The season just broke wide open.
BYU’s path to a New Year’s Six bowl game still requires close to perfection. But after the Cougars knocked off No. 9 Baylor and leaped into the top 15 in the country, that path is coming into clearer focus now.
It begs the question, should the expectations for this season be rewritten?
We knew coming into this year that the postseason prospects for BYU were an uphill climb. There is only one at-large spot in the New Year’s Six bowl games this season for an independent team — all the rest have conference tie-ins. To chase that spot, BYU essentially needed to win out. And with the 13th toughest schedule in the country, it would be tough.
But college football has a way of changing on a dime. And Saturday did just that.
Not only did BYU vault over a major obstacle — winning the biggest home game of the season — but everything else fell into place around it.
Notre Dame has opened the season by losing twice. Oregon, who BYU will visit this week, opened the season by getting beat 49-3 by Georgia.
All of a sudden, the games that looked truly difficult for BYU to win now look quite winnable. The Cougars will be the higher-ranked team when they play both Oregon and Notre Dame; and ESPN’s Football Power Index now has those matchups as a toss-up instead of BYU losses.
Expectations should change with the complete performance the defense put together against Baylor. Couple that with Jaren Hall living up to his preseason billing even without his top two receivers.
Plus, Notre Dame’s losses clear up more room for BYU to get that at-large bid to the New Year’s Six. The Irish, also an independent, were always going to be BYU’s main competition for that spot. Now with the Irish unranked and BYU at No. 12, it looks like the Cougars control their destiny.
Of course, things can change instantly and pivot in the opposite direction. BYU’s defense needs to stay healthy. The Cougars also have tough, if winnable, games ahead. Oregon on the road, right off an emotional win, is going to pose a real challenge.
But for now, BYU’s win over Baylor is changing the dynamic of the season. When you beat a top-10 team and catapult into the national conversation, that tends to happen.
Time of possession
We have written quite a bit about the defense over the last couple of days. It was probably the most well-rounded defensive effort BYU has had in years, against a top-10 team no less.
But what also deserves attention is the time of possession.
I kept thinking throughout the game that the longer BYU’s defense was on the field, the more Baylor was going to wear it down. The Bears wanted it like that. They wanted to grind down BYU into third-and-short situations, and just run the ball until BYU couldn’t stop it.
And it worked for a while. Baylor converted on nine third downs compared to BYU’s three. It put together some drives in the third quarter where it just bludgeoned the Cougars and moved the ball down the field.
But when it really mattered, BYU showed its depth could handle the sheer volume of plays and physicality. Max Tooley was fantastic all night. Keenan Pili worked well alongside him.
Last year, BYU didn’t have that type of depth after Pili and Payton Wilgar. Now guys like Tooley and Ben Bywater look ready for the moment. It showed, and the defense deserves that credit.
Baylor didn’t see that coming. It’s probably why the Bears ran the ball 52 times. They were convinced BYU would fold. For now, the Cougars have answered the bell about what is different about this defense.
Jaren Hall playing like Jaren Hall
Jaren Hall can go a bit unnoticed at times, as crazy as that sounds. Take the first game of the season as an example.
He checked the ball down, made the right plays and almost under-the-radar churned out 50 points of offense. His quarterback rating was 161, but it still felt like he didn’t do everything he could have.
This week, it was a display of how important he is to this group. He was under duress most of the night, but made plays when it counted.
I’m thinking of the drive with 2:08 left to play in regulation, ball at BYU’s 10-yard line, and Hall led the march down into scoring range. He scampered for two first downs, delivered strikes to Chase Roberts.
And he also did it without the guys he is used to. Much will be made about how good Roberts was. But it also takes a lot of confidence and faith from a fifth-year quarterback to trust a freshman in a big spot. And he did that.
Hall might have had a rating of 69 in this game, almost 100 points lower than last week. But make no mistake, this was a far better performance.
Offensive line needs to be better
All offseason, we were told about BYU’s depth on the offense line — proven depth, too, with eight guys starting games against Power Five opponents.
But for the first time in a while, there were some issues on BYU’s offensive line on Saturday. Hall was under pressure at times and the running game had no holes to run through.
Chris Brooks finished with 13 carries for 31 yards. Overall, BYU’s running game averaged 2.5 yards per carry over 33 attempts.
The argument can definitely be made that Baylor’s defensive line is elite, which it is. Consider last year, when Baylor gave up just 33 yards rushing to Tyler Allgeier. The defense of the reigning Big 12 champions closes gaps in a hurry and has real speed.
But with how good BYU’s offensive line is supposed to be, you would figure there would be a couple of plays later in the game where the offensive line would win some battles and open up some holes. But it never did. Brooks’ longest carry of the game went for 6 yards. Lopini Katoa’s longest run was for 7 yards.
Also, that offensive line had some key penalties that killed scoring chances. Like Blake Freeland’s false start that forced a punt. Or Kingsley Suamataia’s holding call.
BYU still found a way to win, but going forward, BYU’s offensive line needs to look a little bit better. The Cougars need the running game, if for nothing else to give the defense a rest.
Because BYU couldn’t run the ball, the offense wasn’t able to bleed much clock off of drives. It had seven drives of under four minutes. As a result, the defense was on the field for 80 plays and over 30 minutes in regulation. If that continues, that is how injuries happen and defenses break down.