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Analysis: BYU nails the ending after shaky start to get historic, first Big 12 win over mistake-prone Cincinnati

Cougars overcome a miserable first 29 minutes offensively to score right before halftime and pull away in second half to get first-ever Big 12 victory

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BYU receiver Chase Roberts runs for a touchdown against Cincinnati at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Sept. 29, 2023.

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Chase Roberts runs for a touchdown during the second half of a football game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. BYU won 35-27.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

They still can’t run the ball real well, their defense has improved but still gives up excruciatingly long drives and paper cut-like big plays on third down, and there’s the usual amount of unnecessary timeouts and whatnot that have riled fans to no end for years.

But these BYU Cougars are 4-1, creeping closer to bowl eligibility that some questioned after they scored just two touchdowns in their opener, and heading into a bye week with a big dose of confidence, along with plenty of room to clean things up.

“We did enough to win the game. Am I proud of our guys? Of course. Am I happy with how we did it? No.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

Mission accomplished. No need to wake up these Cougars when September ends. 

Receiver Chase Roberts, who caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, went so far to say the Cougars “are going to be a powerhouse in the Big 12.”

That’s some Mark Pope-ish hyperbole, but it shows just where this team’s collective head is heading into October.

In picking up their fourth September win in front of the largest crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium (63,384) since that 2009 overtime win over Utah, the Cougars overcame fellow Big 12 newcomer Cincinnati 35-27 Friday night in one of those games that showed a lot of potential, but also a lot of nagging issues as BYU readies itself for a killer schedule next month.

BYU became the first of the four newcomers to get a conference victory, which is what this pleasant night in Provo will probably be remembered for. It was far from pretty, and Cincy will lament several giveaways, but try telling that to the Cougars after they gift-wrapped a conference-opening loss at Kansas last week.

“We did enough to win the game,” said head coach Kalani Sitake. “Am I proud of our guys? Of course. Am I happy with how we did it? No.”

Cincinnati (0-2, 2-3) picked up a whopping 498 yards — to just 295 for BYU — and will kick itself all the way back to the Queen City for not not taking complete control in the first half when it dominated the Cougars up and down the field.

Despite all that domination, BYU had a 14-10 halftime lead — read below for that unexpected turn of events — but there probably wasn’t a soul in the place who believed the Cougars could hold it.

Instead, they extended it, scoring on their first possession of the second half to take a 21-10 lead.

Freshman LJ Martin scored from 29 yards out, after Slovis found Chase Roberts for a 33-yard gain. And suddenly all seemed right again at LaVell’s house. Offense was popular again, after the Cougars looked like they forgot how to play it the first 29 minutes of the first half.

“We were just trying to feel them out,” said Martin, the El Paso, Texas, native who has flat-out saved the Cougars with the struggles of Aidan Robbins and the fall camp injury to Hinckley Ropati. “We knew they were going to be a good defensive front.”

It was a historic moment for BYU, what with it being the school’s first-ever Big 12 home game. Cincinnati coach Scott Satterfield said Monday it was important to the Bearcats, who have lost three straight, to become the first newcomer to win a league game.

For Sitake, not so much.

“We just want to make sure we can hang,” he said of the Cougars’ priorities now that they are 1-1 and have 15 days to prepare for TCU, the national runner-up in 2022.

Like Martin, who had 66 yards and two TDs on 16 tough, bruising carries, quarterback Kedon Slovis is proving to be a great find for BYU. Slovis overcame a horrendous first 29 minutes to finish 13 of 24 for 223 yards and two TDs. He didn’t throw an interception, as Cincy QB Emory Jones did in an otherwise stellar performance for the former Florida and Arizona State quarterback.

“He has such a good feel for the game,” Roberts said of Slovis. “He has brought that here to BYU. … We have confidence in our quarterback. It all starts with Kedon and his leadership.”

The play of the game was a 59-yard touchdown pass to Roberts in which Slovis sidestepped a would-be sack and lofted the ball in the direction of Keanu Hill and Roberts, who were in the same area. Somehow, Roberts caught the ball on the run and out-raced the Cincy secondary to the end zone.

“I kinda just came back to the ball,” Roberts said, laughing. “I am going to say yeah, we drew it up like that. That’s what we do.”

Lucky or not, it gave the Cougars a 28-13 lead.

After Chamon Metayer’s second TD catch, from 22 yards out, pulled the Bearcats within a score, the second biggest play of the game happened. Cincinnati’s Braden Smith muffed a punt, and long snapper Austin Riggs pounced on it for BYU.

That led to Martin’s 1-yard TD plunge, and the Cougars could breathe easier with a 35-20 lead.

The first half was definitely not one for the ages for BYU.

Actually, it was one of the craziest first halves in recent memory at LaVell Edwards Stadium, as the Cougars were outgained 254-107 and had the ball for only 8 minutes, 32 seconds. The Bearcats had the ball for 21:28 and ran off 48 plays to BYU’s 20, but still found themselves trailing 14-10 at the break.

There were two reasons for that:

One, BYU’s Jakob Robinson picked off Cincy QB Jones on the Bearcats’ first possession and returned it 42 yards for the first pick-six of his career. 

Two, BYU had three three-and-outs on its first four possessions, and picked up only two first downs on its other possession before 36 seconds remained in the half, then scored to take the lead.

Trailing 10-7 at that point, and with only 38 yards of offense, the Cougars and Slovis suddenly caught fire. He threw 20-plus yard strikes to Keanu Hill and Roberts before finding Darius Lassiter wide open for a 22-yard touchdown pass with 6 seconds left in the half.

It was a stunning turnaround, given the way the game had been going. Slovis was 3 for 3 for 69 yards on the drive, after he was 1 for 7 for 2 yards before the final possession of the first half.

“It was huge,” Roberts said of the late-half heroics. “The locker room was hyped, ready to go in the second half.”

Slovis, who lost to Louisville last year when Satterfield was the coach there, remained hot in the second half, and the Cougars celebrated one of the more unusual wins in the past decade.

“We will take advantage of the bye by getting better,” Sitake said, noting that “most of the guys” who have been out such as linebacker Ben Bywater, offensive lineman Weylin Lapuaho, receiver Kody Epps, safety Talan Alfrey and RB Robbins “should be healed up by then.”