This isn’t exactly a news flash to those who have followed BYU football in 2022, but the Cougars’ regular season can be compartmentalized into three distinct parts, with the final chapter — a yet-to-be-announced bowl game — not yet written.

“Looking at the year as a whole now, 7-5 (record), there are a lot of guys that predicted that would happen. And now they are all surprised by it?” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

There was that promising 4-1 start with the rousing overtime victory over Baylor, the 0-for-October (four losses) that absolutely ruined any hope that the Cougars would roar into the Big 12 next year with the momentum they will need to compete in the Power Five conference, and the encouraging finish marked by road wins at Boise State and Stanford when the offense got back on track and an injury-riddled defense finally — finally — figured out how to get some stops and get off the field.

With the acknowledgement that BYU’s bowl game performance will factor into the equation when all is said and done, how does one describe BYU’s last (regular) season of independence?

Was it disappointing, based on all those unfulfilled expectations heightened by 18 returning starters and the return of a top-notch, experienced quarterback?

Was it just mediocre, with vibes from those 2018 and 2019 seasons when the Cougars barely finished above .500 before Zach Wilson and company produced a season for the ages?

Or could it be described as acceptable with an asterisk, because of how the team refused to fold after that awful October included losses to not only Notre Dame and Arkansas, but squads the Cougars should have no business losing to, Liberty and East Carolina?

For his part, fifth-year junior quarterback Jaren Hall said after the 31-28 win over Boise State that came out of the blue on the Blue that the Cougars “haven’t exceeded expectations” and were looking to the Stanford game and the bowl game to alter perceptions of how 2022 will be remembered.

“You want every opportunity you can to kinda make up for that,” said Hall, who, along with receiver Puka Nacua, pretty much rescued a season that was headed toward disaster when the calendar turned to November.

Then there is head coach Kalani Sitake’s take on the regular season, delivered to reporters somewhat unsolicited after BYU ran all over Stanford and beat the now-coachless Cardinal 35-26 when he was asked if the Cougars were finally playing their best football.

“Looking at the year as a whole now, 7-5 (record), there are a lot of guys that predicted that would happen,” Sitake said. “And now they are all surprised by it?”

Sitake continued: “What I have seen is from the beginning to end is there has been a lot of progress in our program. … We are better and we are going to this bowl game to get our team ready for springboarding into 2023.”

Regular-season redux: the highs and the lows

Not surprisingly, players and coaches often described the 2022 regular season as a roller-coaster ride. Among the highs were the wins over Baylor, Stanford and Boise State, a win that improved the Cougars’ record against Mountain West teams to 3-0.

Hall, who suffered an ankle injury in the Stanford game but said he will be ready to play in the bowl game, believes the turnaround in November showed the team’s true colors.

“I just think we are a group of tough dudes that can get through hard things in life and it just so happened that the 2022 football season for BYU was a tough thing for all of us,” he said. “… Obviously we came up short in so many ways. But I think that’s what makes these wins in these last three weeks feel so good, is being able to battle back and make something positive out of it.”

Of course, the lowest point was the 41-14 loss to Liberty, followed by a 27-24 home setback to East Carolina that put the Cougars’ bowl hopes in serious jeopardy. Liberty finished the regular season 8-4 and with a home loss to New Mexico State. After upsetting BYU, East Carolina lost 27-25 at Cincinnati and 42-3 at home to Houston before edging Temple 49-46 last Saturday to finish 7-5.

Another low point: Almost any time the Cougars attempted a fourth-down conversion. They were a woeful 6 of 23 (.261) on fourth-down conversion tries, 130th out of 131 teams in the country in that category.

Best players deliver the best moments

Hall, who has thrown for 3,171 yards and 31 touchdowns with just six interceptions, is the straw that stirred the drink in 2022 and easily the team’s most valuable player. When he was healthy, he was outstanding and the Cougars rolled, with the exception of the Oregon game. When he wasn’t — in almost all of October with a sore shoulder suffered against Utah State — the Cougars struggled to keep up because their defense was unacceptably bad.

BYU wide receiver Puka Nacua runs with the ball after a reception against Boise State on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. BYU won 31-28. Nacua authored the Cougars’ play of the year against the Broncos. | Steve Conner, Associated Press

Receiver Puka Nacua is the runner-up team MVP, but can claim to having made the biggest play of the year, the tipping, diving, toe-dragging touchdown catch that beat Boise State. Nacua missed three games, but still finished the regular season as the Cougars’ leading pass-catcher, with 48 grabs for 625 yards and five TDs. He was also the fifth-leading rusher, with 25 carries for 209 yards and five TDs.

