‘Take your best guy one-on-one’: BYU asked its leaders to save the season. Jaren Hall and Puka Nacua delivered

Nacua caught a touchdown on a fourth down-and-goal to give BYU a 31-28 win over Boise State

Boise, Idaho • Jaren Hall knew it before the ball was snapped. With a fourth down-and-goal, down by four with 1:46 left on the clock, he only looked to one option with the season on the line.

He was throwing it to Puka Nacua. The man who stood up in the locker room after a devastating loss to Liberty and told his teammates to look themselves in the mirror. The man who stood side-by-side with Hall as BYU trenched through a winless October and people fired shots at an underachieving team. The man who is BYU’s best player and most vocal leader. Who else would Hall go to?

“You take your best guy one-on-one,” Hall said of his final throw.

And as Hall lofted a fade route down the sideline, he saw Nacua fight off a defender draped over him, spin as he bobbled it in the air, and come down with the game-winning touchdown.

31-28 BYU. Captain to captain. BYU would either end its worst stretch of football in years, or start anew, with the players who led it through it all. Fittingly, it broke through.

“That is a dream come true,” Nacua said, who had 157 yards and 14 catches. “Those are the moments that we live for. I’ve been dreaming of that stuff since I was a little kid... It wasn’t the best look to throw that ball. But that is my job to go out there and make plays. I came down with it.”

It would be hard to overstate the magnitude of that play and the performance BYU’s two best players authored.

On the line was BYU’s path to bowl eligibility, which now appears solidified as the Cougars have five wins before playing FCS opponent Utah Tech. There was also the weight of history, as this team tried to avoid becoming just the second BYU group to lose five-straight games since 1974.

And before that final pass, it looked like the Cougars were careening toward another loss.

After scripting a perfect first three quarters, the defense was wearing down. Boise State’s offense started to come alive with three consecutive touchdown drives.

Whereas BYU had controlled the game before that, holding the ball for 36 minutes and tallying 532 yards, it had devolved into a shootout — the style that had spurned the Cougars several times before over a four-game losing streak.

It looked like early mistakes, where BYU couldn’t capitalize on four scoring chances in the first half, would come back to haunt it.

“Plenty of mistakes made,” a visibly relieved Kalani Sitake said after the game. “I think we were able to overcome it because of our belief and trust in each other. It just felt good to play football and get a win. Get back to our identity.”

And that identify showed itself in both ways. First was the positive way, where BYU’s main contributors showed up.

Hall finished 29-of-42 for a career-best 377 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He added 82 yards on the ground, bringing him to 459 total yards.

Nacua finished with the third-most receptions in a single game in BYU history, with 14. He had two touchdowns that both gave BYU a lead late in the second half.

“He is one of the best players in college football,” Sitake said of Nacua. “We have to get him the ball.”

The combination of Hall and Nacua allowed younger players to step up too. Backup Hinckley Ropati had 110 all-purpose yards for his best game of his career. Lopini Katoa had 46 yards on the ground.

But BYU also showed its more recent identity, where it almost found ways to lose the game despite everything going right.

In the first quarter, it got stopped on a fourth down-and-one at the Boise State 33-yard line. The Broncos would head down and score on the next drive, tying the game and wiping away a promising BYU start.

In the second quarter, Hall threw two interceptions inside Boise State territory. Then, on the final play of the first half, Lopini Katoa was stopped at the one-yard line to keep the game tied. BYU’s strongest defensive half in weeks — allowing just three first downs and 79 yards — was wasted.

“There were some untimely mistakes with the turnovers and not converting on fourth down,” Sitake said.

But this week, unlike the long list of losses before it, BYU found a way to win. It looked to the two leaders that were the reason BYU came into this season with expectations of 10 wins. It looked to the two guys who took responsibility as BYU lost games. It asked them to save a season gone sideways.

They delivered.