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Here’s BYU’s next big challenge after upsetting Utah

Now ranked No. 23 in both major polls, undefeated Cougars will play host to No. 19 Arizona State on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall gets pushed by Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III.
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall gets pushed by Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III during the second half of an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Having successfully navigated what was supposed to be a “trap game” in Week 1 against Arizona and then exorcising the demons of nine straight losses to rival Utah in Week 2, the BYU Cougars face an even tougher task this week, strange as that may sound.

How BYU handles its success in the next few days will go a long way toward determining how the rest of the season goes, coach Kalani Sitake said after the Cougars stunned Utah 26-17 in front of a sellout crowd of 63,470 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“Now we have the tough task of learning when we win. That isn’t easy,” Sitake said. “I think we are up for the challenge.”

In the middle of a three-game homestand, the Cougars (2-0) play host to their third straight Pac-12 opponent at 8:15 p.m. MDT Saturday as Arizona State (2-0) rides into Provo.

It will be a battle of ranked teams, as BYU was ranked No. 23 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls released Sunday and ASU stayed in the rankings at No. 19 and No. 21 after dumping UNLV 37-10 in Tempe, Arizona, Saturday night.

Arizona State is a two-point favorite in its first visit to Provo since 1998. The Cougars knocked off the No. 14 Sun Devils 26-6 that year.

Can they spring another upset?

Not if they don’t put the emotionally draining win over the Utes behind them quickly, Sitake said in the wee hours Sunday morning after delirious Cougar fans stormed the field to celebrate their first win over Utah since 2009.

That won’t be easy.

“We still have some things to improve on,” Sitake said. “We gotta enjoy this win, but we have to put it away quickly and get ready for the next one.”

When you beat your bitter rival for the first time since 2009, nit-picking on how it was done rings kind of hollow, but one issue in particular surfaced in both of BYU’s wins: sloppy tackling.

Utah’s Micah Bernard picked up 146 yards on 12 carries for a 12.2 average and broke several tackles on his TD run of 22 yards and his 50-yard scamper late in the third quarter that turned the tide after the Cougars took a 23-7 lead.

“I thought it was a perfect game plan. We didn’t execute the best. There were moments where we could have tackled better, still,” Sitake said. “I think a lot of that had to do with the athletes we were trying to tackle.

“Utah made some great runs. We just got to keep working on staying on our feet. I think we got a little gassed out and thought we could take down great athletes by just throwing our body at them. We will get that fixed.”

There was also an issue with penalties, especially in the first half when the Cougars were flagged three times for unsportsmanlike conduct. Linebackers Max Tooley and Keenan Pili made late hits out of bounds, and receiver and former Ute Samson Nacua removed his helmet after catching his first touchdown pass as a Cougar, and second in the rivalry game.

“The ones that bother me the most aren’t the holding calls and stuff like that,” Sitake said. “The ones that are uncharacteristic of what BYU is about — the late hits, the unsportsmanlike conducts — are (troubling). That is on me. That is what I have to do better as a head coach, to make sure we are more disciplined in that aspect.”

Sitake was happy with how much cleaner the Cougars played in the second half while still maintaining their intensity.

“I loved the energy from our sideline as well as guys on the field,” he said.

Sitake also loved the way the Cougars won in the trenches, which has been a point of emphasis since he arrived at BYU in 2016, a philosophy he learned from Utes coach Kyle Whittingham himself.

“Everyone knows Utah is a physical, strong team,” Sitake said, “and I mean, everyone knows my history. I coached there for 10 years. I know what they do. It was back and forth. It was a slugfest. That’s probably the best way to describe it. We just made a few more plays.”

The Cougars were credited with 219 rushing yards, Utah 193. BYU sacked Utes QB Charlie Brewer twice, with Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili, Uriah Leiataua and Caden Haws assisting one of the other three; BYU QB Jaren Hall rushed for 92 yards and wasn’t sacked.

“They beat us at the line of scrimmage, which I would have bet my house going in that we would not lose the line of scrimmage,” Whittingham said. “My house isn’t worth that much so it’s not that big of a deal, but I never would have seen that coming.”

When it comes to defending opposing quarterbacks, the Cougars take another step up Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN) when ASU visits.

Junior quarterback Jayden Daniels is a true dual-threat guy. He rushed for a career-high 122 yards as the Devils got it going late to put away UNLV. It was the second 100-yard rushing game of Daniels’ career.

The Californian completed 20 of 29 passes for 175 yards and two TDs and was intercepted once by the Rebels, who were in the game until late in the third quarter despite having only 19 total yards in the second half.