Provo • Progress was made, but opportunities to take even bigger steps were lost.
That sums up BYU’s football season in 2018, the third under coach Kalani Sitake and second that ended with a winning record and a bowl victory.
After going 9-4 in 2016 — the four losses were by a combined eight points — and beating Wyoming 24-21 in the Poinsettia Bowl before abruptly falling to 4-9 last year, the Cougars finished at 7-6 to put Sitake one win above .500 heading into what is believed to be the final year of the four-year contract he signed when he replaced Bronco Mendenhall in December of 2015.
So 2018 was a bit like 2016. Four of the losses — 21-18 to Cal, 7-6 to Northern Illinois, 21-16 to Boise State and 35-27 to Utah — were by a combined 17 points and left BYU fans wondering what might have been. There was a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda going on in Provo. Most notably, would Sitake have received a contract extension — like Western Michigan coach Tim Lester did before getting steamrolled 49-18 by BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last Friday — if he had won a couple more games?
Seems like that would have been appropriate.
Instead, the 24-21 win over a Wisconsin team at Camp Randall that was ranked No. 6 at the time but turned out to be a Big Ten also-ran will have to stand as the Cougars’ biggest accomplishment. They blew chances in November to make giant strides toward erasing the bitter memories still lingering from the four-win season of 2017 and the stunning home loss to NIU by failing to score late at Boise State and failing to hold onto a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter at Utah.
“There were a lot of ups and downs, but it was a pretty good season,” said senior captain Austin Hoyt, the only starting offensive lineman who will not return in 2019. “It could have been a really special one.”
From an offensive standpoint, the season will be remembered for the midseason starting quarterback change, as coaches benched senior Tanner Mangum after a dismal 45-20 loss to Utah State and turned to freshman Zach Wilson. Then some couldn’t help wondering if the switch should have been made sooner after Wilson played flawlessly in the bowl game, completing all 18 passes he threw for 317 yards and four touchdowns.
“We’re looking forward to building on this,” Sitake said. “I’ve been trying to let Zach loose for a long time now. I think an aggressive style of football is what we need to have on offense. … I was really proud of Zach. I don’t expect him to be perfect in 2019, but being close would be really nice.”
Wilson’s 157.2 passing efficiency rating would put him 14th in the country if he had enough passing attempts throughout the season to qualify. Mangum’s rating his freshman season was 136.0 and Jake Heaps’ was 116.2 in his freshman season back in 2010.
That Mangum and Heaps regressed after solid rookie seasons and promising bowl outings (after the first quarter in the Las Vegas Bowl against Utah, in Mangum’s case) can’t be ignored, but Wilson’s play only moved expectations for 2019 up a few notches. And the precocious 19-year-old isn’t shying away from them.
“Yeah, I think the bar was set probably a little too high for the next bowl game,” Wilson said after winning bowl MVP honors. “I think we really proved ourselves in this game of what we’re capable of. We’re starting to find that out as an offense and starting to figure out who we are as a team and what we’re the best at. It’s just going up from here.”
After finishing 118th in total offense (325.2 yards per game) and 123rd in scoring offense (17.1 points per game) in 2017 — horrendous numbers that resulted in the release of offensive coordinator Ty Detmer — the Cougars made progress in 2018 with first-year OC Jeff Grimes calling the plays.
They are 101st in total offense (364.9 ypg.) and 93rd in scoring offense (25.4 ppg.) with most teams having finished their seasons.
BYU’s defense was above average in 2017 — despite all the losses — and only improved in 2018 as Sitake kept all his defensive coaches except Steve Kaufusi, replacing him with Preston Hadley, who worked with the safeties.
Although the defense lost key players such as Zayne Anderson, Chris Wilcox, Isaiah Kaufusi and Corbin Kaufusi to season-ending injuries and Dayan Ghanwoloku and Butch Pau’u to injuries for several games, it stood as the strength of the team once again.
The Cougars went from 51st in total defense (372.8 ypg.) and 46th in scoring defense (24.7 ppg.) in 2017 to 18th in total defense (325.0 ypg.) and 25th in scoring defense (21.4 ppg.) in 2018. Standouts Sione Takitaki and Corbin Kaufusi and solid contributors Pau’u, Merrill Taliauli, Rhett Sandlin, Adam Pulsipher, Tanner Jacobson, Riggs Powell and Michael Shelton will graduate, leaving the linebacking corps especially thin and inexperienced.
But Sitake has seemingly established a solid defensive culture at BYU, which will be needed when the Cougars open the 2019 season with Utah, Tennessee, USC and Washington in that order.
“The program is heading in the right direction,” Sitake said after the crushing defeat to Utah on Nov. 24. “We’re in a good place. I feel good about that.”
After all, 7-6 is a lot better than 4-9.
BYU BY THE NUMBERS IN 2018
Passing Offense — 85th (211.8 yards per game)
Rushing Offense — 91st (153.2 yards per game)
Scoring Offense — 93rd (25.4 points per game)
Total Offense — 101st (364.9 yards per game)
Passing Defense— 31st (195.6 yards per game)
Rushing Defense — 26th (129.4 yards per game)
Scoring Defense — 25th (21.4 points per game)
Total Defense — 18th (325 yards per game)