Facebook Twitter

3 takeaways from BYU’s win over Cincinnati

The Cougars were opportunistic enough to hold off the Bearcats in a battle of two Big 12 newcomers

SHARE 3 takeaways from BYU’s win over Cincinnati
Brigham Young Cougars running back LJ Martin (27) runs past Cincinnati Bearcats defensive back Taj Ward (15).

BYU running back LJ Martin runs past Cincinnati defensive back Taj Ward during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Chalk up the first conference win of the Big 12 era for BYU football.

The Cougars outlasted visiting Cincinnati 35-27 on Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, overcoming some first-half struggles before pulling ahead in the second half.

Here’s three good (and bad) takeaways for BYU (4-1, 1-1 Big 12) from the contest:

What worked well

1. BYU scored on defense, and had special teams set up another short field. One week after the Cougars gave up two defensive touchdowns in a 38-27 loss to Kansas, they took advantage of the game’s only two turnovers.

BYU scored the game’s first points, courtesy of cornerback Jakob Robinson. On Cincinnati’s first possession, Robinson picked off Cincinnati’s Emory Jones and ran 42 yards for the score. It was Robinson’s third interception of the season.

Then on the final play of the third quarter, the Cougars forced a turnover on special teams. Cincinnati returner Braden Smith misjudged a bounce on a punt and touched the ball but couldn’t wrap it up. BYU long snapper Austin Riggs recovered at the Cincinnati 15.

While Cougars gunner Marcus McKenzie didn’t recover the ball, he kept it away from Smith on the play and kept the loose ball alive until Riggs could pounce on it.

On the ensuing drive, BYU scored on a 1-yard LJ Martin touchdown run to go ahead two scores, 35-20. 

2. BYU’s offense came alive enough to secure the win. The Cougars got off to a terribly slow start offensively (more on that in a minute).

BYU, though, turned its offensive woes around with an impressive three-play, 82-yard touchdown drive in the final minute of the first half.

Kedon Slovis completed three straight passes on the drive — of 23, 24 and 22 yards — and a Cincinnati pass interference helped move the ball downfield before a wide-open Darius Lassiter caught a 22-yard touchdown with 6 seconds until halftime.

That started a stretch where BYU scored touchdowns on four of five possessions. Despite the Cougars’ offensive struggles through a good portion of the game, BYU took control at this time and never trailed in the second half.

3. BYU got a big win — its first Big 12 conference victory. The Cougars came out on the short end of several statistics, but all that mattered was the win.

That’s in no small part because BYU made several key plays in clutch situations in the final two quarters to make that happen.

The Cougars had a stop on fourth-and-1 — safeties Ethan Slade and Tanner Wall bottled up the runner just short of the line to gain — giving BYU the ball back with just under three minutes to play. 

BYU only had one sack on the night, but Tyler Batty’s sack early in the fourth quarter came just moments after the Cougars went back up two scores and it helped force a punt.  

The offense also had some clutch plays in the second half.

Chase Roberts, who ended the night with six receptions for 131 yards, scored on a 59-yard touchdown catch on a second-and-21 to give BYU a 28-13 lead with just under three minutes left in the third quarter. 

Earlier in the third, Martin scored on a 29-yard touchdown run on a third-and-13 play where it appeared the Cougars were content to run up the middle and set up a short field goal if it didn’t work.

Those plays helped give BYU enough cushion to earn its first conference win since 2010.

What needs improving

1. An extremely slow start offensively nearly derailed BYU. Prior to the momentum-changing touchdown drive just before halftime, the Cougars had just 38 yards of total offense. 

Slovis, who ended up throwing for 223 yards and a pair of touchdowns, was just 1 of 7 passing for 2 yards heading into that drive, and it helped Cincinnati control the ball for more than 21 minutes in the first half and build a 10-7 lead.

Slovis also nearly threw an interception deep in BYU territory late in the second quarter.

The Cougars, though, overcame nearly 29 minutes of offensive stagnation to put up 295 yards of offense.

2. BYU’s defense gave up a lot of yards and third-down conversions. The Cougars’ defense had its own struggles as well, giving up 498 yards of offense to the Bearcats.

Facing another mobile quarterback, Jones, BYU allowed Cincinnati to own an 11-minute edge in time of possession by game’s end. The Bearcats ran 84 plays to just 53 for BYU.

The Bearcats converted 9 of 18 third downs and ran for 242 yards — that included 94 from Jones and 77 from Corey Kiner. 

Giving up those kinds of numbers will likely result in more losses in Big 12 play, but on this night, BYU outlasted its fellow Big 12 newcomer.

3. BYU couldn’t put it away. The Cougars had a pair of drives where they could have made it a three-score game that essentially would have wrapped up the win.

Instead, BYU came away with no points on its final two possessions that both ended in Cincinnati territory.

The first one was particularly costly. BYU used a methodical drive — with a balanced mix of runs and passes — to move the ball down to the Cincinnati 9.

A high snap on first-and-goal, though, ended up costing the Cougars 18 yards — at least the true freshman Martin wisely fell on the ball for the recovery. Three plays later, kicker Will Ferrin hooked a 44-yard field-goal attempt wide left.

Then, after BYU came up with a fourth-down stop with under three minutes to play, the Cougars lost 6 yards and had to punt the ball back to Cincinnati late.

It ultimately didn’t cost BYU the win, but the Cougars could have made the end less thrilling if they capitalized on those opportunities.

What’s next?

1. BYU heads into a bye needing to get healthy. The Cougars were missing some key guys like linebacker Ben Bywater and offensive lineman Weylin Lapuaho on Friday night. The bye week will give them the chance to heal up and hopefully get some of those injured guys back.

The good thing is that BYU is doing so with a conference win under its belt.

2. Can the Cougars figure out more things offensively? BYU’s offense has scored more than 30 points three times this season, but even then, the Cougars have yet to play a full game on that side of the ball.

BYU turned to Miles Davis to help Martin out with the rushing attack in the second half, which helped, though the Cougars still need to show they can find greater balance offensively and finish off wins.

3. The Cougars will be on the road three of the next four games. Following the bye, BYU faces arguably its toughest stretch of the season. 

First up is a game at TCU on Oct. 14, followed by a home game against Texas Tech on Oct. 21, the lone game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in October. After that, BYU plays at Texas on Oct. 28 and at West Virginia on Nov. 4 before the Cougars play two of their final three at home.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake coaches from the sideline against Cincinnati at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Sept. 29, 2023.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake coaches from the sideline against the Cincinnati Bearcats at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News