Disrespected? BYU will have bigger tests, but Cougars wanted to make a statement at South Florida

Jaren Hall and the No. 25-ranked Cougars won handily in Tampa.

(Jason Behnken | AP) BYU running back Christopher Brooks (2) runs for a 52-yard touchdown during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against South Florida on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.

Tampa, Fla. • Parker Kingston recalled the meeting in detail. Offense only. Aaron Roderick standing at the front of the room, peering out on a group that averaged 33 points per game a year ago and returned 80% of its production.

Days earlier, BYU was issued the No. 25 ranking in the country.

“You should feel disrespected by that,” Kingston recalled Roderick, Cougars’ offensive coordinator, saying. “With all the returning guys in this room, we should feel disrespected.”

A week after Kingston’s retelling of that story, BYU played like a team wrongfully left on the fringes of the national conversations, cruising past South Florida, 50-21.

Maybe it wasn’t the biggest test on BYU’s schedule. That will come over the next two weeks when the Cougars play host to No. 10 Baylor and then travel to No. 11 Oregon. But this wasn’t an insignificant game either. Not with BYU winning in a state where it was previously 1-9 in its last ten appearances. And the Cougars did it after waiting out a 2 hour and 35-minute lightning delay to start the year.

“The maturity of our guys, we just took care of business,” quarterback Jaren Hall said. “There was a lot of talk about everything going against us [playing in Florida] and all that stuff. But we made plays quick and fed off of that.”

Coming into Saturday, much was made of the sneaky challenge that South Florida presented. The Bulls were a team that returned a lot of production from a season ago. It brought in an influx of transfers, including former Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon. And it was believed that a two-win USF team in 2021 had retooled its offense behind a handful of offensive analysts.

But even with the unknown that USF presented, BYU put away the game quickly. Last year, with a less experienced team, BYU struggled to adapt to week-one challenges against Arizona. This year, the Cougars played like a ranked team should.

BYU piled on 337 yards of offense in the first half alone, converting 10 first downs before USF had one. On the first play of the game, Puka Nacua took a jet sweep 75-yards for a touchdown. The next drive, he followed it up with another score on a different sweep.

By the time USF looked up 20 minutes into the game, BYU had built a 38-0 lead. At one point in the first quarter, Cougar wideout Keanu Hill caught a 21-yard touchdown without a single USF defender within 5 yards. It was indicative of a team that simply blitzed the Bulls, as more mature teams tend to do.

“We were ready for the game,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said of the significance of the win. “I think our mindset has been great all fall camp. ... We are 1-0 and looking to improve on it.”

The effort was well-rounded. Hall completed passes to 12 receivers, with no one player compiling over four catches or 45 yards. The rushing game was spread out through five players. And even the defense got into the scoring at one point, with Max Tooley returning an interception for a 33-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter.

Hall finished 25-for-32 with 261 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Running back Chris Brooks ended with 13 carries for 135 yards and a touchdown in his BYU debut.

Nacua added 98 total yards and two touchdowns. But he went out of the game in the second quarter with an apparent ankle injury. He walked off the field on crutches.

“It was more precautionary,” Sitake said of keeping Nacua out after the second quarter. “All X-rays and everything say it is good. He could have gone but we made the decision to hold him out and get him in a boot for a recovery next week.”

Of course, there are still plenty of questions this team will have to answer for in the coming weeks. Can it apply this same performance against bigger teams ahead? Will it have the health of its best two receivers for Baylor next week? Gunner Romney did not make the trip to Tampa.

There are also some football-specific errors that BYU made. The kickoff return game struggled, giving up a 98-yard touchdown return. Hall threw an interception in the end zone that wiped away a 10-play drive. And the secondary was sloppy at times.

But at the end of the day, BYU put up 50 points in the season opener. It handily beat a team that it should have. And it made as large of a statement as possible with Baylor upcoming.

“We know how good we are and how good we can be,” running back Lopini Kotao said. “We have to stay hungry. I was talking to guys in the locker room and a lot of them are unsatisfied with how we played. We knew we could have done better. And I love that.”