PROVO — Before the season, BYU's game against California was seen as a good litmus test for the Cougars with their new-look coaching staff and offensive approach.
If that's still true, Saturday night's contest showed there is still plenty of work for the BYU program, as the Golden Bears walked out of LaVell Edwards Stadium with a 21-18 win.
"Congratulations to Cal. They deserved to win that game. We didn't help ourselves by making some errors and having some drive-killers. We have to be better," BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.
One thing kept this from being a failing grade: BYU's final-minute touchdown that, combined with a two-point conversion, pulled the Cougars within three points with 51 seconds remaining.
After the first half, the running game bogged down. The Cougars finished with six net rushing yards in the second half, after 85 in the first half. It was a polar opposite of last week, when BYU was able to wear down Arizona with its run game in the second half. Squally Canada, who had 56 rushing yards in the first half, finished with 49 yards on the game.
The passing game was also ineffective, as Tanner Mangum was 22 of 41 for 196 yards and a touchdown pass to fullback Brayden El-Bakri in the final minute. What was especially costly were two Mangum interceptions thrown in the fourth quarter, the first after BYU took over possession at the Cal 16 following a fumble recovery.
"We feel like we can get stronger and own the line of scrimmage, there’s no proof of that from the second half in the run game and there’s no proof of that even in the pass game," Sitake said.
The Cougars' receivers also struggled. One play that was indicative of those struggles came late in the first half, when Mangum threw long on a pass to Dylan Collie. Collie, who had a step on his defender, simply dropped a pass that would have set the Cougars up with excellent field position in Cal territory with more than two minutes to drive down and possibly take the lead.
Despite the Cougars' defense and special teams forcing three turnovers, the BYU offense never was able to capitalize on those takeaways. The Cougars, who finished with 287 total offensive yards, were also 6 of 17 on third downs and 1 of 3 on fourth downs, including two failed fourth-down attempts in Cal territory in the first half.
The Cougars' defense found ways to keep them in the game, though like the offense there were enough miscues that were too much to overcome.
Missed assignments led to Cal converting 8 of 15 third downs, and a big 52-yard touchdown pass for the Golden Bears early in the third quarter that gave the visitor the momentum and a double-digit lead.
Cal quarterback Brandon McIlwain particularly hurt the Cougars, rushing for a team-high 74 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 38 yards and, combining with starting quarterback Chase Garbers, the Golden Bears threw for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
"We played well but we didn’t play our game. We have some things to fix. We do believe that we’re a better team," BYU linebacker Butch Pau'u said.
On the plus side, BYU's defense forced a pair of turnovers that kept the team in the game. Dayan Ghanwoloku picked up a fumble with 10:07 left in the third quarter and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown. On the Golden Bears' next possession, Cal was moving the ball before Isaiah Kaufusi made his first career interception, setting BYU up with the ball at its own 43.
There wasn't a lot to analyze for BYU on special teams against Cal. The onside kick in the final minute wasn't close to being recovered by BYU, and one week after Michael Shelton had a punt return that set up to a touchdown drive against Arizona, the return game netted BYU little against Cal. The Golden Bears also did little on returns.
What brings up the grade for the Cougars is Ghanwoloku recovering a muffed punt inside the Cal 20 early in the fourth quarter — though BYU failed to score after Mangum's first interception — and Skyler Southam hit his first career field goal for the Cougars, a 36-yarder in the second quarter.
Tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau said postgame he felt the Cougars lost this game three days earlier, indicating the preparation just wasn't there. The play on the field attested to that, as BYU struggled with efficiency in multiple facets of the game.
"We shouldn’t be making any of these mistakes or miscommunications on the field, so we can’t give up layups, we can’t give up free points," Sitake said.
Up next for the Cougars is a matchup against top 5 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium next Saturday.