Punchless BYU falls to Northern Illinois 7-6 in Provo

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU hosts Northern Illinois, NCAA football in Provo, Saturday Oct. 27, 2018.

Provo • Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson hurdled one Northern Illinois defender and stiff-armed another in virtually the same motion, and BYU was in business at the NIU 5-yard-line with about five minutes remaining in the third quarter. A lethargic and mostly-bored crowd of 51,084 came to life.

But after two false starts, an incomplete pass, an 11-yard pass and a trick play that didn’t work, the Cougars had to settle for a 22-yard field goal to trim the deficit to a point.

They would never score again. The costly miscues and suspect play-calling in the red zone turned out to be symbolic of an ugly afternoon for the Cougars, who unbelievably were ranked No. 20 in the country a month ago.

So the visiting Huskies, a Mid-American Conference power without much of a national profile, stunned BYU 7-6 on Saturday afternoon to even the Cougars’ season record to 4-4 and head coach Kalani Sitake’s overall record to 17-17.

“Disappointing,” Sitake said of the loss that could easily keep the Cougars from becoming bowl eligible at the end of the season. “My heart aches right now.”

The Cougars, who have dropped seven of their last nine games at LaVell Edwards Stadium, had one last chance with a minute, 47 seconds remaining after taking over on their own 33. But Wilson’s first pass of the series was intercepted by safety Mykelti Williams and the Huskies (5-3) were celebrating their first non-conference win of the season moments later.

“Just a bad read,” said Wilson, who was 18 of 30 for a career-high 208 yards in his second start. “I thought the safety was deeper than he was. … My depth perception was off a little bit right there and I made a bad play.”

Across the way, the Huskies celebrated their biggest win of the year.

“That was an old-school ugly football game from start to finish,” said NIU coach Rod Carey. “Give our team credit. We uglied it up. … It was ugly, but it is beautiful to us, I can tell you that in every way, shape and form.”

The Huskies picked up just 204 yards and saw a long field goal carom off the uprights in the first half, but basically won the game with a 65-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. Quarterback Marcus Childers’ 1-yard plunge was the game-winner with 11:19 remaining in the third quarter.

“Technique-wise, we weren’t in the right spots on that one touchdown drive,” said Sitake, who was otherwise happy with this defense, despite it not forcing a single turnover. “They made some big plays. We wish we could have that one back, you know?”

The TD came after the Cougars had apparently stopped NIU on third-and-goal when a pass fell incomplete. But Chris Wilcox was flagged for defensive holding in the end zone, and the visitors had new life.

Wilson threw a 42-yard strike to Talon Shumway and BYU moved to the NIU 5 on Wilson’s aforementioned highlight-reel run. Brady Christensen and Tristen Hoge were flagged for back-to-back false starts and Wilson’s first-down throw to Squally Canada was low. Neil Pau’s 11-yard catch got the Cougars to the 4, but a throw-back, tackle-eligible pass to Christensen didn’t net anything and Sitake chose to take the chip-shot field goal from Skyler Southam.

“A few weeks back I talked about playing BYU-style football and being aggressive, and that didn’t happen today. That’s gotta change,” Sitake said. “We talked about using our identity and who we are, and we got away from that today.”

He was referring to the game as a whole and not that non-gamble or two other non-aggressive decisions in the fourth quarter. He sent Southam back in for a 51-yard field goal try with 9:27 remaining and BYU trailing 7-6, but it sailed wide right.

Then, on fourth-and-4 from the 46 with around three minutes remaining, he punted. That decision proved to be the right one because the Cougars stopped NIU and forced the punt with just under two minutes remaining. Then Wilson threw the interception.

“We had two minutes with a timeout left,” Sitake said. “We should be able to get in field goal range and make a play there. Unfortunately, we made a big mistake and didn’t see a guy and threw a pick.”

And suffered another humiliating defeat.

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