All season long, the BYU Cougars had something to prove — that they deserved to be nationally ranked, that their softened schedule was in no part their fault and that they were the real deal.
They proved all that and more on Tuesday by routing UCF 49-23 at the Boca Raton Bowl. For the first time since 2009, the Cougars amassed 11 wins in a season.
“I’m grateful that we got to play our 12th game, and really thankful that we have this game of football to play,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “I know there’s a lot of people that work really hard to get us to play this game, and I hope they know how much we appreciate them. Speaking for our players and for our coaches, our program, we’re thankful for this opportunity to play the game, and we really enjoyed the whole season.”
BYU was quick to get the scoring started, getting into the end zone on the opening drive in just five plays. The Cougars went on to score four more times in the first half before slowing down in the latter part of the game.
The offensive efficiency was highlighted by BYU’s 655 yards of offense — a new Boca Raton Bowl record and the most yardage the Cougars have ever racked up in a bowl game. The Cougars’ 49 points also tied for their second best scoring performance in a bowl game. BYU scored 52 points in the 2010 New Mexico Bowl and 49 points in the 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Yet, the Cougars’ performance only mirrored what they had done for most of the 2020 season.
“We want our offense to be aggressive,” Sitake said. “We want them to score quickly, and then defensively, we’re going to have to come up with some stops. I’m glad that we were able to do that early, and then gain a lead on UCF.”
• BYU was visibly without a pair of coaches on the sidelines. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and offensive line coach Eric Mateos were unable to travel to Boca Raton. In place of Grimes, quarterback coach Aaron Roderick took over play calling duties. The Cougars didn’t skip a beat. BYU used eight different receivers — five of who caught for more than 50 yards — to amass 441 yards through the air. Quite often, BYU receivers were wide open, with plenty of room to run once they made the catch.
After the game, Sitake was mum about the specific reason why Grimes and Mateos were missing in Florida, though he alluded to season-long COVID-19 issues that the team has generally not publicized.
“We’ve never been full strength as a staff and as a team,” Sitake said. “We had to miss some people on the field … We pride ourselves in getting better depth this year and we had to test it quite often. This week, this bowl game, wasn’t any different.”
• The BYU offense wasn’t the only part of the Cougars that was running on all cylinders. The Cougars were able to start putting the game out of question early thanks in part to the defense. The Knights were held scoreless in the first quarter, instead having to punt twice and turned over on downs once.
BYU gave UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel some trouble and at one point made him miss on nine straight pass attempts.
“The goal was to contain that quarterback,” senior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi said. “We knew they were going to get some big plays here and there, but to just keep consistent. We rotated a lot of guys — a lot of young guys played. Overall, just a great, great team effort from everybody.”
• The Cougars converted on 7 of 11 third downs. During BYU’s third drive of the game, the Cougars converted three consecutive third downs. The first two came by Dax Milne, who caught for 10 yards and 13 yards, respectively. The third conversion came on a 11-yard catch by freshman tight end Bently Hanshaw.
Player of the game
Zach Wilson, junior, quarterback
Wilson got off to a hot start, throwing for more than 200 yards in the first quarter alone. The junior ended the night, and possibly his collegiate career, having thrown for 425 yards and three touchdowns while avoiding getting picked off. Wilson also added two rushing scores.
“He’s a great player,” Sitake said. “I think everybody’s talked about him a lot, and I hope he knows how much I appreciate him. You know, we believe in him. Coach [Aaron] Roderick has done a great job with him. I’m just so thankful that I get the coach that guy. His work ethic and his passion for the game is awesome, and it’s an honor for me to be his coach. I’m really proud of him and the things that he can do on the field.”
Play of the game
The Cougars pulled a bunch of big plays from their bag of tricks, but one of the most memorable came courtesy of running back Lopini Katoa.
Late in the second half, Wilson took some time in the pocket to scan the field and found Katoa down the field. The junior went completely horizontal on a dive catch for the books. While the play was reviewed by officials, Katoa left no doubt of it being a catch by getting both hands on the ball and both arms under it, with total control, as he fell to the ground.
Spring ball, 2021.
After losing the majority of games from the original 2020 schedule due to the pandemic, the Cougars rallied with the help of athletic director Tom Holmoe, who played matchmaker much of the season, and still were able to play 12 games, including the bowl.
The Cougars’ 11-1 finish was their best since 1996, when former Coug QB Steve Sarkisian led BYU to a 14-1 finish, including a Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State.