BYU football looking for the hot hand and healthy bodies after win over Wyoming

Star wide receiver Puka Nacua was among a rash of injuries that shook up the Cougars’ personnel vs. the Cowboys.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Brayden Cosper (20) is taken down by Wyoming Cowboys cornerback Jakorey Hawkins (7) in football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Wyoming Cowboys at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

Provo • At first it was by design. Then it was by necessity.

As BYU returned home following a week of turmoil, both on and off the field, there was a feeling there would be shakeups in personnel. Something had to give after two straight weeks of lethargic offense and one head-scratching defensive performance.

And sure enough, the changes started immediately and came in bunches. At running back, backup Lopini Katoa trotted out to start the game. Third-stringer Miles Davis got the second series. Starter Chris Brooks didn’t see the field until midway through the first quarter.

On the defensive side, BYU rotated through Micah Harper, Talan Alfrey, Gabe Jeudy-Lally and Jakob Robinson more frequently. None of the four is a starter in the secondary, but each was given a significant shot to contribute.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Andrew Peasley (6) is taken down by Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Tyler Batty (92) and Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman John Nelson (94) in football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Wyoming Cowboys at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

All of that was scripted, a way for a seemingly frustrated Kalani Sitake to inject some life into his team.

“The competition is always still going for the entire team,” the BYU head coach said.

But then came the injuries, and personnel decisions that were made by necessity.

Wide receiver Chase Roberts was limited and played only a handful of snaps. Fellow receiver Puka Nacua went out with an injury in the second half and was helped off the field.

And all of a sudden, the injury floodgates opened. Offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia went down. Linebacker Payton Wilgar followed. Defensive tackle Josh Larsen joined the mix. And before halftime, starting safety Malik Moore went out for the game with an undisclosed injury.

So, between the scripted personnel changes and the rash of on-the-fly adjustments, BYU was rolling out a nearly unrecognizable team by the end of the night.

It is partly what made Davis’ 152-yard night, and Keanu Hill’s 160-yard performance, all the more impressive; BYU desperately needed contributions from people down in the depth chart.

But it also made it difficult to decipher which changes could be lasting. How many times is BYU going to rely on a former walk-on like Hunter Greer to make tackles on the defensive line like he did tonight? For reference, Greer isn’t even on the two-deep depth chart handed out before games.

By the end of the night, three of BYU’s top five tacklers of the night were backups. Its starting running back was the fifth-leading rusher. Its top receivers barely played.

It was an odd personnel game. As much as the Cougars wanted to shake things up, the night forced them to go to an extreme. And it leaves everyone wondering, what comes next and what can you make of these data points?

Chris Brooks left out at running back

One of the few positions where the change in personnel offered a clear takeaway was running back. Brooks is on the outs right now.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick started the year by saying Brooks would have a similar workload to Tyler Allgeier last year. Saturday, Brooks had two carries for 10 yards.

“The plan was to see who could get the hot hand,” Sitake said. “[Roderick] and the offense felt good with Miles running the ball. We will do it by committee right now and see who will get us the best chance to get this run game going. We needed something. The last two weeks weren’t good enough and you can only blame the O-line for so long.”

BYU had run the ball for 2.5 yards per carry the last two weeks. Brooks, as the featured back in both of those games, was held to 31 yards against Baylor and 28 yards against Oregon.

But the workload distribution Saturday barely had him involved. Davis had 13 carries for 131 yards. Jaren Hall had eight carries. Lopini Katoa had five and then Brooks had two.

BYU has tried to make the grad transfer from Cal a major part of the offense. He had 36 carries in the first quarter of the season. Now, it looks like BYU is done forcing it.

“The challenge for all of those guys is to step up and make plays,” Sitake said. “Find a way to protect the football, ball security, and find ways to make runs. Find ways to puncture and gain yards.

“I think Miles did some really good things. Lopini did some good things. And even Chris was in there and made some plays. But toward the end we are going to go with the hot hand.”

Puka Nacua injury

BYU had just thought it got Nacua back from injury after missing two games with an ankle problem. In the second half of his debut, though, Nacua went down and did not get back up.

He was eventually helped off the field by multiple trainers and Sitake came out to check on him.

After the game, Sitake did not comment on the severity of the injury. He said it didn’t look like a knee injury, as some had feared.

“Guys, I’m not a doctor,” Sitake said. “You guys have asked me about Gunner for the last few weeks. I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Puka until we figure it out. I’m sorry...

“Find the doctor’s numbers and ask them. I don’t know until they assess it. I think I’m always hopeful, right? But I know you guys are doing your jobs but I don’t have any answers for you. We had a lot of game-time decisions made tonight and Puka was one of them.”

Special teams surprise

There was another personnel decision tonight that many didn’t see coming. Backup kicker Justen Smith came on to attempt BYU’s lone field goal try of the evening. He made the 29-yard attempt.

Starter Jake Oldroyd has missed his last three field goals. He handled PATs tries and kickoffs for the night. He did have a kickoff that sailed out of bounds and Wyoming took over at midfield.

Sitake said the plan going into the night was to give both kickers time.

“We might have to go with two kickers going forward. I don’t know,” Sitake said. “We just have to find a way to make kicks.”