Las Vegas • They knelt around their teammate and waited.
Some prayed. All worried.
BYU defensive back Keenan Ellis’ head had snapped back while covering a pass attempt in the first quarter of Saturday night’s season-opener against Arizona. As he lay on the field badly injured, his coaches, teammates and BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe surrounded him on the field.
It took nearly a dozen medical personnel almost 20 minutes to attend to Ellis, secure him to a gurney and cart him off the field at Allegiant Stadium.
It took that moment to get the Cougars going.
“I think it really just brought everyone together,” BYU’s Keenan Pili, who set a career-high with 17 total tackles, said afterward. “Obviously you never want to see a player like that — a teammate we care for, we love, to see him like that kinda hurts. But then we kind of rallied together. We got each other’s shoulders and said ‘let’s do this for him. Let’s do it for our brothers.’”
It wasn’t pretty — actually, at times it was downright ugly — but BYU outlasted the Arizona Wildcats, 24-16, on Saturday, staving off a late-game momentum shift and rally from Arizona to get its first win of the season.
“I was really proud of the fight from our team to respond and find a way to win,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “That was a major thing. Obviously, there’s a lot of places to improve on — just glad we got the win. Just get that one out of the way and find a way to improve from Week 1 to Week 2.”
BYU was slow to start and looked shaky throughout the first quarter and most of the second. It also didn’t help that multiple Cougars suffered injuries early in the game.
Then Ellis went down with an injury.
The moment it happened, it was clear it was bad. Ellis was behind Michael Willie, who was unable to catch Gunner Cruz’s pass. However, when Ellis collided with Willie’s lower back, the defensive back’s head visibly snapped back.
Ellis was taken to the University Medical Center trauma center in Las Vegas. BYU later reported that the defensive back’s CT scan was normal, but that he would “spend the night in the hospital for observation.”
Shortly after Ellis’ injury, wide receiver Gunner Romney went down with a leg injury. Romney was hit from behind as Arizona defenders were stopping Cougar running back Tyler Allgeier and got his leg caught under him. Romney was later seen on the sidelines using a pair of crutches and appeared to be finished for the night.
BYU was able to eventually piece some plays together to form a successful drive and made its first touchdown of the night — on a 15-yard rushing play by Allgeier — with just under four minutes left in the first half.
The momentum stayed on the Cougars’ side, as quarterback Jaren Hall connected with wide receiver Neil Pau’u for a 67-yard touchdown to put BYU up 14-0.
The Cougars went into halftime leading 14-3.
Hall continued to impress in his third career start. The BYU quarterback found Pau’u for their second touchdown connection of the game. The score was set up by a 39-yard keeper from Hall.
Once BYU was up 21-3, something started clicking for Arizona. Within a minute and a half, the Wildcats made the perfect punt to put BYU at its 1-yard line, scored a safety on the ensuing play and then went on to quickly score their first touchdown of the night.
Just like that, Arizona made it a one-score game, 21-13.
The teams ended with a field goal apiece, and BYU picked off Arizona to seal the victory late. Since Sitake took over the Cougar program, BYU is 5-1 in season openers and 3-0 against Arizona.
While the Cougars came out with a win, there is still room for improvement.
Arizona put up 426 total yards — 58 more than BYU — the majority of which came through the air (345).
In Hall’s first start since the 2019 season, the redshirt sophomore threw for 198 yards and two scores on 18 of 28 passing, all without giving up an interception and only being sacked once. The Spanish Fork native also added 36 yards on five carries.
Hall’s predecessor, Zach Wilson, took some time off from preseason duties with the New York Jets to travel to Las Vegas and support his Cougars from the sidelines. The No. 2 overall pick was been seen on the sideline, the jumbotron and mingling with fans in the city.
“Dude’s a great player,” Wilson said of Hall during an interview on ESPN. “He’s going to keep getting better every single week. He has all the tools, so he’s going to keep doing his thing. I’m excited to see where it takes him.”
Pau’u had eight grabs for 126 yards and two scores, and Allgeier rushed for 94 yards and a score on 17 carries.
“The team, I just think, we weren’t as crisp as everyone says we should be,” Allgeier said. “I think that’s probably the big thing, we want to be more crisp and really just learn from the mistakes that we made.”