Las Vegas • Junior running back Squally Canada plopped down on a chair outside the BYU locker room at Sam Boyd Stadium, still exhausted after leading the Cougars to a 31-21 win and asking if he could take a rest during postgame interviews.
He deserved it.
Canada rushed 25 times for 213 yards — the ninth-most in a single game in BYU history — and a touchdown as the Cougars improved to 9-0 against UNLV in front of an evenly-mixed crowd of 19,811 on Friday night.
“That’s not bad. I’ll take that,” Canada said after asking for his stat line. “Amen. Praise God.”
He also praised his offensive line of Tejan Koroma, Keyan Norman, Austin Hoyt, Tuni Kanuch and Thomas Shoaf for opening the holes and dominating the game after a slow start.
BYU rushed for 265 yards, one yard shy of a season-high. Austin Kafentzis added 53 yards on 10 carries.
“I mentioned earlier in the week that we had to own the front,” said coach Kalani Sitake.
The Cougars (3-8) did that, downing the Rebels for the eighth straight time and putting a serious dent in the home team’s bowl hopes. UNLV dropped to 4-6.
“Winning can heal a lot of wounds, and we were wounded,” Sitake said.
Freshman quarterback Joe Critchlow made his first career start and played mistake-free football, completing 14 of 22 passes for 160 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown pass to Aleva Hifo at the end of the first half.
“He showed a lot of poise in the pocket,” Sitake said.
The coach mentioned that presumed starter Beau Hoge couldn’t play due to injury, and Critchlow was informed early in the week that he would be the man. Sitake said the freshman played well enough to earn the call against UMass at home next week.
“The team as a whole really had my back,” Critchlow said. “It felt really good.”
Rhett Almond’s 28-yard field goal gave BYU a 31-21 lead with 5:39 remaining, capping a 10-play, 45-yard drive and sealing BYU’s first road win in over a year.
There were a few tense moments for the Cougars before that.
They were in great shape when they scored on their first possession of the second half to take a 21-7 lead and drove to the UNLV 16 on their next possession. But the drive stalled and Almond’s 34-yard field goal attempt was wiped off the board by a holding penalty on Corbin Kaufusi. Almond missed from 44 on his next attempt.
Having seized the momentum, UNLV drove 73 yards in eight plays and cut the BYU lead to 21-14.
But BYU answered with a 75-yard drive, and Kafentzis took it in from the 11 for his first touchdown as a Cougar to give BYU another two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter.
The Cougars moved the ball to midfield on their next possession, but a third-and-2 pass was incomplete and they punted.
UNLV then went 93 yards to score, completing a 50-yard pass on third-and-7 and a 26-yard pass on 4th-and-11. Officials threw a flag for holding on the first long pass, but picked it up after consulting with each other.
The Rebels out gained BYU 447-425 as Johnny Stanton threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns, but the Cougars’ defense stiffened in the fourth quarter.
“It is easy to play defense when the offense is doing good like that,” said safety Micah Hannemann.
After a slow start offensively, and gaining 17 yards on eight plays in the first quarter, the Cougars rolled in the second quarter after junior safety Zayne Anderson picked off Stanton in the end zone.
They drove 80 yards early in the second quarter, and capped it off with a 1-yard touchdown run by Brayden El-Bakri after Aleva Hifo’s 19-yard catch was ruled just short of the goal line by replay officials.
Hifo would find the end zone on BYU’s next drive, however, making a phenomenal catch in the south end zone and getting a toe down with 27 seconds left in the first half. It was Critchlow’s first career touchdown pass, and it put BYU ahead 14-7 heading into halftime.
“That was really big for the momentum of the team,” Critchlow said.
Critchlow finished the half 10 of 14 for 119 yards and the touchdown. He threw a 30-yard pass to Micah Simon to set up BYU’s first touchdown and a 26-yard strike to Matt Bushman for BYU’s second score.
“I think Joe came out there and did really well for his first start,” Canada said.