BYU in review: Thrilling win over Houston showed the No. 14 Cougars also have some mettle

Houston defensive lineman Payton Turner, right, celebrates his sack of BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, bottom left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Before the game even started at Houston, BYU had already taken some hits. Star defensive linemen Khyiris Tonga didn’t travel with the team due to a non-COVID-related illness and defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea suffered a season-ending injury earlier in the week.

During the game, linebacker Kavika Fonua, center James Empey and wide receiver Gunner Romney all got injured and left early. But even with added adversity, the Cougars were able to adjust to come back from an early deficit to beat Houston 43-26.

“We are used to adversity, especially since this is an experienced team,” defensive lineman Zac Dawe said. “We prepared for it in the offseason. We are ready for the fourth quarter and every time we will bring our best regardless of the outcome. We are ready and we are seasoned. At the end of the day this is a team that is so tight, on offense and defense, and we all have each other’s back.”

While the offense had some hiccups throughout the middle portion of the game, the defense seemed to struggle worse early on.

Houston mounted 334 offensive yards (234 passing, 100 rushing) in the first half to go into halftime with a 20-14 lead. Tonga’s absence, in particular, was noticeable. The Houston Coogs tore all types of holes through the BYU defensive line.

But the second half showed a completely different defensive effort.

The Cougars gave up just 104 yards in the second half, the bulk of which came on a 98-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter. Houston’s last five drives only amounted to eight yards of offense.

“I think defensively we had to change things up,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “We had to challenge them a little bit and we had to play some man defense. … We feel really good about our strength and conditioning program and knew that in the fourth quarter we’re stronger than most teams.”

Dawe led the defensive performance with a career-best eight tackles with a career-best three tackles for loss, including one sack. Linebackers Keenan Pili and Isaiah Kaufusi also had a team-high eight tackles each.

BYU’s strong defense allowed the offense to come back to put away the game in the fourth quarter.

“I think we knew that there was some pressure and that things were slipping a little bit,” Dawe said. “But, we all came together and knew that we needed to put our foot on the gas. We just needed to play technical football and go through the fundamentals and that’s what we did.”

Three takeaways

• So far through the season, BYU has shown a fairly balanced offensive approach, even if it has favored the air game slightly. But on Friday at Houston, the Cougars almost exclusively attacked through the air.

In fact, BYU rushed for only 78 yards and the Cougars' top rushers — Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa — combined for just 36 yards on 13 carries. Sitake knew Houston would go into the game committed to stopping the run and was proud of the way his team adjusted.

“We had to keep trying because we felt that if we could get bodies on bodies we’d be good, but they started overwhelming us with pressure,” Sitake said. “As we started looking at adjustments, I thought it was a good matchup between what they were trying to do defensively and what our offensive minds were thinking about. I was glad we were able to go to a few things to make it work and that our guys came out with a win.”

• Zach Wilson has gone 132 attempts without throwing an interception — the last pick came in the season opener at Navy. The streak is the sixth longest in BYU football history and is the first time since 1991, when Ty Detmer led the Cougars, that BYU has gone four games without throwing an interception.

• After Friday’s performance, BYU improved to 3-0 over Houston. Two of those wins have come behind 400-yard passing games — Taysom Hill in 2013 (417 yards, four touchdowns) and Wilson (400 yards, four touchdowns). Hill also ran for 128 yards and Wilson added 40 rushing yards.

Player of the game

It’s a tie:

Zach Wilson, junior, quarterback

Wilson threw for a career-best 400 yards and a career-tying four touchdowns on 25 of 35 passing. With his four touchdowns on Friday, Wilson now has a career 35 touchdown passes, tying with Brandon Doman and Riley Nelson for 16th at BYU.

• Dax Milne, junior, wide receiver

Milne had a career night with nine receptions for 184 yards and three touchdowns. The junior is the first BYU player with three receiving touchdowns in a game since Mitch Mathews caught three against Utah State in 2013. It is also Milne’s third 100-yard game this season.

Play of the game

There could be an argument to be made that the onside kick was the best play of the game, but the real spark happened a minute earlier.

After scoring their third touchdown of the night toward the end of the third quarter, Houston decided to attempt a two-point conversion rather than an extra-point, but the pass was intercepted by BYU defensive back George Udo in the end zone.

From that moment on, it was BYU’s game. The Cougars immediately followed up with their own touchdown — the first score since the first quarter — and then had that perfectly placed onside kick to have back-to-back possessions.

Up next

BYU will close out its three-game Texas rodeo with Texas State on Oct. 24 back at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Cougars took on UTSA and Houston over the last two weeks.

It will be the first meeting between BYU and Texas State, which is a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

The Bobcats were 1-4 going into Saturday’s matchup at South Alabama. Two of their four losses came against teams BYU has already beaten — UTSA and Troy.

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