PROVO — This year’s edition of the BYU-Utah game featured, among many other things, an epic second-half meltdown by the Cougars, a strong first-half performance from a 19-year-old true freshman quarterback, and a gutsy effort by a senior defensive lineman playing in his final college game.
Yes, there was a lot to digest in the aftermath of the No. 17 Utes’ come-from-behind 35-27 victory over BYU Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium as the Cougars found yet another excruciating way to lose to their archrivals — for the eighth-straight time.
BYU (6-6) led 27-7 late in the third quarter, only to surrender 28 unanswered points to Utah over the final 15:40 of the game.
While jumping out to a 20-0 halftime lead, quarterback Zach Wilson showed poise, moxie and an ability to make plays by picking up key third downs and extending drives. He completed 11 of 16 passes for 137 yards with two touchdowns, and he ran seven times for 57 yards at that point.
“He’s a fighter. He went out, did his job, did all that he could, made plays when he should have been sacked,” said tight end Matt Bushman, who finished with six receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. “(Utah has) a really good defense. I’m proud of him. He’s a young guy, and it’s a tough atmosphere here.”
“Zach’s a warrior. The way he prepares, the way he takes coaching throughout the week and throughout the game,” said wide receiver Micah Simon. “He’s got a really bright future ahead of him. I’m excited for him.”
“For a true freshman to play like he did, in this type of environment, I thought he really stepped up,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “He had some good reads and some bad ones.”
Early in the third quarter, Wilson was intercepted by Julian Blackmon, who scored a 27-yard touchdown to cut Utah’s deficit to 20-7.
“That pick-six, that took some energy out of the sideline,” Bushman said. “We need to learn to control the lead and bounce back from that.”
Despite that setback, the Cougars increased their lead to 27-7 later in the period.
BYU’s offense pulled back on its aggressive approach, unlike the way it had been playing in the first half. The Cougars gained just 110 yards in the second half.
“I’m not sure if it was all conservative because (Utah) stopped us. It wasn’t like we stopped throwing the ball,” Sitake said. “We tried to be smart with the ball, and we failed to punt the ball downfield. When it’s a close game, it comes down to little things — guys making plays. We didn’t make enough.”
On the night, the Cougars made too many costly miscues, including on special teams — a missed PAT early in the game and a 15-yard punt in the fourth quarter to give the Utes a short field that led to a Utah touchdown.
Defensively, BYU wore down as the Utes were able to jumpstart their run game to the tune of 118 rushing yards in the second half.
Linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi, who was outstanding Saturday, went out with an injury in the second half and didn’t return.
“They tested our depth,” Sitake said. “Towards the end, our guys got a little winded.”
“We lost some key players,” said linebacker Sione Takitaki. “That hurt us.”
Then there was defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi, who wasn’t expected to play Saturday. A week earlier, Sitake had announced that the 6-foot-9 senior was done for the season and was scheduled to undergo surgery.
“They wanted me to get surgery last week. They said if you could tolerate the pain, then you can (play),” Kaufusi said. “I just wanted to give back to this team. I love these guys. That’s what playing football is all about — the love of the team and the love of the game. I knew I had more to give.”
Corbin Kaufusi ended up with seven tackles. This week, he’ll undergo ankle surgery, with two other surgeries coming later, on his triceps and his pinkie finger.
Of course, the outcome wasn’t what Kaufusi wanted but he was thrilled to be able to take the field one last time with his teammates, especially in the rivalry game.
“It hurts, but I’m just so happy that I got to play because last week I thought I was done,” Kaufusi said. “To be able to play with these guys I love so much, I was just happy to say one more time and say, ‘Thanks for riding with me until the end.’ We’ll go until the wheels come off and that’s all I cared about.”
“Corbin is just a fighter. He’s a tough kid,” Sitake said. “It’s safe to say his career is done now. He’s got a future to think about. He won’t be playing in the bowl game.”
Speaking of injuries, going into the game, BYU was without running backs Lopini Katoa and Squally Canada due to injuries.
Senior Matt Hadley rushed 21 times for 64 yards and two touchdowns before going down to an ankle injury in the second half.
Certainly, it was a bitter and painful loss for the Cougars. But they’ll try to glean as many positives from it as they can.35 comments on this story
“After the game, coach Sitake was talking to us about how the scoreboard might not show it but we’re getting better. We are improving. We’re not into moral victories or things like that but we’re getting better,” Simon said. “We talked earlier in the week how this is our most important game of the year. It does sting a lot at the moment. But we’ll learn from it and get over it.”
"I’m proud of the way we played. Give credit to Utah and the way they came back and won that game," Sitake said. "As frustrating as this game is, I believe we have some really good players. My job is to make sure they can play their best for a full 60 minutes.”