UMass (3-7) at BYU (3-8)
Saturday, 1 p.m. MDT LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
PROVO — Late last Friday night in Las Vegas, the happy scene at Sam Boyd Stadium was a familiar one for BYU.
The Cougars had just improved to 9-0 all-time against UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium with a 31-21 victory. Over the past two decades, BYU has also won three Las Vegas Bowls and a Western Athletic Conference championship on that field.
But this time, the circumstances were different.
Cougar players, coaches and fans celebrated the win — their first road victory in more than one year, since defeating Cincinnati on Nov. 5, 2016 — with a lot of smiles and hugs both inside and outside the locker room.
But, of course, this celebration wasn't for winning a bowl game or a conference title. This is, after all, a team that is 3-8 on the season.
“Our record is what it is,” said safety Micah Hannemann. “We’re just playing every single game, trying to have fun. It’s always good to have a ‘W.’ This win feels good.”
“Winning can heal a lot of wounds. We were wounded and having problems, just trying to get wins,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “This is a good step. Now we need to get the next one. I’m proud of the way our guys have played. The effort has been there all year long. It’s nice to put it all together.”
“We’ve had a lot of challenges and disappointments this year,” said quarterback Joe Critchlow, who made his first career start Friday. “To be able to come into Vegas, on the road, get this big win and then celebrate in the locker room, everyone was amped.”
Now BYU has two games remaining, starting with the home finale when the Cougars host UMass Saturday (1 p.m., MST, BYUtv) on Senior Day.
“It felt good to get our first road win,” said running back Squally Canada, who ran for a career-high 213 yards against the Rebels. “But we’ve still got two more games. I’m just trying to enjoy these last two games with the seniors. I’ll probably never play with Tejan (Koroma) and Tuni (Kanuch) and Keyon (Norman) and all of the other seniors, Jonah (Trinnaman), and the defensive seniors. I’m just trying to enjoy these last two games with them and make memories.”
The Minutemen are also struggling with a 3-7 record but they’ve won three out of their last four games, including a 44-31 victory over Maine last Saturday.
As for BYU, the goal is to keep improving and keep winning.
“We definitely won (Friday) but there were a lot of opportunities that I can learn from and a lot of mistakes that I made that I can grow from,” said Critchlow, who completed 14 of 22 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. “Granted, this is my first start and I have a lot more time here and I hope to be able to improve on that and continue to get better and better.”
Unlike most of this season, the Cougars showed some resiliency and resolve Friday on both sides of the ball.
Early in the second quarter of a scoreless game, for example, UNLV drove deep into BYU territory and seemed poised to take an early lead when safety Zayne Anderson intercepted quarterback Johnny Stanton in the end zone.
“That was huge,” Hannemann said. “Coming out of that drive without them scoring any points was one of the biggest plays for sure, momentum-wise.”
On the Cougars’ ensuing series, Critchlow led BYU on an 80-yard touchdown drive to go up 7-0.
Early in the third quarter, the Cougars grabbed a 21-7 lead.
“Overall, it’s easy to play defense when the offense is doing good like that,” Hannemann said. “It was fun to play defense (Friday) The whole mentality is different when you’re playing with a nice lead. When you get more break on the sideline when the offense is converting third downs and getting first downs, it feels like now that we’ve played like that, why haven’t we been playing like that the whole season?”
Early in the fourth quarter, the Rebels cut the deficit to 28-21. But the Cougar offense added a field goal and the defense got key stops.
“We’re in Vegas and people came out more motivated, more excited. Then we kept that going,” Hannemann said. “One of our problems has been when something bad happens, we lose momentum and kind of give up. There were still things that happened that we had to fight through. We kept that momentum.”
And in a season like this one, no wonder the Cougars celebrated Friday night in Las Vegas.