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Bitter loss brings a novel challenge for Cougars. Can they bounce back emotionally after deflating setback?

After Coastal Carolina ruins perfect season with a 22-17 win, Cougars must regroup this week with San Diego State visiting LaVell Edwards Stadium late Saturday night

Coastal Carolina’s Reese White, center, scores a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against BYU Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Conway, S.C.
AP Photo/Richard Shiro

Kalani Sitake, Isaiah Kaufusi and Tyler Allgeier didn’t come right out and say it in their postgame comments after No. 13 BYU lost 22-17 Saturday to No. 18 Coastal Carolina, but bouncing back this week is going to be extremely difficult for the Cougars after their perfect season was ruined at Brooks Stadium in Conway, South Carolina.

That one is going to sting for a long, long time. It was death by a thousand paper cuts, as undefeated Coastal methodically, yet creatively, played keep-away with the football and claimed its 10th victory while handing the Cougars their first defeat.

Coastal’s longest play was 20 yards.

Calling it one of the most disappointing losses in program history might be a stretch, but it won’t be forgotten soon, Sitake and the players said after emerging from a disconsolate locker room.

“It is definitely up there. I don’t know if I can give you a numerical answer, where it is at, but it definitely was one of the game where I wish we would have played better,” Kaufusi said, fighting back tears. “It wasn’t really the outcome that we wanted, but it was definitely a game I will remember forever, the way that the team came together and played together.”

The Cougars didn’t play horribly, as the final statistics showed. They made more big offensive plays, out-gained the Chants by 39 yards, and committed just one turnover that really hurt — the fumble by Allgeier on the first play of their second possession of the second half. The other turnover was an interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half.

It’s just that Coastal played better, Sitake pointed out five times after the three hour, 20-minute game.

“They earned the win,” he said.

Ironically, BYU has been one of the least-penalized teams in the country this season, ranking ninth nationally with just 4.2 per game. But the Cougars committed two costly holding penalties at the beginning and end of the game that ultimately spelled doom.

What if Neil Pau’u’s 90-yard catch-and-run hadn’t been called back? What if BYU’s final drive that ended at the 1 when Dax Milne was stopped by freshman Mateo Sudipo wasn’t pushed back 9 yards before it got started?

Those are questions that will haunt the Cougars the rest of the way, especially if they defeat San Diego State on Saturday (8 p.m. MST, ESPN2) and win a bowl game. The loss probably makes it less likely that BYU will pursue a game on Dec. 19, although Sitake has said he would like to play 12 regular-season games, if at all possible.

But knocking off the 4-3 Aztecs won’t be easy. San Diego State isn’t flashy, but can run the ball and control the clock effectively, the formula the Chants used to keep Zach Wilson and company off the field for all but 22 minutes and 9 seconds.

“Just keep loving us, keep believing in us,” is the message Allgeier, who ran for 106 yards and a touchdown, said he wanted to convey to the fans after the bitter defeat. “This loss is hard for everyone, but as a team we played our butts off. We played our hearts out. We just got the short end of the stick. We have to learn from our mistakes and come out thinking we are 0-0 on Monday.”

The Aztecs, who shut down the Cougars 13-3 last November, defeated Colorado State 29-17 Saturday, holding the 1-3 Rams scoreless in the second half.

SDSU got its fourth win with special teams — a 93-yard kickoff return and a 90-yard punt return for touchdowns. Quarterback Jordon Brookshire made his first start and was 14 of 24 for 130 yards and a touchdown.

“We are looking forward to bouncing back and getting a better performance next week,” Sitake said. “The way that we react to this is going to really determine a lot of big things for them and their future. … They are going to have to lean on each other. We have to really regroup as a team and believe in each other more. There is no finger pointing or anything like that.”

Kaufusi, who finished with seven tackles, said the Cougars backed up their statement that they would be willing to play anybody, anywhere, anytime by taking on the challenge of traveling across the country on two days notice and facing one of the most difficult offenses to defend in the country.

“I love my team, man,” he said. “Love these guys, love what we stand for. Who we stand for. The pandemic has taught us to not take things for granted. It is just a blessing to be out there with my guys, my brothers. It changed my life.”