An offensive line led by probable NFL draft pick Blake Freeland at left tackle faltered in some of the bigger games — Oregon and Notre Dame — and has to share some of the blame for the short-yardage struggles on third and fourth down, but was otherwise solid and enabled Hall, Nacua and company to do their thing.

“I would say (the regular season’s highlight) was just finishing out the season right,” Freeland said. “We had been on that losing streak and winning three games in a row now is big for us. We tried to take these last three weeks as a one-week season, and just winning game by game.”

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Tight end Isaac Rex caught two TD passes against Stanford to give him 21 career touchdown catches. He’s now tied with Dennis Pitta and Mike Chronister for No. 9 on BYU’s career receiving TDs list and is tied with Pitta for second for TD catches by a BYU tight end, trailing only Gordon Hudson.

“We have been really motivated since that tough October and it has been cool to see the team just rally around each other and have a lot of fun,” Rex said.

A quick look ahead

Receiver Chase Roberts, the offensive star of the 26-20 double-overtime win over Baylor — which finished 6-6 — with eight catches for 122 yards and a touchdown, called it a “rough season,” but one filled with “learning and growing” for the relatively few contributors who will be back next year.

“I am just going to be me, and go perform, and be that leader, that example to everyone, so that going into next year we have people that are ready to go,” said Roberts, who had 21 catches for 351 yards and teamed with fellow receiver Kody Epps (39 catches, 459 yards before season-ending shoulder injury) to give Cougar fans hope that the receiving corps will be a team strength again next year.

BYU quarterback Jacob Conover takes a snap during practice in the Indoor Practice Facility at BYU in Provo, Feb. 28, 2022.
BYU quarterback Jacob Conover takes a snap during practice in the Indoor Practice Facility at BYU in Provo on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. With Jaren Hall almost assuredly moving on, Conover is in position to be the Cougars’ starting QB in 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We are going to the Big 12, and we need people to stand up and be a leader, be someone who people can count on. That’s my goal.”

Other top pass-catchers expected to return are Keanu Hill (36 catches, 572 yards, seven TDs) and Rex (21 catches, 293 yards, six TDs).

Miles Davis (5.6 yards per carry) emerged as the probable No. 1 running back for 2023 before injuries derailed a fast start, while Hinckley Ropati came on late. The Cougars will do well to get another RB out of the transfer portal like Chris Brooks, who shined early and then late after a hamstring injury caused the Cal transfer to miss most of the Liberty game and all of the East Carolina and Boise State games.

Any advance projections regarding returning players is tricky in this day and age of the transfer portal, but defensive safety Micah Harper emerged to become the third-leading tackler (58 takedowns) behind Ben Bywater (87 tackles) and Keenan Pili (62 tackles) and could be the type of playmaker the Cougars lacked in 2022.

Harper, Bywater, Vanderbilt transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally, Utah State transfer Jakob Robinson and defensive end Tyler Batty are among the few defensive contributors expected to return.

Pili, who carried a huge load when fellow LB starters Payton Wilgar and Max Tooley sustained season-ending injuries, has a year of eligibility remaining but was undecided before the Stanford game whether he will be back or not.

“I am working towards my decision,” he told the Deseret News. “I am pretty set on what I am going to do, but I think that it will be a distraction for now and don’t want to talk about it until after the bowl game.”

Bowl game possibilities

When the Cougars lost 28-20 to Notre Dame in Las Vegas to fall to 4-2, their hopes of making it to a New Year’s Six bowl were completely dashed. Would the Cougars have been able to win that game with a healthy Jaren Hall? Should coaches have trusted backup Jacob Conover? 

That’s a debate that will rage on for awhile.

BYU enters the 2022 postseason as a bowl free agent, with no tie-ins. However, through its deal with ESPN, BYU will get slotted into one of the 16 bowls owned by ESPN Events. Some of those openings have already been filled.

Roderick said on Monday during his “Coordinators’ Corner” program that he is hearing that BYU’s likely bowl date is Dec. 17. The ESPN-owned bowls on that date are the New Mexico Bowl, the Frisco (Texas) Bowl, the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, and the Fenway Bowl in Boston.

After the Cougars beat Stanford for the first time in program history, Sitake said that “finding out the (bowl) destination is not really that important, or even the opponent, right now. It is just extending the bowl prep and getting those extra practices. That is going to be the key for our program and our development, especially for those younger guys.”

Obviously, the sooner the bowl game for BYU, the less practices the Cougars can get in. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no limit to the number of bowl practices teams can have. However, NCAA rules that stipulate teams can only practice or hold athletic activities for up to four hours per day or 20 hours per week are still in play.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates with fans following their victory against Wyoming Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Provo, Utah. The next time Sitake is greeting fans postgame in Provo the Cougars will be in the Big 12. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press