Provo • They celebrated at the 25-yard line. Seniors in the middle of the pile, everyone else jumping around them.
From the looks of it, nobody would know that anything out of the ordinary transpired. A 52-26 win over an FCS opponent on Senior Day and a ticket to a bowl game stamped. It seemed like the rightful sendoff for the senior class.
But what the scene didn’t show was that Utah Tech threatened to bust BYU’s 17-0 record against lower division opponents for the first 40 minutes of the game. That the Cougars committed 132 yards worth of penalties and couldn’t seem to do what FBS opponents should do against FCS schools. That turnovers and drops added to an air of sloppiness to BYU’s sixth win of the season.
Yes, it was the end result that BYU wanted. But it was about as ugly of a way to get to bowl eligibility as possible.
“Obviously it didn’t go as clean as I would like,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “But that is how a lot of these FCS games go. … I’m just glad we made it to a bowl game.”
And it was a duality of the scene that transpired on Saturday that was striking. On the one hand, it wasn’t the standard Sitake always talks about.
Utah Tech had a 20-14 lead late in the second quarter and was within one score until five minutes left in the third. Multiple busted coverages and bevy of third-down miscues made the Trailblazers feel like an equal to BYU when one team is just getting used to the Division I level and another team is heading to the Big 12.
“I feel like we get too complacent sometimes and start doing our own thing,” cornerback Jakob Robinson said. “We just have to trust everyone around us.”
Yet, on the other hand, this is already a season out of hand as BYU was 5-5. Making a bowl game was already the highest goal the Cougars could attain. So maybe it didn’t matter as much on how it got there.
Players felt that way as they celebrated a sixth win. Everyone said BYU “shot itself in the foot” or some derivation of that phrase. But also conceded that there was more joy than disappointment. Had BYU had aspirations for a certain bowl or the postseason, how it won and tangible improvement might carry weight. Not necessarily anymore for this group.
“When you don’t have a perfect season, the season you expect, it really comes down to how you finish the season,” quarterback Jaren Hall said. “We can’t control what has happened to this point. We lost control of that. So now it is what can you control. … All of it comes back to character.”
When BYU’s defense finally settled into the game in the second half, the Cougars looked more like the team they should. After allowing 274 yards of offense before the intermission, BYU limited Utah Tech to 146 yards in the second half.
It gave up two long, third-down conversations and a late touchdown, but Sitake conceded that most of the backups were in at that point.
And with the defense getting off the field, the offense had time to separate. Hall threw for a career-high 456 yards and five touchdowns. He hit Keanu Hill for several deep-shot touchdowns, and Hill finished with a career high in catches with six for 137 yards. Chase Roberts added 82 yards and Chris Brooks finished with 102 yards on the ground.
When Hall scampered in for a 10-yard rushing touchdown with five minutes left in the third, giving BYU its first two-score lead, the game was over.
“I think everybody expects the FBS team to be up by 50 in the first quarter,” Sitake said. “You see it all throughout football. Sometimes you just got to play all four quarters. We knew we were going to get their best shot. Things looked a little rocky there, especially in the first quarter. But it is a long game.”
Receiver Puka Nacua, after the game, embodied the general feeling around the win. As a junior who might not come back next year, he celebrated a victory on Senior Day. He said he was happy that he will get another game to play with a bowl game.
But he also acknowledged that this game should have been easier. BYU should have been better. Did it that part matter? Well, he said, maybe we don’t need an answer.
“We got to be better. But it was nice,” Nacua said. “You wish on Senior Night and playing an FCS school, you want to come out and start fast. So there is a nice groove going into the game. But we won, so yeah.”