BYU’s football players spoke almost reverently this week about the mystique of the USC football program. Following Saturday’s 30-27 overtime win over the Trojans, the Cougars deserve some high praise of their own.
Not only did the Cougars upset a ranked team in Provo for the first time since beating No. 20 Boise State in 2015, they also came from behind and won their second straight game in overtime and did so with a defense missing several key players with injuries. Let us also mention the offense had its most efficient day thus far.
All in all, it was an extremely satisfying day and, let’s go ahead and acknowledge it, surprising to probably more than a few fans. Be honest, who didn’t think BYU was in for a long day after USC easily went 74 yards on its opening drive to score a touchdown? We will raise our hand and admit it. But the Cougars had us fooled as adjustments and resiliency served them well.
“No matter the score, no matter the time left on the clock, this team keeps fighting and fighting,” running back Ty’Son Williams said.
One can’t overstate the importance of the win for coach Kalani Sitake either. While he tried to brush off any implications, the fact is Saturday’s result was big for a program that has had some quality wins here and there, but has had trouble putting several together.
Now, the Cougars have these two big wins behind them, and another big opportunity with Washington coming to town for a 1:30 p.m. game on Saturday.
The Cougars know they have to continue to improve, but as quarterback Zach Wilson said, it is easier to do with after a win.
“The fact that we got a win is huge,” he said. “I’m proud of this team for battling.”
• Expected to be an offensive shootout, particularly after the Trojans beat Stanford 45-20 last week, Saturday’s game with the Trojans instead turned into more of a defensive grind in the second half with a scoreless third quarter.
Defensively, the Cougars excelled in several areas despite injuries to several players. The Cougars gave up just 94 yards passing after halftime and, just as they did at Tennessee, provided huge stops when needed most.
In the fourth quarter, BYU gave up just two yards on one drive, forcing the Trojans to punt from their 15-yard line which gave the Cougars ideal field position on USC’s 48-yard line.
The Cougars scored a touchdown on that drive.
The Cougars’ defense was good enough to force BYU to go for a 52-yard field goal near the end of regulation. Chase McGrath made the kick, leading to overtime, but seeing the Trojans struggle to make yards on that drive on the ground was very unlike USC football, something that didn’t get past Sitake.
“We made an air raid team rely heavily on the run and that was a good thing for us,” he said.
• The offense is starting to look multi-faceted for the Cougars. Wilson remains the star of the show for the Cougars, but they are revealing more and more weapons. Williams rushed for 99 yards on 19 carries and backup quarterback Jaren Hall made a brief appearance. The Cougars also used corner Dayan Ghanwoloku on the offensive side of the ball.
Wilson completed passes to 12 different players. It’s notable that tight end Matt Bushman, expected to be Wilson’s favorite outlet this season, had just one catch for 17 yards.
The Cougars probably would love more production out of him, but for now they have to be happy with their development.
“The good thing is we are doing what we can and not adjusting to too much what other people are doing and it is working,” Wilson said.
• The Cougars are getting a sense of making the big plays. Whether it was Khyiris Tonga setting the tone by sacking USC quarterback Kedon Slovis early in the game or Dayan Ghanwoloku snagging the game-winning interception off a tipped pass, BYU is finding a way to make huge plays at crucial moments. Doing so takes more football sense in the moment than anything else, so excelling in something that is ambiguous and not easily coachable is promising.
Wilson is growing too as a quarterback, looking more and more comfortable leading the offense. He is still struggling some with accuracy, but he didn’t have any major mistakes and he showed a lot of poise in the way he led the team in the second half.
Player of the game
There were quite a few candidates after such a big win but give the nod to quarterback Wilson. His numbers were not only good, throwing 20-of-33 for 280 yards and a touchdown, but his decision making continues to be solid and the way he plays under pressure is impressive.
He did a great job extending plays with his feet and the drive midway through the fourth quarter, when he connected with Gunner Romney for 35 yards and scored on a 16-yard run showed his maturity.
He was sacked three times but again he showed poise in not making bad decisions that could have led to interceptions.
Play of the game
Coaches love tip drills and Saturday’s game showed why. BYU’s defense did a great job of harassing USC quarterback Kedon Slovis all day, sacking him twice and getting three interceptions. The last was the most memorable with linebacker Kavika Fonua tipping the ball that was then hauled in by Ghanwoloku.
“I was reading the quarterback and doing my job,” said Fonua, who led the defense with 13 tackles. “I saw him look back into the middle and I just tried to get a hand on it.”
The Cougars face another rising quarterback in Washington’s Jacob Eason. The transfer from Georgia was 18-of-25 for 262 yards and three touchdowns in the Huskies’ 52-20 win over Hawaii.
Washington was stunned a week ago when Cal scored a 20-19 upset, but there were no thoughts of another surprising loss to Hawaii as the Huskies went up 21-0 less than nine minutes into the game.
Eason’s go-to guy is tight end Hunter Bryant, who had five catches for 115 yards on Saturday and has 15 catches for 236 yards and a touchdown on the season.
Saturday’s contest at BYU is the first road game of the season for the Huskies, who opened the season with a 47-14 win over Eastern Washington.