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No. 14 BYU stares down all kinds of adversity, makes case for being a ‘big-time team’

Missing several key players and looking inept on defense in the middle quarters, Cougars rise up and outscore Houston 22-0 in the fourth quarter to improve to 5-0 with another convincing road win

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BYU quarterback Zach Wilson celebrates after the team’s 43-26 win over Houston at TDECU Stadium in Houston on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

HOUSTON — After all the craziness, an ill-advised gamble near Houston’s goal line late in the first half that resulted in a huge six-point swing, some bizarre penalties and non-calls, a brilliantly executed onside kick that netted no points but a ton of adulation from his team, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake did the unimaginable, for him, on Friday night at quarter-filled TDECU Stadium.

He chose not to go for it on fourth down near midfield, putting aside the inner-gambler in him to put the game in the hands of his defense, which was slowly gaining steam after getting pulverized before the fourth quarter.

The defense delivered, a sentence which is hard to write, but undeniably true, after Houston had racked up 418 of its eventual 438 yards in the first three quarters. The red Cougars were moving through the injury depleted blue Cougars so easily in the second quarter that it was almost comical at times.

“I feel like the statement we made is that we are a big-time team.” — BYU quarterback Zach Wilson

Led by precocious junior quarterback Zach Wilson and deceptively dangerous wideout Dax Milne, No. 14-ranked BYU’s offense took it from there, posting 478 yards on just 59 plays in a national attention-grabbing 43-26 win in front of 10,092 fans — many of them decked out in blue — and an ESPN audience.

“I really wanted to go for it,” Sitake acknowledged later.

A less seasoned coach probably would have, but Sitake listened to some of his assistants this time and took the safe route. He punted, and the defense held and forced Houston to punt on a third-straight possession.

“That was the right decision,” said Sitake, who improved his record to 32-25 as a head coach in his fifth year, the most he’s ever been over .500 in Provo. “I was glad I talked to the coaching staff and did that.”

Wilson wasn’t happy the offense was called off the field, but he understood it. Memories of getting stuffed on fourth-and-1 from the 2 late in the first half were still fresh.

“It was a (ticked) off mentality, but hey, we are going to get the next one,” was the sentiment, Wilson said.

Is BYU for real? That’s the question college football fans far and wide, include many of its own, wanted answered as it faced the first legitimate threat to the Cougars’ perfect season. A convincing 17-point win should hold the naysayers off, at least until Nov. 6 gets here and big, bad Boise State hosts the Cougars on the blue, where they have never won.

“I feel like the statement we made is that we are a big-time team,” Wilson said.

If nothing else, the Cougars, 5-0 for the first time since 2008, proved they can handle adversity. That came in oil barrel proportions Friday night — before the game even started.

BYU went in to the expected shootout without arguably its best defender, mammoth nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, and in the first half that showed in spades. Senior defenders Zayne Anderson and Kavika Fonua left the game with injuries at various times.

While the first quarter — after UH’s game-opening drive for a field goal — was one of BYU’s best in recent memory, the second was easily one of its worst.

Simply put, the Cougs could not stop UH quarterback Clayton Tune, whose pinpoint passing to mostly wide-open receivers and tight ends surpassed Wilson’s early efforts, and those were still pretty good.

Tune completed 15 of 18 passes for 234 yards and had a 229.2 passer rating in the first half, and two of his three incompletions were spikes to stop the clock on the final drive of the half.

He was outplaying the more ballyhooed Wilson.

Trailing 20-14 at halftime, when it could have been ahead 20-17 or tied 17-17 at the worst, BYU faced even more adversity in the second half. Center James Empey started on a gimpy right ankle, but had to leave the game. 

Star receiver Gunner Romney also left the game with an injury. Naturally, Milne stepped up with a national-player-of-the-week performance: nine catches, 184 yards, three touchdowns.

“The guys had the same mentality, even when adversity hit,” Wilson said. “We knew it was going to be a battle the whole time.”

Wilson finished with 400 passing yards, the first time hitting that milestone mark in his career, and has now thrown 12 touchdown passes with just one interception — against Navy, which wasn’t his fault. He’s thrown 132 passes without an interception.

He outplayed Tune in the second half, showing remarkable poise under pressure. 

Credit the coaching staff for making the proper adjustments to slow Tune and company in the second half. His passer rating plummeted to 173, while Wilson’s rose to 205.1.

BYU outscored Houston 22-0 in the fourth quarter.

“When the game got tight in the fourth quarter, they whipped us. I give BYU a lot of credit. I am not down on our team at all.” — Houston coach Dana Holgorsen

“When the game got tight in the fourth quarter, they whipped us,” said Houston coach Dana Holgorsen. “I give BYU a lot of credit. I am not down on our team at all.”

More adversity arrived for BYU in the second half, particularly when cornerback Micah Harper was disqualified for targeting (he will have to sit out the first half of the Texas State game next Saturday) while UH running back Kyle Porter remained in the game despite head-butting the Cougar freshman.

Earlier in the half, Tyler Allgeier’s magnificent 45-yard catch and run for a touchdown was erased by a phantom block-in-the-back penalty on Clark Barrington.

“There was no panic in the coaches or the players,” Sitake said.

And the Cougars struggled on third down all night, going 3 for 10 after entering the game with a conversion percentage of 51.1, 15th-best in the country.

“Getting stuffed on easy third-and-ones isn’t us,” Wilson said.

But the Cougars plowed onward, something last year’s team couldn’t quite seem to master in close losses at Toledo, South Florida, San Diego State and Hawaii. After BYU took a 14-3 lead, it gave up 23 unanswered points, then answered with 29 straight points of its own.

“I am just proud of our players and the way they were able to respond to adversity,” Sitake said.

As far as the gambling on fourth down goes, as well as the onside kick that caught UH totally by surprise and was executed precisely by kicker Jake Oldroyd and backup receiver Talmage Gunther, he said it “sets the right mindset” for the players that “we want to go and grab the win.”

The time he didn’t go for it, however, might have been the best mindset maneuver of the night.

“We knew we couldn’t let him down,” said defensive tackle Zac Dawe, who came up with a huge fourth-quarter sack on Tune, two plays after linebacker Payton Wilgar dropped an interception that likely would have ended UH’s comeback hopes then and there.