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BYU’s offense was brilliant, while its defense left room for nitpicking in 66-14 waxing of North Alabama

Cougars drove for touchdowns on their first six possessions when Zach Wilson was in the game. However, the defense struggled to get off the field at times against an overmatched FCS team.

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Dax Milne (5) hauls in a long pass over North Alabama Lions cornerback Will Singleton (4) during a game in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Dax Milne (5) hauls in a long pass over North Alabama Lions cornerback Will Singleton (4) during a game in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Unusual, but not unexpected, numbers are almost always produced when a nationally ranked Football Bowl Subdivision team such as No. 8 BYU hosts a Football Championship Subdivision team such as North Alabama.

That was certainly the case on a sunny, but chilly, Saturday afternoon at LaVell Edwards Stadium as the Cougars walloped the Lions 66-14 in front of a handful of family and friends of both teams. The Cougars drove for touchdowns the first six times they touched the ball in the first half when Heisman Trophy candidate Zach Wilson was quarterbacking the well-oiled offensive machine and racked up 394 yards in the first 30 minutes alone.

The Cougars jumped in front 42-7 at the break, and were never threatened. If they had been, that would have been the story.

In improving to 9-0 for the first time since 2001, BYU had 555 yards, 22 more than its season average. The 66 points is the most UNA has given up in its 74-year history. So the Cougar offense remains unstoppable.

That means absolutely no complaints from here on how well BYU’s offense played against an 0-3, overmatched team that prided itself on its defense entering the game. After all, UNA held explosive Liberty to 28 points in its opener.

“We took a step forward today as an offense, getting depth and getting valuable experience,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.

The Cougars laughed UNA’s supposed defensive prowess off by pummeling it mercifully until coach Sitake pulled Wilson and his friends such as Tyler Allgeier (13 carries, 141 yards, two touchdowns), Isaac Rex (two TD catches) and Dax Milne (four catches, 101 yards) at halftime. Wilson posted his best passer rating of the season — 256.3 — and sharpened as the first half wore on. He was 10 of 16 for 212 yards and four touchdowns, with a couple drops. He also ran for 33 yards, picking all that up on one play when he avoided what appeared was going to be an embarrassing sack in the end zone for a UNA safety.

“Our defense didn’t have an answer today,” said UNA coach Chris Willis. “When (BYU) wanted to create a play, they were able to.”

Baylor Romney took over after halftime, and directed two nice touchdown drives after his first possession resulted in the Cougars’ first three-and-out. Jake Oldroyd booted a 53-yard field goal, keeping his perfect season (10 for 10) intact as special teams was solid, just as it has been all season.

The Cougars tacked on a late score that probably made some people in Las Vegas happy — or irate — when fourth-string running back Miles Davis scampered untouched to the end zone with two minutes, 36 seconds remaining.

Willis said Sitake apologized for that late TD, but no apology was necessary.

“We knew what we were getting into,” Willis said.

“We were looking to get a first down and he just popped it into the end zone,” Sitake said, almost sheepishly, and reiterated that in this strangest of seasons he still doesn’t believe in going for style points.

Now for some analysis on the BYU defense. Obviously, the picture is not as rosy. The reason: UNA had 21 first downs, despite averaging 15.7 per game against three opponents with defenses not as highly regarded as BYU’s. The Cougars had 25 first downs, right around this big-play offense’s average (26.4).

Give yourself a big pat on the back if you had this number on your predictions list: Forced three-and-outs until only a few minutes remained in the game: UNA 2, BYU 0.

In other words, the Cougars weren’t exactly dominant on defense, despite the lopsided score. Sure, that’s nit-picking a bit, but the bar is pretty high when you are a top-10 defense nationally in several categories and facing a winless team that entered the contest averaging just 232.7 yards per game.

Another caveat: BYU shuttled defensive players in and out all game, and some starters such as Zayne Anderson only saw a couple series and senior defensive end Bracken El-Bakri didn’t play.

“We sacrificed some stats to add to our depth,” Sitake said. “They had some big plays and were able to get two scores, two touchdowns on the scoreboard. But I was really pleased with some of the things I saw from the players, specifically the young guys. ... We know there is some improvement needed on the defensive side, but overall if we can hold teams to 14 points, we should be pretty good.”

He was also proud that the defense forced three turnovers; backup safety Malik Moore made a big interception and Payton Wilgar and Uriah Leiataua forced fumbles. Linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi returned the fumble Wilgar forced 50 yards to the UNA 6.

The Lions had 221 yards and 14 first downs at halftime, on 40 plays. They passed their average on their second possession of the third quarter — their first possession after halftime was snuffed by Moore’s second career interception — and finished with 354 yards and 21 first downs.

“We need to improve on a lot of things (defensively),” Sitake said. “We got a lot of bodies in there, and they got a lot of reps. I think getting off the field would be really important. I thought we gave up too many first downs. … Looking at it, we have to be better against the pass. But when you can stop the run, make teams not be balanced, I think you are going to be OK. Overall, I just am happy with the performance.”

The Lions averaged 1.8 yards per rush, but had 305 passing yards, a season high.

“We knew what we were capable of,” BYU’s Moore said, when asked if the defense was disappointed that it couldn’t pull off a shutout. “… We are more disappointed that they scored off missed assignments and all that stuff.”

The Lions got more from their second quarterback in, Rett Files, than from starter Blake Dever. Files threw for 198 yards and posted a passer rating of 156.8. Willis acknowledged that BYU called off the dogs, kept blitzing to a minimum and wasn’t looking to embarrass the visitors from Florence, Alabama.

“Their defense, when they wanted to turn it up, they could,” he said.

So the Cougars head into the unknown for the next few weeks — their next scheduled game is Dec. 12 against San Diego State — but would like to still play 2-3 more times before a bowl game, Sitake reiterated after the third game surpassing the 50-point plateau in the last four games.

“There is a lot of talk about our schedule,” he said. “I just want to remind everyone that we were the only ones committed to playing football in the West, in August. So if you are going to assume anything, you should probably assume that we want to get games. And Tom (Holmoe) is not a hard guy to get a hold of.”