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BYU’s offensive line made a statement in team’s first Big 12 win

At 4-1, the Cougars need two more victories to be bowl eligible

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Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Connor Pay (70) signals a first down during a practice on March 10, 2023.

Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Connor Pay (70) signals a first down during spring football practice at the Indoor Practice Facility in Provo on March 10, 2023.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Imagine you are Connor Pay.

The giant BYU offensive lineman has spent about a month listening to folks question the heart of his teammates on the offensive line. They’ve wondered if they’re tough enough, mean enough, coached enough. Wondered why BYU’s run game has been left wanting, ranked among the worst in the country.

Fast forward to today.

Pay and his teammates are 4-1 with wins over Arkansas and Cincinnati. The Bearcats lost to BYU Saturday night 35-27 in the Cougars’ first Big 12 home game.

Pay and Company wanted to make a statement. And nothing speaks louder than a win — no matter how you get one.

But you could see the desire to win with how Pay and his mates up front started the game on BYU’s first possession.

It was freshman LJ Martin to the left for 7. Martin up the middle for 2. QB Kedon Slovis on an option keeper for 3. Back to Martin for a 13-yard gain. Then yet another tote by Martin that gained three. Right after that, Miles Davis came in and gained a yard.

Run? Here’s the run.

Although that drive ended up in a punt, it was a point maker. BYU rushed the ball six times for 29 yards or an average of 4.8 per attempt. That’s not too shabby.

It all came against a defensive front that BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said before the game was the best they’d faced so far this season.

Heading into a week off when the Cougars can lick wounds, self-scout and do more work, BYU’s run attack still needs some work, no question. And Pay will continue to hear all about it. 

The doubters will philosophize, analyze and resurrect statistics. I’ve been among the throng of critics.

But the fact is that Friday night in LaVell Edwards Stadium, Martin scored on touchdown runs of 29 yards and 1 yard. He had 16 carries for 66 yards, a couple of them wasted plays when BYU was running out the clock late on a final possession. That’s a 4.1 average per carry. Davis had 4 carries for 17 yards, a 4.3 average.

The point being, BYU ran effectively enough against a tough defense to score 14 points on the ground.

That’s a pretty efficient run game — although the totals were not past the 100-yard mark.  

Cincinnati’s QB Emory Jones led the Bearcats in rushing with 94 yards on 14 carries.  He was a third-down machine and the best weapon Cincy had.  

But he never scored a touchdown in the game.

Which would you rather have?

One of the more amazing things about BYU’s first-ever Big 12 win was how many yards and points were produced on fewer plays (84 to 53) and less time of possession (35:01 for Cincinnati and just 24.59 for BYU).

Of course, BYU received two turnovers, converting both into scores, the highlight being Jakob Robinson’s pick-six in the first quarter to give BYU a 7-0 lead.

Pay, one would imagine, would take efficient scoring over bigger numbers, any day,

Criticism welcome.

Thing is, that very weird first half of offense by BYU, you know, the one that led to a lot of head-scratching, absolutely led to Slovis moving 82 yards on three plays in 36 seconds to take the halftime lead on a TD pass to Darius Lassiter.

As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise.”

Then Slovis unholstered the gun in the second half and Cincinnati had a hard stopping him.

“The fact that we scored that many points on that few plays means that we probably had some explosive plays,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. “But we also need to possess the ball, convert some first downs, and get some drives going. Defensively, we also need to get off the field and get some stops. I’m glad we were able to force some turnovers and turnovers on downs. I’m happy that we won, but we also have room to improve and get better.”

And that’s the big take-away from BYU’s first Big 12 win and 4-1 record heading into a needed break for two weeks.

The Cougars can play much better. They have yet to put together their best effort.

Yielding almost 500 yards to Cincinnati? Well, that’s an issue glossed over by BYU gaining two turnovers on that pick-six and a muffed punt that set up another score.

But that’s football.

BYU has a lot of work to do to get better and fix some warts. Kansas proved what can be achieved with turnovers and mistakes by an opponent, as did the Bearcats.

Sitake’s team will need it with Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas Tech on the horizon.

You get the feeling Pay can’t wait.