STANFORD, California — Coach Kalani Sitake’s BYU football team in 2022 will be remembered as the crew that never could quite make things easy on itself.
The Cougars had a habit throughout the season of doing everything the hard way, including Saturday night’s regular-season finale against injury-riddled and fading Stanford.
In the end, the Cougars grinded out a 35-26 win in front of an announced crowd of 25,094 that was at least half BYU fans, maybe more.
Taking a page from Stanford’s tactics of yesteryear, the Cougars bludgeoned the Cardinal to the tune of 27 first downs and 358 rushing yards on 50 attempts in beating the Pac-12 school for the first time.
Sounds like an easy stroll through Golden Gate Park, right?
No, not these guys. The Cougars haven’t been able to handle prosperity well all season, and their seventh win of the season — against five losses — was no different.
“It is sore. But it was precautionary. I wanted to get out before anything else happened, just (let them) look at it and let them do their thing. It will be all right moving forward.” — BYU quarterback Jaren Hall on his ankle injury.
“We could have made it a lot easier on ourselves, but you gotta give Stanford credit for making plays and trying to stay in it,” Sitake said.
After the game, Stanford coach David Shaw announced his resignation after 12 seasons at the helm (he spent 16 with the program overall), saying he made the decision this week after praying and discussing it with his wife.
“It has been a great 16 years, it really has,” Shaw said. “Two weeks ago I never would have thought we’d be having this conversation right now.”
He goes out knowing his team didn’t quit on Senior Night, even when BYU turned the tables on the once-proud Pac-12 program.
BYU racked up 451 yards of offense and held Stanford to just 53 rushing yards and 371 overall.
The Cardinal, which went 3-9 for the second-straight season and dropped to 2-1 all-time against BYU, refused to fold after looking inept defensively against the Cougars (7-5) the entire first half.
Quarterback Tanner McKee, the one-time BYU recruit whose parents both attended the Provo school, brought the Cardinal back a bit in the second half and finished with 313 passing yards and a touchdown, completing 31 of 40 passes.
McKee’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Brycen Tremayne (11 catches, 130 yards) trimmed the Cougars’ big lead to 35-26 with 4:39 remaining, but the Cardinal ruined their attempt to make things really interesting and the contest a one-score affair by botching the PAT snap.
Tremayne’s catch in the end zone was ruled a touchdown on the field and then reviewed by replay, and it appeared that his knee hit out of bounds before his toe hit inbounds, but the the call stood.
“From replays on the field, it didn’t look like his toe or anything touched, so I don’t know,” Sitake said. “They must have saw something, and Karma, bad snap. It happens.”
A sense of uneasiness ran through the pro-BYU crowd after the Stanford touchdown because star quarterback Jaren Hall was watching from the sidelines with an ankle injury and Jacob Conover’s second possession had resulted in a three-and-out.
But the Cougars ran out the final 4:39 on the clock with all running plays, and Conover attempted just one pass — a throw into the turf when Stanford blew up a screen pass.
Fittingly, Cal transfer Chris Brooks was the catalyst on a night when BYU attempted just 12 passes, for 93 yards.
So how is Hall, who apparently turned his ankle on BYU’s first possession of the second half after the Cougars had driven on the Stanford 21?
Hall was stuffed on two straight running plays, and got up slowly after the second attempt resulted in the twisted ankle.
“It is sore,” he said. “But it was precautionary. I wanted to get out before anything else happened, just (let them) look at it and let them do their thing. It will be all right moving forward.”
Sitake said x-rays on Hall’s ankle came back negative and he expects the fifth-year junior to play in the bowl game.
“I think it was going to be difficult for him functioning at a high level, so we made the decision to keep him out,” Sitake said.
“We felt good about it, but he feels good about being able to come back.”
Hall was 7 of 11 for 93 yards and two TDs — both to tight end Isaac Rex — and also ran 19 yards for a touchdown.
Running more than he has all season, Hall finished with 11 carries for 69 yards.
As has often been the case this season, the Cougars struggled in short yardage situations to let Stanford stay in it.
The Cougars are 6 of 22 on fourth-down conversion attempts this season.
“Well, we tried a lot of different things and maybe just simple is the way to go. Maybe we overthought it a little bit. Good to get some stuff on film, but we need to start converting those and flipping the conversion (rate) our way more,” Sitake said.
“So not happy about that. That is something to work on for the next time.”
After Conover took over and handed the ball off nine straight times, Puka Nacua took a reverse 25 yards to the end zone to give the Cougars a 35-12 lead, and they held on, but not before some uneasy moments.
Back-to-back touchdown drives of 75 yards apiece trimmed BYU’s lead to nine.
Once again, BYU had kept things interesting when they didn’t have to be.
“I think you have to give credit to a lot of guys that we have played. They just keep coming back. We ran into Stanford on their Senior Night. They obviously wanted to win this game, knowing they are not going to a bowl game. I thought they put everything they could into this game plan,” Sitake said, before Shaw’s surprising announcement.
“With their talent, like Tanner McKee, those guys can throw the ball on every down. That is pretty much what they did, and we just didn’t get enough disruption on him in the backfield, but I think for the most part guys felt good about defending them and making it hard on them.”
BYU was perfect on offense in the first half, scoring touchdowns on all four possessions with drives of 75, 75, 76 and 73 yards.
Stanford almost moved the ball reasonably well in the first 30 minutes, punting just once.
The first half ended in controversy, however, as officials put one second back on the clock after it had apparently struck zero. That enabled Stanford’s Joshua Karty to boot a 54-yard field goal and cut BYU’s halftime lead to 28-12.
Brooks went for 82 yards in the first half on 10 carries, but it was Hinckley Ropati who found the end zone on BYU’s second possession, out-running Stanford’s secondary for a 43-yard score.
Sitake said senior running back Lopini Katoa was ill, missed some practices and didn’t make the trip.
In all, the Cougars had 199 yards on the ground and 80 through the air in the first half; The Cardinal had 192 yards, all but 32 of them courtesy of McKee’s right arm.
BYU used a “special,” a flea flicker from Hall to Rex for 43 yards to take a 21-3 lead. Brooks took the handoff from Hall and flipped it to Keanu Hill, who pitched it back to Hall.
Rex was wide open down the BYU sidelines, eluded a couple of tacklers and walked into the end zone.
Rex caught the 21st touchdown pass of his career on the Cougars’ next drive, passing Clay Brown and moving into a tie with Dennis Pitta for second all-time by a tight end in BYU football history.
“It was an opportunity to beat a Pac-12 team,” Rex said of the Cougars’ motivation. “We are making history with little steps. … We have been really motivated since that tough October and it has been cool to see the team rally around each other.
“It has been fun.”
And certainly not easy, especially not with these guys.