BYU-Arizona analysis: Cougars beat Wildcats but have room for improvement

BYU overcame a slow start and inconsistent defense to win its season opener

BYU wide receiver Neil Pau'u (2) scores a touchdown against Arizona during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

BYU accomplished what it set out to do — the Cougars earned a win in their season opener 24-16 against Arizona at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday.

But it was clear the Cougars still have a lot of work to do to not just have one successful game, but a successful season.

BYU was shaky and slow to start before finding its momentum, but eventually allowed the Wildcats back in the game before securing an onside kick that could have resulted in a different outcome in the game. Sure, Arizona would have had to recover the kick, score a touchdown and make a two-point conversion, but with the way the Wildcats changed the momentum late in the game, it could have been possible.

“I’m really happy about the win,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of things that we can improve on, but you give a lot of credit to Arizona. The coaching staff did a great job getting the guys ready to play. They were really motivated. Once we got things figured out, they just kept fighting through it.”

Cougars get hit with too many injuries

Season starting quarterback Jaren Hall managed to stay healthy through the first game of the season, but the same couldn’t be said about a couple other Cougars.

Most notably, defensive back Keenan Ellis went down after suffering what looked like a neck injury after having his head snapped back during an awkward hit. After being attended to for 17 minutes on the field, Ellis was carted off and was sent to UMC Trauma Center.

CT scans conducted Saturday night on Keenan Ellis were normal. He spent the night at University Medical Center in Las Vegas for observation and additional testing. Ellis is out of bed, walking and reports no neck or back pain, a BYU news release said.

Besides Ellis, the following Cougars suffered minor injuries: defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua (arm), wide receiver Gunner Romney (knee) and wide receiver Neil Pau’u (lower leg). Leiataua and Pau’u returned to action, but Romney was on crutches for the rest of the night.

“Hopefully we get those guys back soon for next week,” Sitake said.

Jaren Hall showed potential of greatness

In his first start — and first game — since the 2019 season, Hall was slow to start. In the Cougars’ opening drive, Hall went 1 of 4 for 10 yards. But then things started clicking in the second quarter.

Hall threw a 67-yard gem to Neil Pau’u for BYU’s second touchdown and managed to scramble for 39 yards.

The Spanish Fork native ended the night with 198 passing yards (18 of 28) and two touchdown passes, as well as 36 rushing yards.

“I thought he made some plays,” Sitake said. “I mean, he broke a long one for a scramble. He created some space for himself with his legs in the backfield. I like the composure he had, he’s a great leader for us. Obviously, there’s some things that he wants to do and plays he wants to get back.”

Defense has some things to work on

While the Cougar defense only gave up 16 points, the Wildcats still put up 426 yards — 58 yards more than BYU. Arizona also converted on all three fourth-down plays, two of which were fourth-and-1 situations.

Where the BYU defense did succeed was in holding Arizona to 2 of 4 red-zone score chances and 5 of 17 in third-down conversions.

So, where can the Cougars improve? Leiataua believes one of the places to start is with open field tackles.

“I’m proud of the young D-linemen that came in and did their roles — they didn’t back down,” Leiataua said. “Some of them had some nerves, but everyone started to shape up. We have some things to fix for next week, and we’re going to come out swinging for sure.”

Fans were the real MVP of the game

For the first time since the 2019, the Cougars played in front of a full crowd — and BYU fans didn’t disappoint.

Allegiant Stadium was filled with 54,541 people — the largest college sports crowd Nevada has ever hosted. Of that group, three-fourths or more were Cougar faithfuls.

“As I said before, we have the greatest fans in the world, and to be in this environment here, in the new Raiders stadium, to be in an NFL stadium and look forward to the future, is what every kid dreams of playing,” Hall said. “To be with our brothers and our coaches and the fans watching, it’s surreal.”

Players said the fans definitely helped stave off Arizona’s rally and close out the game.

“It felt like a home game today — Cougar Nation was going off,” running back Tyler Allgeier said. “It was fun to see a lot of blue. It literally felt like a rivalry game right then and there.”

The one play BYU would take back

If Sitake would have known how things would transpire, he would do one thing differently.

Toward the end of the third quarter, Sitake chose to decline an Arizona delay of game penalty. The Wildcats were already on a fourth-and-14, so the ball was coming to BYU regardless. But by declining the penalty, Arizona was in a better position to punt and got the ball on the 1-yard line.

Sitake was still feeling confident his Cougars could get out of the poor field condition, but the Wildcats went on to get a safety, followed by a touchdown on the ensuing drive.

Suddenly, it was a one-score game, and Arizona had all the momentum.

“But credit to Arizona, they made some plays,” Sitake said. “We [had] to find a way to react, and I like the way our guys fought through and eventually won the game for us.”