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BYU football: Left-for-dead Cougars rise up, rally past Boise State

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BOISE — For more than 58 minutes Saturday night on the blue turf of Albertsons Stadium, white-clad BYU looked as if it was trying to invent another way to lose a football game — not just here in what was a house of horrors for the Cougars until two years ago, but in this entirely forgettable season.

But some how, some way, coach Kalani Sitake’s beleaguered crew managed to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat — after doing the opposite last week — and upset Boise State 31-28 in front of an announced crowd of 36,641, snap its four-game losing streak and end the Broncos’ four-game winning streak.

As Sitake’s seven-year tenure goes, it was one of the most improbable victories, right up there with the road wins at Wisconsin and Tennessee and the 2021 season-opening win over Utah.

Raise your hand if you saw this coming.

“There were plenty of mistakes made, but I think we were able to overcome them because of our belief and our trust in each other.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake.

Yeah, right.

“It just felt good to play BYU football and get a win and get back to our identity, who we are,” Sitake said. “Overall I thought it was a good game in all three phases.”

The Cougars (5-5 and suddenly on the cusp of being bowl eligible with FCS Utah Tech visiting in two weeks) talk a lot about playing complementary football, and for once this season, they actually did it.

When the offense repeatedly misfired and blew golden scoring opportunities throughout the first half, the defense bowed up and held Boise State to 79 yards in the first half.

When the defense — playing without two starting linebackers — tired in the second half and started allowing the Broncos to breeze easily down the field with not much resistance, the offense picked it up and scored on every possession save the final one when it went into victory formation.

“There were plenty of mistakes made, but I think we were able to overcome them because of our belief and our trust in each other,” Sitake said.

Aside from a Boise State blowout of BYU in 2014, Cougars-Broncos games always deliver the goods, and this one was no different.

And it became apparent that however the final matchup in this intense Intermountain Region rivalry ended, one fanbase would go home blaming the referees and one would be crowing about playing the superior game when it mattered most.

On this chilly night in the Treasure Valley, BYU was on the latter end of that argument, for only the second time here.

That’s because the game-winning touchdown, Puka Nacua’s bobbling, twisting, one-toe-inbounds catch with one minute, 46 seconds remaining, had to be reviewed by replay officials after only one zebra signaled touchdown. 

After a lengthy delay, Boise State faithful rained boos down at Albertsons when the announcement came that the call on the field stood.

“It wasn’t the best look (for quarterback Jaren Hall) throwing that go ball, but he threw it up to me and that’s my job to go up there and make plays, and I came down with it,” Nacua said.

Don’t worry, BYU fans also had a bone to pick with the replay officials, who said BYU running back Lopini Katoa didn’t score on the final play of the first half from the 6-inch line, thus denying the Cougars a chance to take a halftime lead. 

“Maybe we should have a camera on the goal line at every game,” Sitake said, sarcastically, perhaps remembering an apparent Zach Wilson touchdown run in the 2019 Hawaii Bowl.

“That probably would be really helpful.”

So BYU’s offense held up its end of the deal, but this one was far from over. Remarkably, the Cougars put up 532 yards and 27 first downs against a Boise State defense that was No. 2 in the entire country in total defense, yielding just 232.3 yards per game.

The Broncos took over at their 25 with 1:46 left, having been on 78- and 65-yard touchdown drives on their previous two possessions.

A BYU defense that was so awful in October that Sitake had to take over playcalling duties and reassign at least three assistants to different roles was in redshirt freshman Taylen Green’s sights.

After an incomplete pass, a holding penalty on Boise’s Will Farrar — who had gotten away with a takedown on the previous drive — another incomplete pass and a 12-yard reception, the Broncos faced a 4th and 8 from their 27.

Cougars defensive back Jakob Robinson, the hero of last November’s defensive stand to preserve the win over USC, did it again. He broke up a pass intended for Latrell Caples, and the Cougars could start celebrating the end of their longest losing streak since 2017.

Boise State finished with 324 yards, below its 360 average.

“I don’t know if it is anything I am doing,” Sitake said of the defense. “Just trusting the players more and believing in them. Just trying to play fundamental, sound football. We didn’t miss as many tackles as before, and we just have to keep working on that.”

Ben Bywater and Keenan Pili had six tackles apiece, while Tyler Batty, Gabe Summers and Lorenzo Fauatea recorded tackles for loss, and Kaleb Hayes, Robinson and Pepe Tanuvasa had pass breakups. 

Offensively, Hall was good when he needed to be, after a shaky first half when he was intercepted twice — although one wasn’t totally his fault because it deflected off Isaac Rex’s hands.

Hall want 29 of 42 for a career-best 377 passing yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 158.5, but he did as much damage with his feet.

He ran 12 times for 82 yards and a TD, picking up where he left off last week in the 27-24 loss to ECU.

His 459 yards of total offense is also a career high.

“I think we just want to see Jaren do his thing. I don’t think he needs me or (Aaron Roderick) or anyone else to tell him. He knows exactly what he can do, and we are just letting him do it,” Sitake said.

“I think that’s the key. I mean, you just have to trust the players. I think he did a great job tonight. We just need to trust him more.”

The Cougars dominated the first half and had nothing to show for it, thanks to a half-dozen or so incredibly costly mistakes, some by the players, some by the coaches, and one, perhaps, by the officials at the end of the half (a replay from the end zone seemed to show Katoa breaking the plane with the ball).

BYU had more first downs, 16, than Boise State had rushing yards, 14, in the first half; the Cougars had 236 yards of offense, the Broncos 79.

Yet the halftime score was 7-7.

The Cougars took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards for a score, taking more than six minutes off the clock with a nice mixture of passes and runs.

On its second possession, BYU drove to the Boise State 33, but Hall was stuffed on third-and-1 and Katoa was stuffed on fourth-and-1. When Katoa was stopped, it was the 16th time in their last 18 tries on fourth down that the Cougars came up short.

Boise State quickly made BYU pay for the short-yardage failures that have become a theme of BYU’s season; the Broncos went 67 yards in six plays to knot the score at 7-7. Caples got wide open on a wheel route, and Green found him for a 16-yard TD.

BYU drove into Boise State territory again, only to have Hall get intercepted by J.L. Skinner.

Two possessions later, BYU again got the ball inside the Boise State 20, only to have Rodney Robinson get the pick that marked Hall’s first multi-interception game since USC last November.

Rather than take a knee with 23 seconds left, the Broncos tried to move the ball. But Pili forced a fumble, and Batty recovered, giving BYU the ball at the Boise State 10 with 14 seconds left. Nacua caught a pass within inches of the goal line with about 6 seconds left, but BYU didn’t get a timeout, for some reason, until :01 showed on the clock.

Of course, all that was forgotten when Nacua’s touchdown was upheld, a phenomenal catch where four years ago Zach Wilson was stuffed on fourth down with the game on the line in an eventual 21-16 loss.

“Yeah, we are one step closer to extending the season and getting those valuable practices,” Sitake said, when asked what the locker room scene was like. “And that is important to developing these young men and so that is the thing.

“Our players, when they were going through that slump, we just reminded them that winning is hard and not to ever take it for granted,” Sitake continued. “We told them to just remember this feeling and stay humble and grateful and let’s get the next one.”

Because wins on the Blue are really that rare.

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