BYU shows fight in 4-game skid with win over Boise State
What you have to love about BYU’s 31-28 win over Boise State is the situational festivities of the moment at Albertsons Stadium on Saturday.
Here you got a Kalani Sitake-coached football team that came out of the ropes and rose above a cloud of criticism and second guesses.
Sitake had an army of keyboard warriors hacking away at everything from his team culture, team heart, team talent, plans, employee credibility, even his intelligence.
People mocked Sitake on bulletin boards associated with BYU. The scorn, mockery and ridicule took on everything from his facial expressions to his postgame quotes during a four-game losing streak.
On Saturday, Sitake had the last laugh.
He made his team bear down despite the warts and create beauty.
Jet-skiing over a toxic lake that was thrown his way, he humbly strutted his way to the bus.
Sitake triggered receiver Puka Nacua on the Broncos. Boise State’s defense knew he was coming, but it couldn’t stop him when it mattered. His energy and competitive spirit lifted his teammates, and in the end he delivered the game-winner.
But Sitake has to figure all that out, even with Nacua’s 14 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns.
Sitake remained balanced over the past month. He was patient. He taught faith and encouraged. He asked for energy as he and his staff were motivated.
And yes, Sitake loved, as he asked a team that went to zero in October to learn as devastating injuries occurred almost daily.
Against a Boise State team at a place the Cougars were 1-5 all time, Sitake got his beleaguered defense to make enough big stops, got a passing game out of starting quarterback Jaren Hall, and watched his offense score every second-and-a-half possession.
He also pulled back the curtain on junior college transfer running back Hinckley Ropati, who proved to be a Bronco defense-eating script artist for offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick.
The 48-yard TD screen from Hall to Ropati was a perfect call by Roderick as Boise State sent six defenders after Hall with two others hugging the line as spies at the line of scrimmage in a blitz call.
In short, Sitake got career games out of Hall, Nacua and Ropati.
Nacua hauled in a twisting, one-handed fourth-down touchdown pass with just over a minute remaining, lifting the Cougars over Boise State. It snapped a four-game losing streak for the Cougars and clearly set up a trip to a bowl game in December.
Nacua’s catch was a fade route. BYU football has had a lifetime of failing fade routes for decades.
Not this time.
On that play, Nacua was robbed. It was solid, rough pass interference by the defender, and there was no flag.
Nacua’s catch from Hall will go down as one of the most dramatic receptions in school history.
“It’s the kind of catch you live for, the kind you dream about as a little kid, playing with the game on the line,” he told BYUtv afterward.
The play ended on a receiving touchdown on fourth-and-8 by the Cougars’ Jakob Robinson.
The Cougars now get their first week off of the season. In Boise, BYU’s defense did not have starters Max Tooley, Payton Wilgar and Chaz Ah You or safety Malik Moore. It is a team that has started 42 players this season, third most in the country. A rest is a good thing.
Hall, who has led BYU to wins over rivals Utah, Utah State and Boise State the past two seasons, amassed 459 total yards. He did a hard-hat, blue-collar job against what was one of the nation’s best defenses in a myriad of categories.
“It was a tough game and I was proud our team stayed with it and won,” said Sitake, who said he sees growth regardless of wins, and that’s what’s most important to him when the Cougars have navigated losses.
“I liked how the defense kept their heads up through some setbacks, like not converting on some fourth downs and having some interceptions. They continued to play regardless of what happened.
Sitake said he continued to believe in his defenders and told them to keep working hard to get better. In other words, no magic, no secret formula, just believing and making everyone work hard.
Boise State coach Andy Avalos said it was difficult for his team to get things going when it didn’t have the ball enough in the first half.
“We played aggressively in this game and sometimes it didn’t pay off,” he said. “There is so much we can learn from this game and all our goals are still there for us to achieve.”
Avalos, whose birthday was Saturday, said the game didn’t come down to Nacua’s TD catch. He said BYU caught his defense scrambling to stop the vertical play when Ropati beat them with the catch and run screen play.
“We lost,” he said. “It wasn’t one play.”