BYU escapes Las Vegas with a win, but gritty Arizona made the Cougars earn it
Cougars were rolling with an 18-point lead before adversity struck, but they overcame it just enough to grab a 24-16 win at Allegiant Stadium in the Vegas Kickoff Classic
Kalani Sitake has said for months now that his BYU football team would face more adversity this season than it did last year, and he was correct right off the bat.
The Cougars stumbled mightily late Saturday night after building an 18-point lead in the inaugural Vegas Kickoff Classic, but recovered just enough to hold off Arizona 24-16 in front of 54,541 fans at Allegiant Stadium, the largest crowd to ever view a college sporting event in the state of Nevada.
Pretty, this win wasn’t. But a win is a win, and the Cougars (1-0) can now turn their full attention to rival Utah after denying the Wildcats a breakthrough.
Arizona dropped its 13th-straight game, and hasn’t won in 700 days. But the Wildcats came just close enough to winning, and moved the ball well enough almost the entire game, to cause BYU fans to wonder if their Cougars might be a little overrated.
“There are a lot of things that we can fix. Open-field tackling is one of them.” — BYU defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua.
That, or Arizona is underrated under new coach Jedd Fisch. Time will tell on that; The Cats host San Diego State next week.
At least, BYU’s defense — playing without dinged up linebacker Max Tooley and now, starting cornerback Keenan Ellis — has some work to do if it hopes to contain the Utes and Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer next week.
“We will just take this dub and go on,” said star BYU running back Tyler Allgeier, who picked up 94 hard-earned yards.
Thanks to a last-minute drive that resulted in a 37-yard field goal by Lucas Havrisik that made some people in this gambling town happy, and some not so happy, Arizona outgained BYU 426-368 and had 27 first downs to the Cougars’ 18.
The culprit was missed tackles — at least a dozen, by the count here — and the failure to cover receivers in the middle of the field.
“There are a lot of things that we can fix,” acknowledged BYU senior Lopa Leiataua. “Open-field tackling is one of them.”
Added Sitake: “Obviously, there are a lot of things we can improve on, but I was really proud of the fight from our team, to get the win.”
Arizona barely went with the two-quarterback system Fisch promised — Will Plummer’s played just briefly and was 2 of 3 for 9 yards. However, Washington State transfer Gunner Cruz picked apart the Cougars, completing 34 of 45 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown.
The Cougars did have four sacks, including a huge one by Tyler Batty that pushed the Cats back 17 yards and may or may not have been the reason a 44-yard field goal attempt by Tyler Loop was inches wide.
The big stand came after the 50,000 or so BYU fans in the building responded to Arizona’s fans by taking over in the noise department.
“Cougar Nation was killing it tonight, bro, especially for the defense,” Leiataua said.
Linebacker Keenan Pili had a monster game for the Cougars, making 17 tackles and a sack. Leiataua and Payton Wilgar also had sacks, despite BYU dropping into 8-man coverage much of the night.
“It was because of the other guys doing their jobs,” Pili said of his career night.
Hayden Livingston got the only turnover, snagging a backpedaling interception in the end zone to get the turnover belt that support staffer Jack Damuni came up with.
In becoming the first African American to start a BYU opener at quarterback, Jaren Hall was steady, but not spectacular. He finished 18 for 28 for 198 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He also ran five times for 36 yards.
He also made the play of the game, hitting Neil Pau’u on a beautiful 67-yard touchdown pass that, coupled with Lopini Katoa’s two-point conversion catch, gave the Cougars a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.
“I think it was a clean game overall from the offense,” Hall said.
The Cougars took a 14-3 lead into halftime, then took control after Leiataua’s sack on Arizona’s first possession of the second half. Thanks to a 39-yard scamper by Hall, the Cougars drove 80 yards and took a 21-3 lead on Pau’u’s second TD catch of the night.
“That’s a vet doing his thing, man,” Hall said of Pau’u’s game.
Wilgar’s sack in BYU territory pushed Arizona out of field goal range, but it unwittingly set up the play that flung momentum to the Wildcats’ favor, after BYU declined a delay of game penalty.
Punter Kyle Ostendorp pinned the Cougars inside their 1, and two later Katoa was tackled in the end zone for a UofA safety.
Tayvian Cunningham’s electric, hurdling return gave the Cats the ball in BYU territory, and three plays later it was ‘game on’ as Arizona’s BJ Casteel caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Cruz.
“It just seemed like they garnered some momentum and everything kinda flipped,” Sitake said. “That was the biggest swing in the game.”
A mental error forced the Cougars to go three-and-out on their next possession — they were hit with a delay of game penalty after the kickoff. That’s inexcusable.
But when the Cats were driving and threatening to tie it, Batty came up with the big sack
After the sack, the Cougars drove into Arizona territory, but had to settle for a field goal.
“We weren’t as crisp on offense as everyone says we should be,” Allgeier said.
Credit Sitake to have the confidence in his backup kicker, Justen Smith, to drill the 40-yarder, which was as ugly as the game itself, but found its way through the uprights. He said starting kicker Jake Oldroyd, the Groza Award finalist last year, couldn’t play due to an undisclosed injury.
“We were lucky that Justen was able to step in and make that,” Sitake said.
Hall settled down after a shaky first quarter. After connecting on just one of his first six passes, for 10 yards, he finished the first half completing nine of his next 10 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown.
That touchdown as a thing of beauty, a 67-yard strike to Pau’u, who got behind an Arizona defender and was hit in stride by Hall.
Hall’s first-half passer rating was 160.8; he finished at 147.3.
But it was good enough on a night where all kinds of things went wrong for the Cougars — mostly in the injury department.
A sobering moment occurred less than five minutes into the game, as the aforementioned Ellis lost consciousness after a collision with an Arizona defensive back.
The game was delayed for more than 20 minutes as Ellis was strapped to a stretcher and carted off the field.
At halftime, Sitake did not have an update on the junior from San Diego but said Ellis had regained consciousness.
“The kid wanted to get back in and play when he came to,” Sitake told KSL radio.
Later, BYU announced that Ellis had movement in his extremities and was responsive upon leaving the field. He was taken to UMC trauma center for observation. His CT scans were normal, but he was kept in the hospital overnight for observation.
“We got on each other’s shoulders and said, ‘Let’s do it for him,’” Pili said of the Cougars’ recovery from such an emotionally draining time in the game.
Receiver Gunner Romney left the game early with a leg injury and was on crutches the remainder of the game. Sitake said Romney would be evaluated Sunday. Leiataua missed some time but returned. Pau’u hobbled off the field late in the game.
As for the Nacua brothers, the coach said he “feels really good about the Nacuas for next week.” Samson Nacua recovered Arizona’s late onside kick “to win the game for us,” Sitake said.