Utah BYU Football

A crowd holds BYU head coach Kalani Sitake after his team defeated Utah earlier this season.

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The odds of BYU's football program having some early-season struggles seemed likely after the Cougars lost 13 starters from their 2020 team, which went 11-1 and dominated UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Of those 13 starters, 12 caught the attention of NFL teams as five of them were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, while an additional seven signed as undrafted free agents. Indeed, it appeared the Cougars might be in rebuilding mode, but that has not been the case.

Instead, BYU is currently one of 26 undefeated FBS teams through the first four full weeks of the '21 campaign. The Cougars, ranked 13th in the most recent AP Poll, built some momentum with back-to-back-to-back victories over Pac-12 Conference foes Arizona, Utah — their first over the Utes in 10 games — and Arizona State. BYU then held off South Florida, 35-27, last Saturday for its first back-to-back 4-0 starts in the program's rich history.

Up next for the Cougars is their first true road contest of the season and it's against a long-standing rival. Utah State will host BYU on Friday night — the 90th installment of a series that started in 1922.

“Looking forward to this week,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “It's a rivalry game against Utah State in Logan. We missed it last year so I’m happy we can get it going this year. I have tons of respect for the fan base and the program. I’ve been really impressed with my interactions with the team’s head coach, Blake. From what I have seen so far on film, they’ve added some new faces to the roster. They have a lot of explosive athletes. It will be a fun game to go up there on Friday night.”

Likewise, Anderson spoke highly of the Cougars during his weekly press conference. BYU lost a lot of talent, starting with quarterback Zach Wilson, the second overall pick of the aforementioned NFL Draft, but the cupboard clearly wasn't bare.

The Cougars welcomed back a star running back in Tyler Allgeier, two proven weapons at wide receiver in Gunner Romney and Neil Pau'u, and a playmaking tight end in the 6-foot-6 Isaac Rex. Additionally, BYU added a pair of renowned wideouts in brothers Samson and Puka Nacua, who transferred from Utah and Washington, respectively. BYU's back-up tailback, Lopini Katoa, is also a proven commodity as he has appeared in 38 games during his time in Provo and has contributed with 22 touchdowns.

All four of these wideouts can create mismatches with their height and athleticism. Pau’u and Samson Nacua are 6-4, while Romney and Puka Nacua, are 6-2.

Allgeier, who has very good speed for a bigger tailback (220 pounds), rushed for 1,130 yards and 12 TDs a year ago. He has 346 yards this season. Katoa has chipped in with 135 yards on 29 carries this fall.

Even without Wilson, the Cougars still had two viable options at signal caller in Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney, who both looked sharp in BYU's 42-14 triumph over USU at Maverik Stadium in November of 2019. Hall, a bona fide dual-threat QB, started the first three games and was injured late against ASU. Romney took Hall's place in the starting lineup against USF and completed 20 of 25 passes for 305 yards and a trio of TDs.

Sitake is confident Hall “will be available” Friday night.

Anderson is very well aware of all these athletes, but was adamant when talking about what he feels is the linchpin of the Cougars’ offense, and that is their offensive line. Despite losing a trio of O-linemen, the Cougars have shined at that position as they have only allowed three sacks. Thanks in large part to its prowess in the trenches, BYU is arguably the most balanced offense USU will face this fall.

“I think it starts with how good they are up front," Anderson said. “I think their smallest dude is 6-5 and about 300 (pounds) ... Just getting to any of the guys you just mentioned, either getting to the quarterback in a timely fashion where you're not covering forever, or being able to fill the gaps when they put two tight ends on the field with that massive offensive line, I mean, they present a million problems. (It's) clearly the best built football team we (will) have played.

“It will just ramp up another notch this week and (it's a) huge challenge to be able to match up against big, tall wideouts, two different quarterbacks that can both deliver the ball. But I think it all starts up front with the best looking O-line we'll see probably all year and one of the best O-lines in the country.”

BYU’s two returning starters in the offensive line are 6-8 left tackle Blake Freeland and right guard Joe Tukuatu. Harris LaChance, BYU’s 6-8 right tackle, was shaken up last week and was on crutches in the second but, but Sitaki said he is “expecting Harris to make a recovery and be with us this week.”

"They’ve been the reason why we’ve won,” said Pau’u who currently leads BYU this season in receptions (18), receiving yards (232) and receiving TDs (four). “I know a lot of the offensive and defensive line don’t get a lot of pics and posts like some of the skills do on offense and defense. But, that’s where games are won. They’re won literally because of them. You saw in Arizona State and Utah we couldn’t get the passing game, or we couldn’t get it going as we did this past Saturday. So we were able to run the ball, find certain lanes, and Tyler was able to hit, and that’s all created because of them. I know this past Saturday they took a lot of pictures of the big fellas, and the big fellas were able to post it on their Instagrams, and feel the love as well.”

The Cougars have displayed a bend-but-don’t-break mentality so far on defense. BYU has allowed 389.5 yards an outing — the Cougars average 386.5 on offense — but only 19.3 yards per game. BYU’s defense has forced eight turnovers — four interceptions by four different players, and four fumble recoveries — a big reason why the team is plus-6 in turnover margin.

BYU lost a lot of experienced performers on defense, but welcomed back three returning starting at linebacker in Payton Wilgar, Max Tooley and Keenan Pili. Unfortunately for the Cougars, Pili, an emerging star, blew out his knee early on against ASU. Pili racked up 31 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss, in essentially two games this season.

Wilgar, who has made 26 career starts, currently paces the Cougars with 6.0 tackles for loss. He was the team’s third-leading tackler a year ago with 57. Tooley has one of BYU’s four INTs this season.

Another returning starter is cornerback D’Angelo Mandell, who has played in 37 games for the Cougars. BYU’s other starting corner, Isaiah Herron, missed the USF game with an injury, but should be available Friday.

Two other BYU starters that were sidelined against USF and will likely return to action against USU are defensive end Tyler Batty and defensive tackle Atunaisa Mahe.

When the Cougars go to the nickel package, their starter at that position will be USU transfer Jakob Robinson, who has contributed with 10 tackles and one pass broken up in four games. The Cougars have another Aggie transfer in offensive lineman Hunter Hill.

BYU has done a good job of spreading out the wealth on defense in ’21 as it already has 14 players with double-digit tackles.

The Cougars didn’t give up more than 19 points in a game until last weekend against USF. The Bulls scored 21 of their 27 points after halftime and were able to keep BYU’s defense on the field for most of the half, thanks in large part to dual-threat signal caller Timmy McClain. USF dominated the time of possession battle, 35:37 to 24:23.

Nevertheless, it was another Cougar win. BYU, which jumped out to a 21-0 lead against USF, is one of just six FBS teams that have yet to trail in a game this season.

“I think a lot of guys were disappointed after the game,” Sitake said. “They wanted better results. After watching the film, I’m actually pretty excited, even though there were a lot of mistakes made. The effort and the energy was there. I saw a lot of guys just trying to do too much and not focusing on their 1/11th. The mistakes are very fixable. They just need to be a little more disciplined in their assignments.”

The Cougars have one of the best kickers in the nation in 2020 Lou Groza finalist Jake Oldroyd, but he has been limited by a back injury. Oldroyd has been successful on his last 15 field goal attempts, which matches a school record.

Ryan Rehkow, BYU’s punter, has been outstanding as he ranks third nationally with an impressive 51.3 average on 17 punts.

Former Sky View standout Caleb Christensen is BYU’s primary kickoff returner, but he was injured against USF and is “highly doubtful” for Friday’s game, Sitake said.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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