BYU in review: Cougar defense had a knockout performance against Minutemen, but younger players have room to grow

(J. Anthony Roberts | The Republican via AP) Massachusetts Isaiah Rodgers, right, leaps up and knocks the ball out of the hands of BYU wide receiver Micah Simon during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019 in Amherst, Mass.

Amherst, Mass. • Although BYU went on to finish the game against UMass with a 56-24 win, the Cougars really needed only one half to decide the game.

BYU’s offense outscored the Minutemen 49-0 in two quarters, but the defense had an even bigger knockout performance.

UMass managed two first downs on nine first-half drives and gained yardage on just two of them. The Minutemen made 1 of 8 third-down conversions and crossed into BYU territory once, but barely.

By halftime, the Minutemen had 31 yards of total offense.

The Cougar defense also got a pick by JJ Nwigwe and a fumble recovery by Dayan Ghanwoloku.

When it came to Nwigwe’s interception — his first career pick — the senior defensive lineman said he was in the right spot at the right time. But it also couldn’t have been done without the defensive coverage his teammates provided. With all the receivers locked up, UMass backup quarterback Randall West tried to throw it away.

“He looked at me and he threw it, and I’m like, ‘Oh my, I can catch this,’” Nwigwe said. “And of course, I didn’t catch it initially. It hit my helmet, it bounced off my shoulder pads and I kind of double caught it in the air and just secured the ball. It was crazy. It was unreal. Just seeing the sideline get hype after that was really fun.”

Three takeaways

• A week after giving up 85 yards on 12 penalties, the starters and usual contributors played a completely clean game in the first half. With heavy use of backups and third-stringers in the second half, the Cougars tallied six penalties for 55 yards. But none was for a false start, which the Cougars struggled with against Idaho State.

“Again, I give a lot of credit to our coaches for teaching our guys more discipline but also making sure that they perform better,” coach Kalani Sitake said.

• The younger guys still have plenty of room to grow.

While not all was bad — fifth-string running back Jackson McChesney set a school record for freshmen with 228 rushing yards — the Cougars gave up 261 yards on defense and allowed UMass to score 24 points. After the half, BYU’s offense scored only once more. However, the only way the younger guys will grow is with game experience.

• UMass took a bigger blow than just a loss to close out the season. The Minutemen lost their starting quarterback and cornerback in the second quarter, but they didn’t give up and eventually scored 24 points in the second half.

Andrew Brito went down in the end zone after taking a big hit after throwing an incomplete pass. The quarterback fell on his left arm and didn’t return for the remainder of the game. Isaiah Rodgers was injured on a kick return when he slipped on the run as Max Tooley went in for the tackle, resulting in an unfortunate head-to-head collision.

Player of the game

Zach Wilson, sophomore, quarterback.

Wilson had his best passing performance this season in his second game back after suffering an early-season injury. The only game Wilson’s thrown for more yards this year was when he threw for 315 yards at Toledo — before fracturing his right (throwing) thumb in the fourth quarter.

While he threw for 22 yards less at UMass (293), Wilson was a lot more efficient. The sophomore completed 85% of his passes and led the offense to seven consecutive scoring drives in the first half.

Up 49-0 at halftime, Sitake put in backup quarterback Joe Critchlow in to finish the game.

“It seemed like he was kind of in the zone and felt really comfortable with it,” Sitake said. “I think the first series he got sacked, but other than that I thought, mentally he was ready to roll.”

Play of the game

BYU’s efficiency was showcased in a single play.

During the second quarter, after UMass’ punt was downed, the Cougars started their fourth drive of the game. In one play — a 48-yard reception by Talon Shumway — BYU scored. In all, it took nine seconds.

Up next

The Cougars will revive their old WAC and Mountain West rivalry with San Diego State on Saturday when they travel to San Diego County Credit Union Stadium. BYU will look to close out its regular season with a sixth straight victory.

BYU leads the series 28-7-1 but hasn’t faced the Aztecs in seven years.

SDSU (8-3) lost the Mountain West Conference West Division title to Hawaii on Saturday and will host BYU to close its regular season.

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