At a quick glance, BYU pulled a repeat during the 2019 football season — a 7-6 record, identical to the previous year. But there was growth this season, even if it looked like another middle-of-the-pack finish.
Peel away some layers, and there were some milestone wins for Kalani Sitake’s program — at Tennessee in Week 2, over USC at home the following week and, maybe most impressively, a heart-stopping victory over Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in late October. That’s three wins over teams that eventually went to bowls. The Cougars also were the only team to beat the Broncos during the regular season.
Additionally, BYU reclaimed the Old Wagon Wheel, storming to a 42-14 victory over Utah State in Logan the week after upending Boise State. The Cougars were never better as a complete team than during that two-week stretch.
And yet ... it was a pair of maddening back-to-back losses as September turned into October — at Toledo and South Florida — a no-show performance at San Diego State in the regular-season finale and the wild bowl loss to Hawaii that kept the Cougars from accomplishing bigger things.
Could this team have gone 9-4 or even 10-3? You could make that argument. But inconsistency was the calling card of these Cougars.
Injuries certainly played a role. The Cougars lost their A-list running back, Ty’son Williams, early on, in the loss to Washington, with a torn ACL. His backup, Sione Finau, suffered his own ACL injury in late November. BYU went to running back-by-committee the rest of the way — with Jackson McChesney emerging as a real spark down the stretch.
Then there was quarterback Zach Wilson, who went down late in the game at Toledo with a thumb injury to his throwing hand. He was out for five weeks. And finally, standout linebacker Zayne Anderson only played in two games before being sidelined again with his ongoing shoulder injury.
Wilson wound up topping his freshman year, throwing for 2,382 yards and 11 touchdowns while completing 62 percent of his passes, but his propensity for turnovers (nine interceptions), especially in the bowl game, raised questions.
The Cougars showed resiliency, for sure. With Wilson’s backup, Jaren Hall, shelved by a concussion that stayed with him for much of the rest of the season, freshman Baylor Romney stepped up and acquitted himself well in guiding BYU to wins over Boise, USU and Liberty. He gave way to Wilson late in the year, but made it clear he will be a factor in the 2020 battle for the Cougar QB job.
There were also season-long issues that had nothing to do with who played quarterback.
BYU, simply, could not stop the run in 2019, giving up 2,178 yards and 14 TDs on the ground. That’s a glaring shortcoming for a program run by a guy — Sitake — who earned his keep as a defensive coordinator before taking the Cougars’ head coaching job in 2016.
BYU’s defense did become adept at forcing turnovers — 15 picks alone, with many of them coming from the linebackers — but they couldn’t force them when really needed. Three of the four games that BYU let slip out of its hands were decided by a single touchdown or less.
Statistically BYU made huge improvements on offense from 2018. After averaging just 365 total yards that season, BYU jumped to an average of 444 yards in 2019, ranking a more-than-respectable 28th nationally.
With the rushing attack in constant flux, the offense was carried by the passing game. Even though BYU started three different quarterbacks throughout the season, the Cougars averaged 284.7 yards per game on 296 of 468 passing.
Where the Cougars struggled the most, however, was in the red zone, where only 10 FBS teams fared worse. BYU converted 73.3% of its red zone attempts.
BYU’S 2020 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Sept. 5 • at Utah
Sept. 12 ˆ• Michigan State
Sept. 19 • at Arizona State
Sept. 26 • at Minnesota
Oct. 2 • Utah State
Oct. 10 • Missouri
Oct. 17 • Houston
Oct. 24 • at Northern Illinois
Nov. 7 • at Boise State
Nov. 14 • San Diego State
Nov. 21 • North Alabama
Nov. 28 • at Stanford
Note: Kickoff times have not yet been announced
But if the almost-weekly injuries kept the Cougars from being more consistent, they also revealed some depth at multiple positions, which bodes well going forward.
With the way Hall and Romney led the offense during Wilson’s absence, the competition at quarterback should be interesting when spring practice picks up in March.
And with many key players returning next year, BYU should be able to build off the 2019 season.
Although Williams could have possibly returned next season, having played in only four games before getting injured, the grad transfer didn’t think he stood the best chance to receive an NCAA medical waiver for a sixth year. Instead, he declared for the NFL draft.
Two other Cougars who were believed to leave BYU early to enter the NFL draft – tight end Matt Bushman and defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga – have announced they will stay in Provo for their senior seasons.
But fourth-string quarterback Joe Critchlow — who saw minimal action this year — and kicker Skyler Southam have entered the transfer portal.
Then there’s another key piece that could help unlock the Cougars’ potential next season: Sitake’s contract extension.
Since the start of the season, players made it clear they were aware of Sitake’s situation. The 2019 season would play an important role on whether the four-year coach would get a contract extension, or instead become a lame duck.
When the Cougars lost three straight, the players’ loyalty never wavered. Instead, they were more vocal about trusting Sitake in response to fans’ reactions on social media. After it seemed the Cougars had turned their program around, athletic director Tom Holmoe offered Sitake a contract extension in mid-November.
The decision to offer a contract extension should provide some stability to a program that appears to be on the right path, even if progress has been incremental.
Now, it’ll be up to Sitake to provide results in his fifth year leading the program.