SALT LAKE CITY — BYU came out stronger than even the most optimistic Cougar fan could have imagined against Utah on Saturday, yet the Utes rebounded big-time in the second half to deal the Cougars their eighth-straight loss in the rivalry game. Like most games during the losing streak, BYU was right in it until the end, yet couldn't manage to convert enough critical plays, a fact that has defined the rivalry game since BYU's last win in 2009.
Grades are in for the offense, defense and special teams, with each providing enough ups and downs to make the final grading somewhat difficult.
The Cougar offense came out strong, putting Utah's formidable defense squarely on its heels throughout the first half while building a 20-0 lead. Overall, the offense used a good run-pass balance in providing 247 yards of total offense in a half, which was more yardage than many assumed Utah would yield for the entire game.
Turns out, Utah didn't yield much of anything after BYU's surprisingly productive first half.
Things didn't completely come to a grinding halt in the second half for the BYU offense, but too many stalled drives and one huge turnover gave the home team too much momentum.
Two of the biggest blows for the Cougar offense came with quarterback Zach Wilson throwing a pick-six with his team firmly in control up 20-0 and then running back Matt Hadley sustaining an apparent leg injury which forced him to exit. the offensive production was never the same after Hadley left due to extreme lack of depth behind what was the team's third option at the position going in.
Overall, Wilson played relatively well and even extremely well when considering his playing experience coming in. The true freshman went 20-29 through the air for 204 yards and two touchdowns and rushed it 14 times for another 73 yards.
Also debilitating for the offense was some curious play-calling, most notably a run called for Riley Burt on a 4th-and-1 late after offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes called for a pass on 3rd-and-1. Wilson proved far and away the Cougars' most able playmaker throughout the game, making Grimes' decision to take the ball out of his hands with the game on the line curious.
The BYU defense followed the course of the offense, for the most part, with a dominating performance defining the first half before Utah began to find holes throughout the second.
An injury to starting linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi severely hampered BYU's ability to defend the edge effectively, which Utah exploited time and again throughout the fourth quarter. The defensive line appeared to wear down late as Utah's run game starting finding a good groove to chew up clock and provide long touchdown drives.
Mistakes in coverage hurt, too, with the most notable coming with a pass interference in the end zone on a third-down play, which ultimately led to a Utah touchdown. BYU cornerback Keenan Ellis had good position to make a play, but he panicked and made unnecessary contact, allowing the Utes to be set up with first-and-goal and an eventual touchdown that cut the lead to 27-21.
One drive later saw the secondary yield a big 37-yard pass play that again set up the Utes in a first-and-goal situation, which they converted to take a 28-27 lead late.
The gaffes weren't entirely on the secondary, however, as BYU's pass rush appeared to slow over the course of the game, after starting out putting good pressure on Utah quarterback Jason Shelley.
The obvious bad marks go to the kicking unit for the missed extra point following BYU's first touchdown and then a shank off the foot of punter Rhett Almond, which gave the Utes a short field to drive late. Both mistakes changed the course of the game significantly with regard to how the game had to be managed late.
The special teams did provide some good moments, though, with Dayan Ghanwoloku pouncing on a punt that was inadvertently touched by a Utah player early and then Khyiris Tonga bursting through the line to block a field goal attempt.22 comments on this story
The punt and kick coverage both did well in eliminating big returns from Britain Covey, although the punt and kick return teams did little to provide any advantage.
Seems to reason to grade out the overall effort with the same grade allotted each unit. Yes, the Cougars performed much better than most expected, but giving up 28 straight points in the second half brings down the grades considerably.
Give BYU credit for outgaining the Utes in total yardage, but dock it for not making nearly enough plays during critical situations, a fact that has become a theme during the eight straight losses to the Utes.