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Analysis: No. 15 Cougars might not be as good as we thought they were after 27-20 edging of UTSA

BYU improves to 4-0 for first time since 2014, but will need a better effort Friday at Houston to remain unbeaten than they had at empty LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday afternoon

SHARE Analysis: No. 15 Cougars might not be as good as we thought they were after 27-20 edging of UTSA

Brigham Young Cougars running back Tyler Allgeier (25) runs into the end zone over UTSA Roadrunners cornerback Ken Robinson (21), giving the Cougars a 27-13 lead after the PAT missed, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PROVO — Remember when Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green said of a rival NFL team, “They are who we thought they were!”

Well, maybe the No. 15-ranked BYU Cougars are not what we thought they were. 

Saturday’s totally unsatisfying 27-20 win over UTSA at empty, almost tomb-like LaVell Edwards Stadium exposed coach Kalani Sitake’s previously high-flying team in many ways.

It is hard to believe that BYU is one of the top 15 teams in the country after the Cougars had to secure an onside kick with just over a minute remaining to secure their first 4-0 start to a season since 2014.

Sitake credited UTSA time and again in his postgame press briefing for giving the Cougars all they wanted, but he also acknowledged his team was not nearly as crisp and sharp as it was in outscoring its first three opponents 148-24. It will be interesting to see if poll voters hold it against them when the new rankings are released Sunday morning.

In this season of pushing for style points, the Cougars got none in Game 4.

“You can’t discredit this game and not celebrate the wins,” Sitake said, but he was clearly not as jubilant as he was after the last three outings. Linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi said the coach suggested dancing to country music in the postgame locker room “to lift our spirits.”

It was that bad — and for good reason. BYU’s early-season reputation for dominance on both sides of the ball took a beating, even in victory.

If BYU plays that way Friday at 1-0 Houston, which has superior athletes to anything BYU has seen in 2020, watch out. Cougar Nation, the blue variety, is probably still trying to catch its collective breath after what was supposed to be another easy romp over a 34-point underdog turned into a nail-biter.

“Some of these games in the past, we would have lost,” said Kaufusi, alluding to setbacks at Toledo and South Florida last year. So there’s that. But plenty of questions remain.

Where was that score-at-will offense the Cougars unleashed against Navy, Troy and Louisiana Tech — squads that on paper had better resumes than the Roadrunners, now 3-2? Where was the defense that led the nation in total defense and was No. 4 in scoring defense?

“I wouldn’t say we fell into the hype at all. You can’t take these games for granted.” — BYU quarterback Zach Wilson

Are the Cougars guilty of reading their own press clippings?

“I wouldn’t say we fell into the hype at all,” said quarterback Zach Wilson, who played reasonably well but was not nearly as efficient as he was in September and early October. “You can’t take these games for granted.”

Wilson was 22 for 30 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating was 177.1 after posting 200-plus games prior to running into a defense that was far superior to what the Middies, Trojans and Bulldogs threw at him.

But the junior didn’t play like a Heisman Trophy candidate in other areas — he had one throw that should have been intercepted and a couple of poor exchanges with running back Tyler Allgeier.

“Very inconsistent,” was Wilson’s critique of the offense, which still put up 470 yards — a season low — and showed good run-pass balance but didn’t get enough out of that production. “Those guys came out ready to play, and one of the biggest things I noticed was us hurting ourselves — whether it was a mental error or fundamental mistake.”

One of those mistakes, that sort of set the tone for how the day would go, was a needless fumble by veteran receiver Neil Pau’u at the UTSA 10 on BYU’s opening possession. Wilson had completed passes of 18, 35 and 10 yards before Pau’u tried to raise the ball over defender Cory Mayfield’s head while struggling for more yards, perhaps the end zone, and lost it.

One wonders how the game would have gone if BYU had punched the ball in. Instead, there was very little dancing on BYU’s sideline. The visitors had more energy and pep, smelling an upset as the game wore on.

“I felt like it took a lot to get going,” Sitake said. “… Very excited about the opportunity to learn from this and get going.”

What else did the Cougars learn?

