PROVO — BYU delivered a lopsided blowout win in its season finale at home. It was just what the doctor ordered.
BYU enters the season finale at Utah eligible for a bowl and with 50 percent more victories than a year ago.
Progress? One could argue that.
The Cougars beat up on three-win New Mexico State on Saturday with a convincing 45-10 win in LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“It feels good, we fired back after being down 7-0,” said head coach Kalani Sitake. “I’m just happy about the win and you can tell our guys are excited how we finished.”
The Cougars rolled up a season-high 513 yards total offense, and Lopini Katoa’s four touchdowns were the most ever by a BYU freshman. He gained 155 yards on 19 carries.
The game ended up what it should have been, a blowout finish at home, a confidence builder, albeit without its most experienced rusher Squally Canada and team leaders in sacks, senior Corbin Kaufusi, who was declared finished for the season before kickoff with an injury.
The Cougars amassed 317 yards rushing, also a season high.
“Our offense is starting to click but we still need to be more consistent,” said Sitake.
This is a BYU team that had goals of winning in-state games, beating rivals and defending its home turf. It struggled mightily to do them all.
If BYU had pulled off winnable games over Cal, Northern Illinois and Boise State, you could call it a tremendous step forward for the program. But, with a midseason youth movement and injuries, to this point, this six wins and a possible bowl is a directional and developmental step forward for Kalani Sitake heading into the finale.
In that realm, making it to a bowl is a very big deal, regardless of location and opponent. The biggest plays of this game were made by freshmen Zach Wilson, Katoa and Moore; and a sophomore, Isaiah Kaufusi.
Like so many games this season, BYU had to thaw out to get started. The offense came out in a heart monitor flatline. The defense looked no better.
The sparse, dedicated fans, the 47,505 who braved 30-degree temperatures, deserved more. During an early timeout, Kalani Sitake gathered the defense around him and let everyone have it.
This wasn’t exclusive to BYU on this Saturday.
Starting style points turned out to mean nothing.
Plenty of squads suffered sleepy November Saturday starts. Buckeye King Urban Meyer had more hand-on-knee moments than anyone.
No. 1 Alabama and The Citadel were tied at 10 at half; No. 2 Clemson trailed Duke 6-0 at the end of the first quarter; Indiana led No. 4 Michigan 7-3 after the first quarter; Maryland led No. 10 Ohio State 17-3 after the first quarter; and Utah, fighting for a South Division title at lowly Colorado, was knotted up at 7 at halftime.
NMSU took an easy 7-0 lead. On Senior Night, the final home game, the Cougars looked uninspired, disinterested until Rhett Sandlin tipped a Josh Adkins pass and freshman corner Malik Moore intercepted. That pick and a second interception, by Isaiah Kaufusi, led to a pair of Matt Hadley touchdown runs and the Cougars led 14-7 and the rout was on.
Patient, meet cure: Moore-Kaufusi-Hadley. Then Lopini Katoa on fire. Game over by halftime.
Hadley, a senior, looked like someone wired him in a video game. He ran hard. Nobody told him to come out in slow motion. His 40-yard scoring jaunt, his second TD, lit a fire among his teammates. Freshman Zach Wilson, who started 1 for 8, shook it off.
BYU looked like it had planned a passing attack with run-pass-option, and it was like forcing a round peg in a square hole. Somebody must have forgotten NMSU ranked 126th in rush defense. Switching to a pounding run game, the Cougar offense that had just 42 first-quarter yards, gained 227 in the second and rattled off 31-straight points.
Katoa got his third TD midway through the third to put BYU up 38-7.
This game saw the final appearance of a cast of seniors like Sione Takitaki. The crowd gave senior Tanner Mangum a tremendous ovation when he came onto the field in the fourth quarter with the game safely out of reach. It was awful to see him throw a pick in the end zone on first-and-goal at the 2, however.
It was a cringeworthy farewell for a guy who for all his life just wanted to be a loyal Cougar.
In a sense, it was a symbolic play, a chance to get the score to 55 — but just that, a missed opportunity.
Thus begins rivalry week in Utah, a storied buildup to the BYU-Utah game, which the Utes have held bragging rights to since Max Hall walked off the field and ended his career.60 comments on this story
It is the proper way to end a regular season, a BYU-Utah game at Thanksgiving time.
“I think it is a great game, I don’t care when it comes. I like the game, I have a connection to Utah. They were great to my family when I was there. We had a chance at the end at 2016, and congratulation to Kyle Whittingham for winning the Pac 12 South,” said Sitake.
“We aren’t scared of it. We’re going to approach it like it’s the end of the season and give it everything we’ve got,” said the coach.