Provo • Some will be tempted to place an asterisk next to BYU’s easy 31-14 win over touchdown-favorite Utah State at Romney Stadium on Friday night, seeing as how quarterback Chuckie Keeton’s season-ending knee injury in the first quarter turned the USU offense into a shadow of its former self.
The Cougars are choosing an altogether different label: Progress.
“I think we are trending upward,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said in a postgame radio interview. “I think we are gaining momentum. I think we are learning to practice meaningfully as a team at a higher level, and I am encouraged.”
Next up for the Cougars (3-2) is Georgia Tech on Saturday (5 p.m., ESPNU) at LaVell Edwards Stadium as the regular season reaches its midpoint. The Yellow Jackets were thoroughly whipped 41-17 by the Cougars last year in Atlanta.
“This is not an easy place to come and play,” Mendenhall said after the Cougars defeated Utah State for the 13th time in 14 tries. “It is a good football team that we beat. … I thought our offensive balance improved. I thought our execution also improved, and we took the ball away a few more times. So overall, progress.”
Mendenhall and several BYU players acknowledged in various interviews that the loss of Keeton may have affected the outcome of the game to an extent that nobody really knows, but mostly they focused on the outstanding play of their own quarterback, Taysom Hill.
Criticized for his inaccuracy passing the football the first three games, the sophomore riddled a stout USU defense time and again Friday night, posting career highs in passing yards (278) and touchdown passes (three). He rushed for just 14 yards, a season low, as USU’s stellar linebacking corps took away that threat.
“We planned for him to get out of the pocket, and he did,” said USU linebacker Zach Vigil. “He did escape because Taysom Hill’s a great player. He threw the ball very well tonight. He adjusted and executed well tonight.”
With another makeshift offensive line — the starting five was different for the fifth-straight game — and a banged up corps of running backs, Hill often had to scramble before making a throw, but showed he could throw on the run for really the first time this season. He was 17 for 31, with one interception in the end zone when Quinton Byrd wrestled the ball away from Cody Hoffman.
“We have done things every week to get us better, and if you look back to the Virginia game [a 19-16 loss] where we started, to where we are now, we have progressively gotten better, and that says a lot about our coaching staff, and it says a lot about the guys on our team,” Hill said. “We need to continue to get better, but I am happy with where we are headed, and I am really excited and anxious about the future.”
Sophomore running back Jamaal Williams returned from a concussion to rush for 79 yards on 14 carries and move into 22nd place in BYU history with 1,232 career yards, but before the game the Cougars announced they have lost another running back, Mike Alisa, for the season. A senior, Alisa suffered a groin injury in practice and will seek a medical redshirt in hopes of being able to return for the 2014 season.
Another running back, Adam Hine, missed the game for precautionary reasons although he passed the concussion protocol on Thursday. In the absence of Hine and Alisa, and with Williams’ workload limited somewhat, freshman Algernon Brown picked up 45 yards on 16 carries.
Ga. Tech at BYU
O Saturday, 5 p.m.
TV • ESPNU