They didn’t show the discipline that had them leading the country in fewest penalties and penalty yards. Seven penalties for 55 yards isn’t awful, but there were some that proved costly and prolonged UTSA drives.

All told, the Cougars were outscored 17-14 in the second half and gave up 359 yards — most of them when backup quarterback Lowell Narcisse was in the game for an ineffective Frank Harris, the starter in UTSA’s three previous wins.

Narcisse carved the Cougars up on 17 of 20 passing for 229 yards and two touchdowns. Obviously, he should have started.

“I want to give UTSA credit,” Sitake said. “They did some things we haven’t seen other teams do and we weren’t prepared for.”

The coach said if there was a “silver lining” to the Cougars’ lackluster performance it was that if any players are over-confident — and he stressed that he hasn’t seen that pride creep in and practices were just as good as they were before the Navy game — this could serve as a wakeup call, while still getting the victory.

“It is easier to demand more from a team coming off a win than a loss,” he said.

The coach found other positives, too, such as the way the Cougars responded with the game on the line. Leading 21-13 after forcing UTSA to punt at midfield, BYU’s offense patched together a 12-play, 80-yard drive to make it a two-score game.

BYU-UTSA scoring sum

Scoring summary:
BYU 27, UTSA 20

First quarter

UTSA, Hunter Duplessis 39-yard field goal (4:55)

Second quarter

BYU, Neil Pau’u 4-yard pass from Zach Wilson (13:41), Justen Smith kick

BYU, Lopini Katoa 11-yard pass from Zach Wilson (4:44), Justen Smith kick

Third quarter

UTSA, Hunter Duplessis 36-yard field goal (11:01)

BYU, Zach Wilson 4-yard run (1:04), Justen Smith kick

Fourth quarter

UTSA, Zakhari Franklin 32-yard pass from Lowell Narcisse (14:26), Hunter Duplessis kick

BYU, Tyler Allgeier 6-yard run (2:18), Justen Smith misses kick

UTSA, Brennon Dingle 34-yard pass from Lowell Narcisse (1:17), Hunter Duplessis kick

The Cougars overcame a holding penalty on center on Joe Tukaufu — starting in place of All-America candidate James Empey for the second-straight game — and scored on third-and-4 from the 6 when Allgeier (19 carries, 116 yards) punched it in.

The Cougars needed a TD there because reliable sophomore Jake Oldroyd was sidelined by a bad back and walk-on freshman Justen Smith was the place kicker. Smith missed the PAT, after making his first three attempts.

“It felt kinda frustrating at first. … I am glad we were able to be mature about this game,” said receiver Dax Milne, who kept the drive alive with a 21-yard, back-shoulder catch on third-and-8. “A win is a win.”

Defensively, the Cougars were stout in the first half, allowing just 101 yards before the break. But “they definitely found something there” when Narcisse entered the game,” Kaufusi said. He echoed Wilson’s sentiment that the Cougars didn’t get too full of themselves. They just ran into a team that came ready to spring a major upset and grew more confident as the game unfolded, he said.

“I don’t think it was getting to our heads, the rankings and all,” Kaufusi said. “Just give credit to UTSA for bringing it.”

The Cougars reached their goal of turning UTSA into a one-dimensional team, but made some coverage errors that Narcisse exploited. Zac Dawe almost caught him for a sack, but he escaped and found Brennon Dingle alone by 20 yards in the end zone for the TD that cut BYU’s lead to 27-20 with a minute, 17 seconds remaining.

UTSA running back Sincere McCormick entered the game as the nation’s leading rusher, but had just 42 yards on 11 carries with a long of 23.

“I keep thinking about the (plays) we didn’t make,” Sitake said. “That’s the coach in me.”

He is grateful the Houston game is less than a week away, he said, because the Cougars are eager to get back on the field and prove they are better than they showed on a picture-perfect fall afternoon in Provo.

Namely, that they are the team most people thought they were — before UTSA happened.

“You guys (reporters) stop telling them how good they are,” he said. “That would be helpful.”

He was only half-joking — after a win that was only worth half-celebrating.