With a big surge of his legs and lots of help from his offensive line, BYU running back Ty’Son Williams completed BYU’s unlikely comeback against Tennessee on Saturday.
He might have just changed the complexion of the Cougars’ season too.
The Cougars, who stunned Tennessee 29-26 in double overtime, avoided their first 0-2 start since 1995 with the win, but more importantly, head into a series of big games with more confidence and a more well-rounded offense than they showed in the season-opening loss to Utah.
“I’m thankful it took all tree phases to make this work and just proud of our guys and how resilient they were in this game,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.
With USC, then Washington visiting Provo in the coming weeks, the Cougars needed the win to help quarterback Zach Wilson continue his development as the offensive leader.
Wilson finished the game 19-of-29 for 232 yards and a touchdown, but at times played like the sophomore he is with some poor decision making, such as an incomplete pass on third-and-one on Tennessee’s 45-yard line in the third quarter and missing a wide open Matt Bushman late in the game.
But what stood out in Wilson’s performance is the way he handled a rough night in which he was sacked four times and hurried on several other plays.
After all that, he still had the fortitude to find Micah Simon on a 64-yard pass to set up BYU’s overtime win.
Simon said the offense reached back to fall camp — where the players simulated difficult situations they had experienced in the past — for their two-minute drill.
“We felt the stress we put ourselves in fall camp was able to prepare us for this moment in just fighting for the end and knowing how to operate and knowing how to execute under pressure,” he said.
Simon spoke earlier in the week of a need for the passing game to have more trust between Wilson and the receivers.
It seems he and Wilson, at least, have found that common ground, particularly in the clutch moment, to send the game into overtime.
“They had a lapse in coverage and I got behind their guys and Zach made a great pass,” Simon said.
At the end of the game, Sitake and the players celebrated their good fortune while the Vols and their fans looked on, stunned at the outcome.
“Tennessee did some really good things, I think we just had some plays go our way, made some breaks and were able to come out victorious and had a couple more plays than they did,” Sitake said.
• For as good as the Cougars were at the end, they still need to find some more offensive weapons in the passing game. Tight end Matt Bushman, who didn’t have a reception in the second half against Utah, had just two catches for 40 yards against the Vols.
BYU needs to get him more involved.
Another receiver expecting to have a big year, Aleva Hifo, has just six receptions for 55 yards in the first two games combined.
The offense seemed rattled by Tennessee’s atmosphere at times, too, with false starts and delay of game penalties. But just as it did in the loss to Utah, the Cougars’ offense never seemed to truly panic. That cool demeanor speaks volumes about an offense led by a young quarterback.
“Give BYU credit, they never gave up, they kept fighting, they did a nice job and won the game,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said.
• One area that shouldn’t be overlooked in BYU’s win was the kicking game. Jake Oldroyd had a tremendous night, tying the game with one second remaining with a 33-yard field goal, and making others from 42 and 31 yards out. Oldroyd also punted four times for 201 yards, with a long of 55 yards.
“We trusted him to be on the field,” Sitake said. “We felt that if we could stop them in the four-minute situation when they were trying to grind the clock, we knew we were going to rely on him again to kick a field goal.”
Oldroyd is back with the Cougars after serving a church mission. He played in three games in 2016 before redshirting with an injury.
“I’m so happy to be able to be in that position and happy that I had the trust of my teammates and coaches,” he said. “I’m so grateful for the way that everyone else executed so that I had an easy job.”
• BYU’s defense had a solid night, led by linebacker Kavika Fonua who had a career high 10 tackles and returned an interception 20 yards to set up BYU’s first touchdown.
The Vols rushed for 242 yards, but BYU’s defense made some huge plays, stopping the Vols on fourth-and-one at the BYU 30-yard line with 4:15 remaining in the game.
The Vols converted only five times on 16 third downs and were 1-of-3 on fourth down efficiency.
Notable for the Cougars was the ejection of defensive lineman Devin Kaufusi for targeting.
He was originally called for roughing the passer, but officials changed the call after reviewing the play.
Since the foul occurred in the second half, Kaufusi by rule must sit out the opening half of BYU’s game against USC.
Player of the Game
This was a tough choice because BYU had several players make some key plays, but Williams gets the props for his leg-churning, you-aren’t-going-to-deny-me push at the end of the game to give the Cougars the win.
Williams, a transfer from South Carolina who was very familiar with the Vols, finished the game with 17 carries for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
In his previous two games against the Vols as a Gamecock in 2017 and 2018, Williams rushed 24 times for 81 yards and a touchdown, combined.
His debut for the Cougars against Utah was unsatisfactory, as he had just seven touches for 45 yards, but the Cougars got him a lot more touches against Tennessee and he responded with more sure running.
It looks like he might be the power runner the Cougars need to complement the passing offense.
Play of the Game
Williams got the glory at the end of the game, but he wouldn’t have been in position to do so without Simon.
Just when the game seemed all but locked up for the Vols, the receiver got behind the Tennessee defense for a career-long 64 yard catch that set up BYU’s game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime.
Simon finished with seven catches for 127 yards, which was also a career high.
BYU’s passing defense could get its biggest test of the season Saturday when USC comes to town. The Trojans upset No. 23 Stanford 45-20 Saturday behind a dazzling debut from freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who went 28-of-33 for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
He set a school record for passing yards in a freshman’s start for the program.
Slovis was thrown into the starting role when J.T. Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
Slovis didn’t have a chance to do much as Daniels’ replacement a week ago, but was given more chances against the Cardinal after a week’s worth of prep by offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.
“We understood his talent, and we understood the type of players our quarterbacks are,” USC coach Clay Helton said in media reports. “I said, ‘Graham, let’s cut it loose, and let’s go have fun. Let’s play fast and aggressive. Even though he’s young, we named him the No. 2 for a reason.”
He is clearly the guy now.