Where there’s a Wagon Wheel there’s a way: No. 19 BYU survives Utah State’s upset bid
Cougars repeat same mistakes they made last week in ugly win over Wyoming, but eventually overcome fired-up Aggies and backup QB Cooper Legas
If No. 19 BYU’s goal against struggling Utah State and backup quarterback Cooper Legas making his first-ever college start was to make Notre Dame think about overlooking them next week, they succeeded on all fronts in front of 59,417 fans and a national television audience at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The Cougars looked nothing like a nationally ranked power when they were playing in only one of two college football games on the slate Thursday night, but somehow managed to hold off the plucky Aggies 38-26 in a contest in which BYU was a 24-point favorite.
No style points were to be awarded this night.
So BYU keeps the Old Wagon Wheel, the symbol of this always-gritty rivalry, but there was nothing pretty or sensational from the home team for the second-straight week. In other words, it was just another drama-filled matchup between the instate foes, even if nobody this side of Logan figured the Aggies (1-4) would put up much of a fight.
“We just, a lot of mistakes and undisciplined play, just little things we can fix. I didn’t like it. Last week I talked to you guys about playing clean, and then the same thing happened again. So that’s my job, to demand it from our guys.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
Instead, Utah State kept it interesting well into the fourth quarter. And yes, this was the same team that lost 35-7 to FCS Weber State, but not with starting QB Logan Bonner, who sustained a broken foot in USU’s loss to UNLV last week and is lost for the season. Legas, an Orem High product, played a serviceable game in throwing for 182 yards and two touchdowns, the final one meaningless as head coach Kalani Sitake said he would trade getting his backups some experience in favor of the points.
For the second-straight week, Sitake was not happy with how his team played, credited the opponent as if they were the Green Bay Packers, and said the Cougars have to get better, and fast.
After all, up next is that long-awaited showdown with Notre Dame in Las Vegas. The Cougars will take a 4-1 record and national ranking into that game at Allegiant Stadium, but the Irish almost certainly will be favored.
And well they should be, if the other folks in Las Vegas watched the way BYU played in the first half Thursday night in Provo.
“We definitely can play better ourselves,” Sitake said, after noting the Aggies were “fired up to play this game with obviously nothing to lose.”
The Cougars played like they had a lot to lose, and not just the Old Wagon Wheel, which sat in the southwest corner of the stadium until the bitter end and at times appeared heading back to Logan. The Cougars were that bad early, falling behind 7-0 and 17-14 to the heavy underdog.
“We just (made) a lot of mistakes and (had) undisciplined play, just little things we can fix. I didn’t like it,” Sitake said. “Last week I talked to you guys about playing clean, and then the same thing happened again. So that’s my job, to demand it from our guys.”
Sitake and players such as Kody Epps and Max Tooley — who had his second pick-six of the season but also made the “boneheaded decision” — in Sitake’s words, to throw Legas’ shoe in the air during USU’s fourth drive and prolong the possession, insist the Cougars are improving week to week, but it sure didn’t look that way to this observer.
The Cougars committed double-digit penalties for the second-straight week (10, for 82 yards) and will be without cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally the first half against Notre Dame because the Vanderbilt transfer was ejected for targeting in the second half when BYU led 31-20 and the game was still in doubt.
“We played a little bit tight,” Sitake said. “I thought (USU) played with an attitude of nothing to lose, and we played with an attitude of trying too hard not to make mistakes, and then ended up making some.
“We gotta find a way to make our guys play more loose, and have more fun out there,” Sitake continued.
After that miserable first half in which they gained just 107 yards of offense and gave up 246, the Cougars turned it around in the second, and they should be commended for that. But against either of the two foes they will face in the next two weeks — Arkansas visits LES on Oct. 15 — the Cougars would have trailed by a couple TDs in the first half, instead of a tie game at 17-17.
BYU had minus-21 rushing yards in the first half; Utah State ran 52 plays, BYU 19.
“The time of possession was crazy,” Sitake said.
That’s when Jaren Hall took over; the fifth-year junior directed a six-play, 70-yard touchdown drive on BYU’s first possession of the second half to give the Cougars a 24-17 lead. Tight end Ethan Erickson, presumably in the game because fellow backup TE Dallin Holker left the team before the Wyoming game, hauled in a 14-yard catch for the score. It was the first catch of Erickson’s career.
The Cougars caught a big break the next time they got the ball, after Connor Coles’ 33-yard field goal cut the BYU lead to four. On third-and-10, Hall’s pass slipped through Brayden Cosper’s hands and into Gunner Romney’s hands for a 16-yard completion and a first down.
Epps then caught passes of 27, 16 and eight yards, the final one for a TD to give BYU some breathing room.
“We are a better team when Gunner is playing,” Sitake said. Romney caught four passes for 51 yards in his 2022 debut.
Question is, are the Cougars getting better? Are they improving? Defensively, they haven’t been nearly as good as they were in Week 2 against Baylor.
“Every week, we are getting better,” Epps said.
That’s up for debate.
“We can’t abandon our mindset and (we need to) make sure we play with a better mind,” Sitake said. “That is going to be the focus. We have to play better than that, as far as clean football.”
The Cougars also need to find a reliable field goal kicker. Jake Oldroyd made a 45-yarder in the second quarter to snap his streak of three-straight misses dating back to the Baylor game. But he missed 33- and 35-yarders in the second half and is now 0-for-4 with the north goal posts this season and has made only one of his last six attempts.
Sitake called those “uncharacteristic misses,” but also said Justen Smith and Cash Peterman are back in the competition.
“We still believe in his skills,” Sitake said of Oldroyd.
Utah State dominated the first half, but the first 30 minutes ended in a 17-17 tie as the Aggies failed to fully capitalize on that dominance.
The Aggies and Legas served notice that they weren’t going to be intimidated early, driving 75 yards on their opening possession for a touchdown, a 7-yard run by Legas in which the former Orem High QB broke Ammon Hannemann’s weak tackle attempt at the 5.
BYU answered in two plays, and it appeared that the Cougars’ offense was going to have its way with the Aggies in the first half. Boy, was that assumption wrong.
After Romney’s 34-yard reception on his first play of the 2022 season, having returned from a lacerated kidney suffered in fall camp, Hall threw a 31-yard touchdown strike to Keanu Hill.
Later, BYU defensive lineman John Nelson tipped Legas’ third-down pass at the line, and Tooley returned it 34 yards for a score to give BYU a 14-7 lead.
Utah State got inside BYU’s 15 on its next possession, but Micah Harper caused Legas to fumble and Talan Alfrey recovered.
BYU’s offense kept sputtering, while USU’s kept purring. Coles’ 50-yard field goal cut BYU’s lead to 14-10.
After BYU’s third-straight three-and-out, the Aggies drove 57 yards to take a 17-14 lead. Legas threw a 14-yard TD pass to Brian Cobbs, who beat Kaleb Hayes on the play. Hayes had missed last week’s 38-24 win over Wyoming with concussion-like symptoms.
Oldroyd glanced heavenward after the first-half make, but that good feeling didn’t last.
“We’re fortunate it is tied up,” Sitake said at halftime.
And fortunate they weren’t playing next week’s opponent, as well.