STANFORD, California — When it comes to talking about BYU football, the conversation always seems to come back to the quarterback.
The 2022 regular-season finale, which concluded Saturday night for the 7-5 Cougars with a convincing 35-26 win over 3-9 Stanford on Senior Night for the Cardinal, was no different. That is true even though the offensive line and running backs took center stage for the first time in a long time in rushing for 358 yards against the Pac-12’s last-place team.
“Yeah, everything is good, nothing serious. ... Of course, I want to (finish the game), but my health is the (most important) thing. I wanted to make sure I could do what I could tonight, and I just couldn’t do it in the moment.” — BYU QB Jaren Hall
The focus is on starting quarterback Jaren Hall because he sustained an ankle injury of some sort on with seven minutes, eight seconds remaining in the third quarter after completing 7 of 11 passes for a season-low 93 yards, and spent the rest of the game watching backup Jacob Conover hand the ball off on 18 of the next 19 plays.
So the next few weeks as BYU prepares for a bowl game will be spent monitoring Hall’s health, even though the fifth-year junior still has not publicly announced whether he will return in 2023, or turn pro.
Hall insisted he is OK, that x-rays were negative, and he will be good to go in the bowl game. And he doesn’t plan to opt out, even if this season is his last in Provo. However, it should be noted that last year, after he suffered an ankle/foot injury in the regular-season finale at USC, he wasn’t able to play in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Baylor Romney played reasonably well, but the Cougars fell 31-28 to UAB.
“Yeah, everything is good, nothing serious,” Hall said after rushing 11 times for 69 yards and a touchdown. “… Of course, I want to (finish the game), but my health is the (most important) thing. I wanted to make sure I could do what I could tonight, and I just couldn’t do it in the moment.”
Coach Kalani Sitake didn’t seem overly concerned about Hall’s injury in his postgame news conference, saying he believes “Jaren is going to be fine for the bowl game.”
But what if the injury worsens, as some do? Or maybe Hall has a change of heart and decides he has nothing left to prove in a meaningless bowl game. Will the Jacob Conover era begin in Provo?
The Cougars have wanted to get Conover some work for several weeks now, but they weren’t able to put away Utah Tech last week and get the third-year freshman on the field in Provo. Saturday night in front of an announced crowd of 25,094 at Stanford Stadium, the Cougars were running the ball so well, and needing to milk the clock, that it didn’t make sense to have Conover air it out, Sitake said.
Conover attempted just one pass, throwing the ball into the turf when Stanford defenders blew up a screen play.
“Yeah, I don’t know if that was the time. Jaren threw 11 times. So I don’t know if we planned on that. Looking at the offensive game plan, we just felt like we were doing good with the run game and making them stop it first,” Sitake said. “That was the outcome right there. It doesn’t really matter to me, I just want to get the win.
We could have made it a lot easier on ourselves early, but you gotta give Stanford credit for making plays and staying in it.”
Lost in the hubbub over Hall’s status and Stanford coach David Shaw resigning Saturday night was the fact that the Cougars did not commit a penalty in a game for the first time since 1972. Because they were rarely behind the chains, the Cougars were able to run the ball 50 times for a 7.2 per-rush average.
The 358 rushing yards was their most since they put 385 on Virginia in 2021 in Provo.
“We knew we would be able to run the ball coming into this game,” Hall said. “Couldn’t have dreamed of anything (better). That was insane, how well (BYU was) moving the line of scrimmage. … It was fun to watch, handing the ball off to Chris (Brooks) and Folau (Ropati) and just seeing it open up is a thing of beauty. Makes my life very easy.”
It made Conover’s first real opportunity this season easy, too, but prevented him from having to make a play to win the game. That fell on the wide shoulders of Brooks, and the Cal transfer delivered his best performance as a Cougar.
Brooks finished with 164 yards on 23 carries, the most yards in his career against an FBS opponent.
“Having the (hamstring) injury and being out (two games), I think he is … taking out his anger on the field, which I am really good with. We got one more to go with him,” Sitake said. “I thought he played physical and put his head down and ran some people over.”
Hall wasn’t the only Cougar who watched the ending from the sidelines. Receiver Keanu Hill sustained a hand/wrist injury and was in sweats when the final horn sounded. Linebacker Keenan Pili also left the game with an injury. Running back Lopini Katoa was ill all week and didn’t make the trip.
“We obviously had some guys get banged up, but I thought the guys executed the game plan,” Sitake said. “Credit to Stanford. They made things difficult for us. We felt like we could run away with it, but they did a good job powering back.”
If BYU doesn’t face a Power Five opponent in the bowl game, it will finish its independence era with a 25-30 record against Power Five opponents or Notre Dame.
Speaking of that bowl game, some people inside the program believe the Cougars will be invited to the New Mexico Bowl, which is played Dec. 17. Whatever their postseason destination, the Cougars might not know for sure until next Sunday.
“Destination is not really that important, or even the opponent, right now,” Sitake said. “It is just extending the bowl prep and having extra practices. That is going to be the key for our program, especially for our developmental and young guys.”
With backup quarterback Conover at the top of that list.