Foxborough, Mass. • Massachusetts is no Boise State in any way, shape or form, and the Minutemen don’t have a defense resembling the one Northern Illinois showed against BYU.
But it is amazing what scoring touchdowns in the red zone can do for a team’s spirit and overall sense of confidence and well-being. Not counting the final two kneel-downs after they reached the UMass 20 late in the fourth quarter, the Cougars scored touchdowns on all five of their drives into the red zone in Saturday’s 35-16 win at Gillette Stadium.
It was a marked improvement for BYU, which cost itself chances to win against the Huskies and Broncos in successive weeks because it couldn’t score enough touchdowns when it got close to the goal line.
NEW MEXICO STATE AT BYU
When • Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN2
Sure, the Cougars had some inexcusable offensive struggles against one of the country’s worst defenses, including the fumble on their first play from scrimmage. They also had five three-and-outs, partly because they got behind the chains a lot on first down after being handed poor field position.
But some explosive plays returned, most notably freshman quarterback Zach Wilson’s 35-yard run and 26-yard pass to Dallin Holker that set up the first touchdown, Matt Hadley’s 26-yard run that set up the second touchdown and Neil Pau’u’s fantastic 40-yard catch that came immediately after Squally Canada’s 25-yard run and set up the third touchdown.
The big plays were nice, Wilson said. “We’ve been putting in work each week in practice, and I am glad we can execute things like that. It is nice to have the offense rolling, you could say.”
Pau’u sandwiched another big catch, a 22-yarder, between 14-yard runs by Gunner Romney and Hadley to get the Cougars in position for their fourth TD. Wilson said chunk plays make it easier to score in the red zone, even if they don’t result in touchdowns.
Another key: The offense did not commit a single penalty.
“We for sure needed it,” Wilson said. “We learned a lot of stuff this past week, as a team and as individuals. I mean, I found a lot of stuff I needed to work on for this week coming into this game, and I am glad I could apply it. I know the rest of the team is kinda the same way. I am glad we approached this game in the right way. We came out and did some really good things.”
To get rid of the red zone blues.
• BYU’s defense continues to improve. Despite losing starters Zayne Anderson and Chris Wilcox to season-ending injuries, the unit is seemingly hitting its stride. UMass was held to season lows in total yards (285), passing yards (183) and yards per play (4.13) and the country’s leading receiver, Andy Isabella, was held to 10 catches for 85 yards and no touchdowns.
• Offensive coaches have made some adjustments to utilize Wilson’s strengths. The freshman’s running ability was on display throughout the game, and he gets better at the run-pass option (RPO) with each game. Wilson made some plays that less-mobile senior Tanner Mangum simply could not make.
It was also interesting that fellow freshman Jaren Hall, and not Mangum, was sent in to finish out the game.
“He has a skill set where he can run the ball, and you saw it today, being able to pull it and run. That’s what we needed right at the time,” said coach Kalani Sitake of the decision to play Hall instead of Mangum at the end.
• Talon Shumway is emerging as a go-to receiver. The junior from Lone Peak caught two touchdown passes to move into the team lead in that category, with three. His second TD came after a he took a short pass and weaved in and out of traffic to find the end zone. Is he the playmaker the offense desperately needs?
Play of the Game
Several of the aforementioned chunk plays qualify, but Pau’u’s catch after the flea-flicker was extraordinary. UMass wasn’t fooled — Pau’u wasn’t wide open — but Wilson’s pass was perfect and Pau’u snared it between two defenders.
“It was a great catch by Neil, and a great team set up for the trick play,” Wilson said. “I am glad we figured out that play.”
Player of the Game
• Wilson rebounded nicely from the fateful final seven seconds against Boise State and his botched handoff early against UMass and finished with 167 passing yards and 53 rushing yards. He continues to make the coaches look good by installing him as a starter four games ago. On the defensive side, linebackers Sione Takitaki and Isaiah Kaufusi combined for 28 tackles.
Bundle up. Senior Night will be a chilly one, with Saturday’s home finale against New Mexico State scheduled to kick off at 8:15 p.m. It’s probably a must-win to get bowl eligible, because Utah awaits on Nov. 24 at Rice-Eccles. There is also no guarantee that BYU will go to a bowl game with six wins, due to the sheer amount of bowl-eligible teams this season.