Tucson, Ariz. • A reflective and surprisingly subdued Kalani Sitake said in his postgame news conference after BYU stunned Arizona 28-23 late Saturday night at Arizona Stadium that the entire team and coaching staff had been “thinking about this game for a long time.”
It certainly showed.
A year after going 4-9 and getting blown out by Power Five opponents such as this one, the Cougars looked well-prepared, efficient and focused. They played with fire and passion and refused to wilt after falling behind 10-7 at halftime and put together by far the best quarter of football in the Sitake era to score three unanswered touchdowns in the third.
“It is fun because we are a different team this year,” linebacker Butch Pau’u said. “I don’t know if the fans can feel it, but we as a team can definitely feel it. We never got down on ourselves.”
There was no giving up, no letdown when adversity struck. One mistake didn’t turn into two or three. The Cougars didn’t panic. But they weren’t satisfied, either.
“Our guys played hard,” Sitake said. “They just have to play smarter. I’m not trying to be negative already, but I think with the win now we can demand a little bit more from our guys.”
It beats trying to get their attention after a loss, which was often the case in 2017.
Perhaps most surprising is the way the Cougars contained Kahlil Tate, Arizona’s Heisman candidate quarterback. Or maybe the biggest surprise is that new Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone didn’t ask the junior to run the ball much, like he did last year when he rushed for more than 1,400 yards.
It sort of felt like a show of disrespect for BYU, like the Wildcats figured they could play a vanilla offense and let Tate beat them with his arm. That they didn’t need their "A" game. But by the time they figured out he couldn’t, it was too late.
Credit BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki for recognizing that might be the Wildcats’ plan.
“We knew that they were going to try to protect [Tate] the first game,” said BYU linebacker Zayne Anderson. “We didn’t think he would be running as much. Our coaches would tell us that. We kind of had that in the back of our minds. He started running more, towards the second half, using his legs. But I felt like we contained him fairly well.”
BYU’s offensive line got the game ball from Sitake in an emotional locker room speech, but its defensive line deserves accolades as well. They came up with only one sack — a coverage sack, really, when Tate turned into Corbin Kaufusi. But Khyiris Tonga, Lorenzo Fauatea, Uriah Leiataua and Trajan Pili got a good push up the middle to force Tate to make quick decisions with the football.
“It was good, especially with what happened to us last year, the rough season,” Anderson said. “So it feels good to get this first game. But we are humble. And it is just one game. We are on to the next.”
• Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and his hand-picked offensive line coach, Ryan Pugh, delivered on their promise to instill more toughness into the Cougars’ offensive line. BYU rushed for 183 yards and did not give up a sack. Freshman returned missionary James Empey got the nod at center over junior Jacob Jiminez and played a clean game. False starts by Austin Hoyt and Brady Christensen will have to be cleaned up, but they didn’t cost the Cougars the ballgame.
• Sitake promised more speed on defense with the moves of Anderson and Sione Takitaki to linebacker and Dayan Ghawoloku to safety. Takitaki was especially effective in pass coverage — nearly making an interception and recording two pass breakups. BYU’s cornerbacks — Michael Shelton, Keenan Ellis and Chris Wilcox — mostly stayed up with Arizona’s speedy receivers, although they were flagged for three pass interference penalties, including several when they were getting beat deep.
• One game does not a season make, and there were a few bone-headed mistakes, but the Cougars looked better-coached than they did in 2017. They appeared in better shape, too. Several Arizona players were cramping on the sidelines in the heat and humidity, but BYU reported no such problems.
If there was a problem, it was penalties. BYU was flagged 10 times for 94 yards; Arizona was flagged just four times.
“I’m looking at the penalties,” Sitake said. “That’s something we need to improve on, but it wasn’t lack of effort.”
Player of the game
Corbin Kaufusi, defensive end. Although he committed a personal foul for a late hit out-of-bounds that eventually led to Arizona’s only first-half touchdown, Kaufusi led a fired-up defense with seven tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss. His ability to contain Tate was a big reason why the defense allowed the QB just 14 net rushing yards.
Runner-up: BYU’s offensive line pushed UA’s defensive line around all game and helped Squally Canada rush for 98 yards and three touchdowns.
Play of the game
Receiver Dylan Collie’s 22-yard catch in the third quarter. With the Cougars facing a third-and-12 on their first possession of the second half, the Hawaii transfer caught a deflected pass to give BYU a first down and prolong the drive. It ended with another outstanding play, quarterback Tanner Mangum’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Matt Bushman.
“Dylan is confident and he believes in himself. I love seeing that,” said Mangum, who completed 18 of 28 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. “That catch was able to propel us forward to the red zone, and then we were able to put points on the board. So that was huge.”
Runner-up: Senior Chris Shelton’s 37-yard punt return, three yards short of his career-best, gave BYU the ball at Arizona’s 42 and set up Canada’s TD run that gave the Cougars a 21-10 lead.
Freshman kicker Skyler Southam was a perfect 4 for 4 on PATs but did not get to attempt a field goal. Freshman Christensen got the start at left tackle and Notre Dame transfer Tristen Hoge got the start at right guard. Hawaii transfer Collie made the circus catch and also had a 13-yard run from scrimmage. Freshman tight end Dallin Holker just missed scoring his first career touchdown when he stepped out at the half-yard line after a 14-yard catch.
The Cougars face another Pac-12 opponent in a late-night Saturday contest, but this one is at LaVell Edwards Stadium. After knocking off North Carolina 24-17 in Berkeley, the Cal Bears visit Provo for an 8:15 p.m. kickoff that will be televised by ESPN2.