that we have.”

Regardless whether they find out this week or in December, Sitake said, the Cougars “are going to get ready for the Stanford game next week.”

Suffice to say they will have plenty to work on, especially on defense.

“Just shooting our own selves in the foot,” was the way defensive back Jakob Robinson described the first half when Utah Tech put up 10 first downs, 20 points and 277 yards on 38 plays.

At one point the Blazers led 20-14; BYU’s halftime lead was just 28-20.

“We were really making mistakes that we have been practicing (against) and we really shouldn’t be making mistakes like that at this time in the season,” Robinson continued.

“But we always bounce back from it and you saw that we responded from that.”

Indeed, Utah Tech was held to 143 yards in the second half, and many of those — and an 18-yard touchdown pass — came on its last two possessions against BYU’s reserves.

“We will keep building from this,” Sitake said. “Obviously, it didn’t go as cleanly as I would have liked, but a lot of these FCS games end up being like that, so just glad that we were able to play all four quarters and own the game like we know we could.”

Sitake said he wasn’t totally unhappy with the defense for letting the Blazers hang around, because the 20 points were courtesy of a BYU turnover (Lopini Katoa’s fumble) and two long pass plays.

“You have to give credit to Utah Tech. They made some plays, got some stops,” Sitake said. “Got some big plays.”

Still, the Cougars didn’t make it a two-score game until Jaren Hall’s 10-yard touchdown run made it 35-20 with 5 minutes, 38 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The TD came after BYU overcame four penalties of 10 or more yards, including several that negated big plays.

“That’s part of the game. I dunno, some holding and stuff like that. We had some uncharacteristic plays with some unsportsmanlike (penalties),” Sitake said.

The Cougars were flagged 11 times for 132 yards.

The coach said his guys were “little upset” by some things that a Utah Tech receiver said leading up to the game, a prediction that the Blazers would win the game and hold the Cougars to fewer than 21 points.

“It got a little bit chippy because of some of the things that were said all week,” Sitake said, “and so, our guys aren’t blind. They know what was being said, so they wanted to get after it, and they were a little physical, and it cost us some plays. But that is all right.”

It is not all right that the Cougars haven’t cleaned up a lot of their boneheaded mistakes this late in the season. They would have been costly against opponents on their own level. 

“I think everybody expects the FBS team to be up by 50 in the first quarter,” Sitake said. “You see all throughout football, sometimes you gotta keep playing all four quarters.

“We knew we were going to get their best shot, and things looked kinda rocky, especially in the first quarter, but we know the game is a long game and we knew our guys would settle down and own the game.”

That they did.

But not soon enough to get backup quarterback Jacob Conover some meaningful snaps.

Because the Cougars couldn’t pull away until late, Conover didn’t enter the game until 1:43 remained and didn’t attempt a pass. Terence Fall completed BYU’s scoring with a 25-yard touchdown run on jet sweep with 47 seconds left.

“Just wanted to see him throw the ball, but at the end we were just trying to run the clock out,” Sitake said. “They took some timeouts. I think the right thing to do was keep running the ball, and obviously they were focused on the inside run and we were able to hit a fly sweep for a touchdown.”

Offensively, the Cougars did what they were expected to do against a team that was giving up 30 points a game to lesser competition, but it took a while.

After a punt, a fumble and another punt on their first three possessions, the Cougars rolled.

Jaren Hall completed 23 of 35 passes for a career-high 456 yards and five touchdowns and also ran for a TD. With Boise State win hero Puka Nacua seeing double teams and bracketing all game, redshirt sophomore Keanu Hill caught six passes for 137 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.

With Katoa benched after the fumble, Chris Brooks ran 12 times for 102 yards.

The Cougars finished with 676 yards, a season-high.

Hall, who turns 25 in March, a month before the NFL draft, said after the game that he hasn’t decided yet whether this will be his final season in Provo or not. 

“We’ve had some talks (with coaches),” he said. “But I haven’t made a decision. I am a couple of weeks away.”

Nacua had five catches for 53 yards and also didn’t say whether this was his final game at LES, although many people in the program believe that it was. 

Hall, Nacua and Brooks all said that they plan to play in the bowl game, regardless of what the future holds.

So the Cougars turn their attention to a Pac-12 team, hoping to even their record against teams in that league at 1-1, having lost at Oregon in September.

“It didn’t go error-free. There were still some mistakes out there, but for the most part the guys played really well and didn’t stop and didn’t panic,” Sitake said, continuing his theme of crediting Utah Tech instead of criticizing his guys.

“I didn’t think there was a loss of composure. I thought the guys were poised and understood that we were going to get their best shot and we had to just settle down and play ball.”

No matter what.