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Gordon Monson: The mark of a better day for BYU football

In the span of two days, Cougars joined the Big 12 and earned one of their biggest wins in years

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans storm the field and celebrate with tight end Masen Wake (13) as the Brigham Young Cougars defeat the Utah Utes 26-17 in football, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 in Provo.

Provo • BYU managed to do something this week it had only sporadically done before. That something included a beginning and an ending.

It out-kicked its own rivalry game against Utah, the very game that has been the centerpiece of its football season for most of 100 years, through good seasons and bad, with news even more significant — and for the Cougars, hugely promising for their future.

After a decade of independence, of wishing and wandering and waiting, BYU found a home, a suitable home — the Big 12. Found solace in a suitable home, a league of their own.

Heaven knows, the Cougars needed it.

Adding to the solace, though, came euphoria.

Euphoria in the present.

They accomplished on Saturday night what had been just as arduous a climb, finding at long last a healing victory over Utah, the glorious end of another decade-long ascent, a climb that for nine straight games had seen them bouncing down the face of a cliff, and then trying again and again and again to get back up.

That Groundhog’s Day nightmare is over.

Suh-weeet, then, the summit is for them now, demonstrated by the spontaneous celebration among the players and coaches and the rush of the crowd onto the field.

Another bonus: With an upcoming two-season rivalry hiatus, BYU now can sit back and pat itself on the belly clean out to 2024, the next time the rivals are scheduled to play. By then, the Cougars will have a season of Big 12 play behind them and, presumably, a fresh outlook on life.

Texas Tech and Oklahoma State and TCU and Baylor and Iowa State and Kansas and Kansas State and West Virginia can wait. Houston and Cincinnati and UCF, too.

Saturday night was BYU’s to own.

The numbers shining into the dark at LaVell’s Place told the story — BYU 26, Utah 17.

Kalani Sitake called the whole of it, “Something special.”

This much is true: The Cougars badly wanted … no, had to have … this double-shot of happiness, that invitation to a P5 league and an invitation to party straight in the face of a rival that had inflicted more annual pain on them than any other opponent. They actually thought one invite might lead to the other.

And they were right.

On that last count, I’ll admit it. I was wrong. A lot of us were wrong, picking the Utes to win, again, after such a run of previous victories. Many of us figured we’d believe BYU could change the outcome when we finally saw it.

Well … see it, we did.

A tip of the helmet to the Cougars.

There was nothing flukey in the result. They played, if not great, great enough, thoroughly outperforming the Utes.

“It was a good slugfest,” Sitake said quite generously in the postgame. He failed to mention that his team did most of the slugging.

Emblematic of all the above was the last important sequence, of which Sitake said: “I like the way we ended the game.”

He should.

Despite BYU holding the advantage throughout, Utah posed a threat in the fourth quarter, attempting a comeback, shortening the Cougars’ lead to a mere six points with just more than nine minutes left to play. Micah Bernard sparked that move by the Utes, collecting 146 rushing yards and a touchdown. He also had four receptions.

For a moment, in that moment, it looked as though Utah had given itself a chance at victory. It needed just one more TD and a PAT.

But BYU, led by quarterback Jaren Hall, countered. It churned down the field on a mix of passes and runs, more of the latter, to not only burn much of the remaining clock, but to also cap a 71-yard drive with a field goal, which sealed the win. By the way, Tyler Allgeier is a helluva running back.

That drive was money, demonstrating the kind of determination and focus and poise that bodes well for a successful season, and suggests a stellar one. It showed the Cougars were going to win this thing come what may, and there wasn’t a damned thing Utah could do about it.

Except go ahead and lose.

The Utes accommodated.

BYU not only went those 71 yards, but it used 12 plays and used up 6:14 as it stretched its lead and left the Utes defeated.

Hall finished with 149 passing yards and three touchdown throws, hitting in all eight different receivers. But he balled out more with his feet, gaining 92 yards on the ground, and he would have had 48 more had he not stepped on the sideline as he scampered for a rocket ride of a TD rush on that final drive.

“He’s really starting to come into his own,” Sitake said.

Hall dodged Utah’s pass rush and presented another dimension for the Utes defense to concern itself over — a quarterback it couldn’t contain.

Basically, BYU did what most Utah opponents only wish they could do. The Cougars rolled up, over, around, through that typically formidable defensive front, rushing for 219 yards, making a joke of Kyle Whittingham’s primary defensive goal in every game — stop the run.

There was no stopping … this.

All told, BYU stirred a vat full of emotion, mixed with enough plans and strategies and toughness, to overcome the Utes’ supposed advantage in athleticism. The Cougars also benefited from Utah’s willingness to give the ball away early — via an interception and a fumble, both on the Utes’ side of the field, which buoyed BYU from the start.

Those stumbles boosted BYU to a 16-7 first-half lead, a margin that was contributed to by a couple of bad coaching decisions by Whittingham, the worst of which happened with Utah down, 10-7, late in the second quarter. That’s when the coach decided to go for a first down on fourth-and-3 at the Cougars 8-yard line instead of taking the easy points to tie the score.

The BYU defense not only slammed the door on that gamble, it tee’d up its own offense for an impressive 11-play, 93-yard touchdown drive.

That wasn’t the only time the Cougars’ D shuttered Utah’s O, transforming it on the reg into Utah’s Oh-No. BYU picked the right times to commit extra resources to pressure quarterback Charlie Brewer, at times making him look uncomfortable, like a kernel of JiffyPop dancing on a hot burner, and despite Bernard’s gains, it limited Whittingham’s favored means for moving the ball — via the run.

The Cougars out-gained the Utes on the ground, through the air, and overall. They picked up more first downs, ran more plays and converted on more third downs, a whole lot more, going 11-for-19, while the Utes converted just 2-of-9. They possessed the ball 11 minutes longer, got more sacks, Utah garnering none, and they turned the ball over not a single time.

That about covers it.

“Good signs for us,” said Sitake, pausing before adding: “… What a great night.”

The Cougars earned this win in almost every way imaginable, flat thumping the Utes.

And that signaled in their minds what some of the rest of us hadn’t yet realized: BYU, as it turns toward its new home in the Big 12, is turning a corner in the way it plays football. It’s got a more physical mindset, it’s got a better connection between the plays it calls and the players called upon to execute those plays, it’s got better talent.

If anyone thinks that’s jumping to conclusions based on scant evidence — namely, an 11-1 season last time around against lesser teams and a win now over Utah, a team the Cougars couldn’t previously beat, then they are disrespecting not just the advancement BYU has made, but also how good Utah’s program, its overall talent, its depth, its coaching is.

BYU was clearly better on Saturday night, even without Utah’s advantage of having played and recruited in the Pac-12 for more than a decade. BYU has not had that advantage, it’s had a solitary journey, it’s had … well, just BYU.

Now, it will have the Big 12. Not on the field for a couple more years, but in name. And that name association will further the ascent.

It will be worth noting the progression the Cougars make between Saturday night and the seasons ahead, after BYU has mined the rich recruiting areas in Texas and Oklahoma and other Big 12 territories, all before the blue and the red meet again in 2024.

BYU AD Tom Holmoe said on Friday that the Cougars’ invite to the Big 12 meant that some work had been done, but that there was a whole lot more work to do, that this is a beginning, not an ending.

As it pertains to the rivalry, however often Utah and BYU meet in the future, playing as they do and will in divergent leagues, Holmoe and all the Cougars figure it’s both.

They see it as the end of regularly losing to the Utes and they see it — head up, hope up, eyes up — as a means to and for what comes next.

A better day for BYU football.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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