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No. 9 BYU got a rare opportunity to make a statement against No. 21 Boise State, and made the most of it

Explosive Cougars hand quarterback-strapped Broncos their worst home loss since 1996 in 51-17 rout on the Blue at Albertsons Stadium

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Neil Pau’u (2) celebrates a touchdown with teammates.
Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Neil Pau’u (2) celebrates a touchdown with teammates as BYU and Boise State play a college football game at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. BYU won 51-17.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BOISE, Idaho — Undefeated BYU auditioned spectacularly well for an invitation to a New Year’s Six bowl game, perhaps even an ounce of consideration for the College Football Playoff, on Friday night at a place where that notion seemed unimaginable in the days leading up to the game.

That’s the bottom line, the statement the No. 9 Cougars made when the lights were as bright as they will ever be this pandemic-altered season.

Who cares if the big, bad Boise State Broncos — who were made to look just plain bad on a 50 degree night on the Blue before garbage time — were down to the third understudy for their own prized starting quarterback?

The naysayers, assuming there are a few skeptics still out there who haven’t jumped on No. 9 BYU’s bandwagon quite yet, might use that Boise State deficiency for fodder in downplaying one of the bigger wins in Cougar history.

Those who witnessed it firsthand won’t.

With all his offensive weapons on full display, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson pushed his Heisman Trophy candidacy into a new sphere and the Cougars pummeled the Broncos 51-17 at Albertsons Stadium. Boise State was without starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier, and fill-in Jack Sears left the game with an undisclosed injury, mostly likely a concussion, midway through BSU’s second possession.

No matter. The Cougars left little doubt.

If this 34-point romp over a name-brand opponent doesn’t get coach Kalani Sitake’s high-flying team some respect in this oddest of years against mostly overmatched opponents, nothing will.

“This team has been razor-sharp in their focus,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said when asked what kind of statement the Cougars made. “I have been really proud of them. Everyone is on the same page here and I love to see that as a head coach.”

Wilson, who was 21 for 27 for 359 yards and two touchdowns, with a passer rating of 213.9, was far more succinct when asked the same question.

“It says that we’re a good team,” he said. “I really don’t think there is more to say about that. People doubted us and I don’t blame them for that. It is hard to tell with how our season has been switched up. It was another opportunity to keep proving ourselves.”

And that they did, jumping so far ahead that national pundits made note of switching to that other, less-hyped game going on Friday night in the West.

“This was a big win for us — these guys don’t like to lose at home,” Wilson said. “And to come out with a win like that was huge. So I think that statement continues. But it means nothing unless we keep winning.”

News flash: This BYU team is really good, folks. It’s just a crying shame that there are no teams left to prove that against, what with Dec. 12 opponent San Diego State losing at home to San Jose State 28-17 at the same time BYU was blowing out the Broncos on the Blue.

Boise State, which was 5-0 against BYU at Albertsons, wilted like three-day-old produce. It was the Broncos’ worst loss since a 64-19 demolition at the hands of Idaho in 1996.

“Everybody worked hard for this win,” Sitake said. “This was a team win.”

Wilson has generally been pulled late in the third quarter in blowouts such as this one, but Sitake left him in until the final series late in the fourth quarter.

Why?

“They were kicking onside kicks, and we wanted to manage the ball and manage the game and there is nobody we trust more than Zach at this point,” Sitake said. “We felt like there was a swing opportunity (of momentum) and we wanted to make sure we left him in there (to stop it).”

He did just that, throwing a 43-yard strike to Gunner Romney. Tyler Allgeier’s 2-yard run pushed BYU’s lead to 34 points.

Style points?

Sitake would never admit as much, but receiver Neil Pau’u chimed in in the affirmative.

“I think we wanted to make a statement, show the nation the team that we truly are,” Pau’u said after catching five passes for a career-high 75 yards. Romney caught six balls for 133 yards, Dax Milne had three grabs for 99 yards and tight end Isaac Rex snared five passes for 45 yards and two TDs.

“Man, I can’t say enough about those guys, really,” Wilson said.

Even BSU coach Bryan Harsin, the man who had a commitment from Wilson to attend Boise State three years ago, was impressed.

“Zach is a very good player, and he showed that tonight,” Harsin said. “The wide receivers, they caught every ball thrown to them.”

The Cougars’ defense, maligned a bit after giving up excruciatingly long drives to Western Kentucky last week, returned to its dominating ways — with the caveat that Boise State had to go to third-stringer Cade Fennegan when Sears left the game after a quarterback sneak.

Fennegan’s father, Garth, played defensive back for BYU from 1990-93.

Boise State finished with just 310 yards, and a good chunk came in the fourth quarter before and after a successful onside kick. BYU rolled up 573 yards, including 214 on the ground.

Before Sears’ injury put a considerable damper on the game, and BSU’s chances of keeping it competitive, the Cougars’ offense started briskly to show any curious viewers tuning in for the first time to see if this team was legit that it was, indeed, worthy of the top-10 ranking.

Allgeier made a quick cut, got an inadvertent block from a referee on a BSU defender, and outran the Broncos’ secondary for an 86-yard touchdown on the Cougars’ second play of the game.

The Cougars went 52 yards for a field goal on their second possession, then got inexplicably conservative. Perhaps it was because Boise State was down to its third-string QB, and BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes didn’t want to give the Broncos anything cheap.

Two short runs and a slant pass netted only 4 yards; it was only the ninth three-and-out of the season.

The Cougars squandered two takeaways in the first half, failing to score after Caleb Christensen’s interception and Keenan Pili’s fumble recovery. Both came in Boise State territory.

After the second turnover, when Khyiris Tonga showed pro scouts a never-quit attitude by chasing Fennegan down from behind and causing a fumble, the Cougars took over on the BSU 35 with 48 seconds remaining in the first half.

But Wilson was sacked for an 11-yard loss on first down. On fourth-and-5 from the Boise 30, the Cougars took way too long to snap the ball, as Sitake opted out of what would have been a 47-yard field goal try.

After Neil Pau’u’s 16-yard catch, the ball was spotted with 20 seconds on the clock. The snap came with 11 seconds left.

Wilson found Dax Milne for his first catch of the first half, but the Cougars’ leading receiver was stopped at the BSU 8 and time ran out.

All that sequence did was make the halftime discussion that much more interesting.

“Those are missed opportunities,” Sitake said. “Those bug me as a head coach.”

Almost as much as questions about whether this BYU team is for real this season. Those were answered weeks ago — and answered again Friday night.