BYU football: Did Puka Nacua’s game-winning TD catch save Cougars’ season?

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BOISE — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake left little doubt about his admiration for star receiver Puka Nacua after the junior transfer from Washington caught the game-winning touchdown in the Cougars’ 31-28 victory over Boise State on Saturday night.

“He is one of the best players in college football,” Sitake said.

Few would argue after the performance Nacua put on in front of 36,641 at Albertsons Stadium after the Cougars won for the second straight time on the unique blue turf, adding to their 51-17 win in 2020.

“That is a dream come true. Those are moments that we live for. I have been dreaming about that stuff since I was a little kid.” — BYU receiver Puka Nacua.

Nacua not only caught the 6-yard toss from Jaren Hall with 1:46 remaining to give the Cougars a three-point lead, but he got the winning drive started with a 27-yard reception.

“Just really happy that our offensive staff used him correctly and allowed Jaren to spread the ball out,” Sitake said. “We kept them on their heels just by playing balanced football.”

Nacua had a career-high 14 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns. The 14 catches tied Jay Miller, Phil Odle and Reno Mahe for third-most in school history for a single game.

It was Nacua’s third 100-yard game in the last four as the Cougars racked up 377 passing yards on a Boise State defense that was allowing just 133.6 per game.

“We had some options, but I think Jaren just took the first one he liked the most, which is just go to Puka,” Sitake said of the touchdown pass that Nacua made, then somehow got a toe in bounds — after a lengthy replay review, officials ruled — and just might have gotten BYU into a bowl game.

The Cougars (5-5) will go after their sixth victory to get bowl eligible in two weeks against Utah Tech.

“He attracts so much attention that it opens things up for everybody else,” Sitake said of a unit that was missing Gunner Romney (kidney) and Kody Epps (shoulder).

“The receivers have done a great job. Those guys do a great job of blocking downfield. I don’t think people understand the value of our team blocking downfield, and Puka is leading the charge.”

Keanu Hill (four catches, 23 yards), Chase Roberts (two catches, 38 yards) and Brayden Cosper (two catches, 34 yards) also contributed mightily, along with a player only diehard BYU fans have probably heard about.

Running back Hinckley Ropati caught three passes for 82 yards, including a screen pass that went for a 48-yard touchdown, and rushed five times for 28 yards.

Nacua makes it all go, and when Hall saw the receiver had single coverage on the outside, he knew that was where he was going with the ball.

“That is a dream come true. Those are moments that we live for,” Nacua said. “I have been dreaming about that stuff since I was a little kid. Fourth and goal.

“They came to me earlier in that drive and I left Jaren out there to dry. I didn’t make the play. The corner made a good play on the ball, but I appreciate coach (Roderick) and Jaren for trusting me.”

Nacua deflected the praise to Hall, saying he has taken the burden of reviving the offense on his shoulders by running the ball more and being more patient in the pocket.

“When the ball is in No. 3’s hands, he has been airing it out, and it has been fun to see (receivers) out there making plays,” Nacua said.

“Our wide receiver group, we have taken the burden of trying to move our offense and keep us going, and it has continued out through all these games. Now we gotta finish the season strong. Shout out (to receivers coach) Fesi (Sitake).”

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