PROVO — For the BYU football program, one measuring stick for progress this season would be returning to the postseason after posting a four-win campaign and staying home for the holidays a year ago.
The Cougars were halfway to achieving that goal in September by starting the season 3-1.
Now, their margin for error, in terms of becoming bowl eligible, is thin.
After suffering a gut-wrenching 21-16 loss to Boise State on the blue turf last Saturday night, BYU (4-5) needs two wins in its final three games.
Next up is a cross-country trip to Foxborough, Massachusetts, to face UMass next Saturday (10 a.m. MST, BYUtv) at Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots.
That will be followed by the home finale against New Mexico State (3-7) on Nov. 17 and the season-finale at arch-rival Utah (6-3) on Nov. 24. The Cougars haven’t won at Rice-Eccles Stadium since 2006 and they’ve dropped seven consecutive meetings against the Utes.
“Three games left and we’ve got to win the next one. That’s what our focus is on right now,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “It’s going to be a good test for us to go to UMass. We’ve got to improve on what we did (Saturday) and we’ll try to eliminate as many mistakes as possible.”
UMass (4-6) is also desperate for a win because it needs a victory to keep its own bowl hopes alive.
Last Saturday, the Minutemen outlasted Liberty in triple overtime, 62-59. They rolled up a school-record 777 yards of total offense and tight end Andy Isabella recorded 303 receiving yards.
A year ago, UMass humbled BYU in Provo, 16-10.
The Cougars have lost four of their last five games and for the first time this season, they have a losing record.
BYU came so close — just a few yards — from an upset over Boise State, a place where the Cougars have never won in five tries. Four of those losses have been by a combined total of eight points.
In 2004, BYU fell 28-27 after missing a potential game-winning field goal in the waning seconds.
In 2012, the Cougars’ potential game-winning two-point conversion failed late in the fourth quarter and they lost, 7-6.
In 2016, BYU dropped a 28-27 decision when the Broncos blocked the potential game-winning 44-yard field goal attempt with 10 seconds remaining.
Saturday, the Cougars found another heartbreaking way to get beat on the blue turf.
After battling back from an early 14-0 deficit, BYU had a chance to win at the end. With seven seconds remaining, facing second-and-goal from the BSU 2-yard line, true freshman quarterback Zach Wilson scrambled around, trying to make something happen with his legs or his arm.
But he was tackled at about the 3-yard line as time expired.
“Nothing was open. I should have been smart and thrown it out of the back of the end zone,” Wilson said. “It was a freshman mistake, I guess people would call it. I’ve got to hold myself accountable to make that play right there. It’s too bad we came up short.”
“It was an option for Zach to either tuck it and go or throw it, whatever he thought was the right decision,” said Matt Hadley, who put BYU in scoring position by catching a screen pass from Wilson on the opening play of the final drive and sprinting 59 yards.
“There’s a lot of things that he’s learning. I’m proud of how hard he works,” Sitake said of Wilson. "He’s a big playmaker and he’s young. He’s a freshman. But he needed to make veteran decisions. That’s what it comes down to. That’s the whole team. That’s my job as the head coach.”
That was one of several squandered opportunities for the Cougars in the red zone. BYU crossed the Broncos’ 30-yard line seven times and finished with only one touchdown.
“We had a chance at the end,” Sitake said. “We made way too many mistakes.”
The Cougar defense gave the offense numerous opportunities to pull the upset.
“Pretty exciting game, wasn’t it?” said Boise State coach Bryan Harsin. “Bottom line, we found a way to win. We made one more play than they did. We found a way to get it done.”31 comments on this story
BYU outgained BSU in total offense, 388-327. Wilson completed 18 of 27 passes for 252 yards. He had 18 rushing attempts and gained 90 yards, but lost 54 yards, which included getting sacked seven times.
Meanwhile, BYU was only 3 of 12 on third-down conversions while Boise State was 8 of 14.
Now, the Cougars’ season comes down to this — they are seeking two victories over the next three weeks to become bowl eligible.
“We’ve got to keep our heads up. There’s still a lot to fight for,” Hadley said. “We understand that. We aim to do that.”
BYU (4-5) at UMass (4-6)
- Saturday, 10 a.m. MST, Gillette Stadium
- TV: BYUtv
- Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM