PROVO — Inside the locker room at Gillette Stadium last Saturday afternoon, BYU players and coaches celebrated a 35-16 triumph over UMass by cheering and singing the school’s fight song — sounds that reverberated around the home of the New England Patriots.
Not only did the win move the Cougars (5-5) one game closer to clinching bowl eligibility, but it had been nearly a month since they had tasted victory, since beating Hawaii way back on Oct. 13.
The past two weeks, the Cougars had suffered bitter back-to-back setbacks — 7-6 at home to Northern Illinois and 21-16 at Boise State.
BYU had opportunities to win both of those games but failed to make the necessary plays late. Saturday, the Cougars snapped their two-game losing streak.
“It’s just good to win. We learned a lot of valuable lessons in those two losses. It’s nice to learn lessons and win,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “We’ve seen a lot of progress and a lot of growth in our team. It’s nice to rally it back, and I give a lot of credit to the assistant coaches and to the leaders on this team for taking the initiative.”
“All last week really was, this one game is our focus,” said linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi. “We’re not thinking about a bowl game, we’re not thinking about Utah. We’re thinking about UMass. So to be able to win and pull it out, it was huge for us. It’s really gratifying.”
BYU overcame a 10-0 deficit early on against UMass, scoring 35 unanswered points to win going away.
“We for sure needed it,” said freshman quarterback Zach Wilson. “Those tough losses, we learned a lot of stuff this last week as a team and as individuals. I found a lot of stuff I needed to work on coming into this game. I’m glad I could apply it. I know the rest of the team is kind of the same way. I’m glad we approached this game in the same way. I think we came out and did some really good things.”
Wilson, who earned his first road victory as a starting QB, completed 14 of 22 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. As a team, the Cougars ran for 221 yards and three touchdowns.
Not including BYU’s final drive with game-ending kneel-downs, the Cougars scored touchdowns on all five trips into the red zone.
BYU’s defense limited UMass to 285 yards of total offense and forced eight punts.
“We had some adversity early on,” Sitake said. “But I’m proud of our team and the way we performed.”
This week, the Cougars can get bowl eligible with a win Saturday (8:15 p.m. MST, ESPN2) on Senior Night in the home finale against New Mexico State (3-7).
One of the seniors who starred at UMass was linebacker Rhett Sandlin, who recorded two sacks — the first two of his career. He also had three tackles-for-loss.
“Probably the best game that I’ve had at BYU, to have an impact on the game,” said the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder out of Alta High.
“I’m pleased with how hard he works. He’s earned a lot of playing time and he made the most of it,” Sitake said of Sandlin. “This is a good moment for him, being a senior, and we’re going home for Senior Night. It’s going to be really cool for him to get on the field and contribute because he has a lot of skills that can help us be successful on defense. You saw a lot of it today.”24 comments on this story
“Rhett always brings his ‘A’ game to practice. He’s running with the twos. We’re confident in his game, and if he comes in he can play,” said senior linebacker Sione Takitaki. “I’m really happy for that guy. He’s been working really hard and he finally got a shot today with Riggs (Powell) going down and he filled those shoes. He did really good.”
The Aggies — who, like BYU and UMass, are independent — are coming off a bye week.
“I’m excited to get back home for our Senior Night against New Mexico State,” Sitake said.
New Mexico State (3-7) at BYU (5-5)
- Saturday, 8:15 MST, LaVell Edwards Stadium
- TV: ESPN2
- Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM