Tampa, Fla. • All week, Jaren Hall downplayed the significance of coming back to Tampa — the place where he started his first college football game in 2019 and was subsequently knocked out of the contest. The BYU quarterback told reporters he wasn’t concerned about those storylines.
But when he was asked about it one last time after BYU trounced USF 50-21 at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, he let out the real answer.
“I watched the  game before this game,” Hall said. “[I wanted] to see my young self and the way I have grown. Now I’m just allowing the game to come to me. Not having to feel [the game] out. Like today, we started fast and were able to throw the ball early.”
The admission was a telling insight into Hall’s mindset, but it also served as a salient description of BYU’s season-opener.
The game in Tampa meant something to more than just Hall. After the contest, others on the team talked about their own hidden motivations coming into the game. They wanted to dispel the notion BYU couldn’t win in Florida — where it was 1-9 in the last ten appearances. They wanted to show how much they had grown.
BYU knew coming into the day that a win wasn’t going to convince outsiders that the Cougars were on the same level as No. 10 Baylor. USF was not a strong enough opponent for that. Instead, it was about showing enough growth — enough glimpses of skill — to where BYU could prove to itself it could be competitive with a team like Baylor next week.
And BYU did exactly that by beating a team it knew very little about, on the road, two time zones away. Last year — when BYU lost to Baylor — it struggled in a similar situation. Now, the Cougars think they are more mature and ready to handle the challenge.
“We know how good we are and how good we can be,” Lopini Katoa said of what the win means. “The last time we came to Florida, we lost. It hurt. So to just have that flipped around right now, it is a great feeling. To see the growth we have had, it is pretty crazy.”
The production that might go unnoticed
Hall consumed much of the attention on the offensive side of the ball. It’s easy to do when you are as efficient as the junior quarterback was.
He finished with 261 yards on 25-for-32 passing, two touchdowns and one interception. His command over the offense largely dictated the pace of play and churned out 50 points in BYU’s opener.
But lost in all of this is that BYU had more rushing yards than passing yards against USF. Combined, BYU had 315 yards rushing against 261 yards throwing. It was propelled by newcomer Chris Brooks, who rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
The most significant part of the rushing offense, though, was BYU’s persistence in using it. There were moments in the game, particularly in the second and third quarters, when USF did a nice job stopping the run. It would have been easy to turn to Hall and let him operate an offense that was averaging over 10 yards a pass.
But offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick stuck with the run, rotating Brooks in with Katoa. It paid off when Brooks broke off a 52-yard touchdown that sealed the game in the third quarter.
“We just knew if we keep chipping away, that things would work out for us and be able to break off some runs,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “Our coaches don’t give up on our guys. I have to watch the film but I felt like we were getting some momentum and the guys could see we were believing in them. And that mattered more.”
Here is why this is important going forward: BYU is going to need a balanced offense over the next two weeks as it gets Baylor and Oregon. Baylor will have better answers for the passing attack than USF did tonight.
And the health of BYU’s top two receivers is also in question. Gunner Romnney did not play against USF. Puka Nacua left the field on crutches.
The backup receivers played well in the season-opener, but having a reliable running game will be imperative for two top-15 opponents.
Get ready for another week of questions around Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua
It didn’t seem to matter much that BYU’s top two receivers played a total of a quarter and a half of football on Saturday.
Nacua had two touchdowns and 98 yards before being sidelined with an ankle injury. Romney did not make the trip.
But against Baylor, BYU’s production from its best receivers will be much more imperative. And it doesn’t seem that either of them are locks to play next week either.
On the Nacua front, Sitake said him sitting out the second half was preventive. The boot he walked out of the stadium in was so he could get a head start on the healing process, according to the coaches.
“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.”
As for Romney, Sitake indicated he was close to playing on Saturday. However, he did not make the trip to Tampa and BYU left on Thursday. So how close actually is “close”?
“I would say [he was] really close to playing today,” Sitake said. “But that is not my specialty in medicine. He will get evaluated tomorrow.”
Defense has a solid performance
It won’t break any records or move the needle much, but the defense did what it had to do.
BYU didn’t know much about USF’s offense coming in. It had a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback. But BYU’s defense was able to make enough adjustments to hold the Bulls to 21 points.
“It is a relief,” Max Tooley said, who had an interception return for a touchdown. “... We prepared for what we could. They had two new coordinators, never know what you are going to see. But we just trusted our preparation.”
Of course, the defense will face a much taller task next week. But it still deserves some credit for being able to adjust. It created a turnover and held USF to under five yards per carry.
“No college football game is easy,” Tooley said. “South Florida is going to come to play. Mix that in with game one, things happen. You aren’t as sharp as a team and you never really know what is going to happen. But I think we took the challenge.”
For now, it was mission accomplished.