With a road win over Arkansas, BYU has its first big moment of a new era

BYU’s 38-31 win over Arkansas showed the identity the Cougars have been trying to craft in preparation for the Big 12.

(Michael Woods | AP) BYU defensive backs Chika Ebunoha (15) and Kamden Garrett (7) celebrate after stopping Arkansas on the final play, giving BYU a win in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Fayetteville, Ark. • Harrison Taggart implored his teammates to stay out on the field and look around.

Standing in the end zone of Razorback Stadium, Taggart’s eyes darted from the scoreboard to the herd of BYU fans chanting the fight song. His teammates were racing past him into the locker room, yelling at one another. He yelled back.

“Soak it all in while you can,” he screamed.

It was to little avail, as most of them just wanted to get inside to celebrate a 38-31 win over an SEC team on the road.

But Harrison wasn’t ready to follow. He had transferred from Oregon to BYU for moments like this. He wanted to take it in. Eventually, he turned to the security guard next to him and shared his thoughts.

“So cool,” he said as he looked around.

Taggart, like so many of the 60 new players on BYU’s roster, had come to Provo to establish a new era of in the Big 12. It would take time, everyone knew it.

But on Saturday night in Fayetteville, the program took a collective leap into its next chapter. It authored its first Big 12 moment, going on the road and beating Arkansas in front 74,821 fans (the eighth-largest crowd in Arkansas history).

And it did so in a near-impossible way, rallying twice from a double-digit deficit to beat a team that blew it out in Provo a year ago.

“It is one win,” head coach Kalani Sitake insisted. “I talked to the guys after about [what this game meant]. It is one win, be really proud about it. But we cannot believe anything.”

Still, though, it was hard not to think this game meant something in the larger context. Because for BYU to win this game, it had to play to its new identity — something it didn’t have last year.

When the Cougars got down 14-0 four minutes into the game, new defensive coordinator Jay Hill made adjustments. He subbed out safety Malik Moore and inserted former walk-on Tanner Wall. From there, BYU limited big plays in the run game.

After a 55-yard rushing touchdown to start the game where running back AJ Green simply ran by Moore (who took a bad angle), the Razorbacks’ largest run the rest of the night was 19 yards from quarterback KJ Jefferson. With fewer big plays allowed, BYU’s offense had time to climb back into the game and eventually take a 21-14 lead in the second quarter.

A year ago against Arkansas, Sitake admitted there was a lack of adjustments on defense. When the offense didn’t score immediately, Sitake knew the game was over. This time, Hill was pulling the strings.

“I think we made some really good steps for our program and our team,” Sitake said.

On offense too, BYU made a bet in the Big 12 that quarterback Kedon Slovis was the right guy. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick talked about his poise in big moments. That is what he needed in a quarterback.

And when BYU fell down by 10 points in the second half, Slovis stepped up. He was hit time and again. Sacked three times. Had receivers who weren’t getting open.

But when BYU needed him to make big throws, he made them. One time, with 12:46 left in a tie game, he hit Keelan Marion on a go-route down the sideline for 37 yards. Two plays later, he lofted a ball to Chase Roberts in the back of the end zone to have the game-winning touchdown.

He couldn’t see either play. He was hit both times. But BYU’s quarterback delivered when the offense needed it and nothing was going right.

“I didn’t even get to see it, to be honest,” Slovis said. “Same with Keelan. I didn’t get to see it because I was on the ground [getting hit]. Just happy he ended up with the ball.”

And when BYU needed to seal it at the end, BYU’s final piece of its new Big 12 identity came out: It got aggressive and made tackles.

First, tied late in the third quarter, Hill’s transfer corner Eddie Heckard made an open field tackle one-on-one to hold Arkansas to a fourth-and-long. The Razorbacks would end up missing a 46-yard field goal because of it, allowing BYU to take the lead.

Later on, when BYU wanted to preserve a lead, the defense got pressure on the quarterback. Defensive end Tyler Batty got to the quarterback twice. BYU sacked him three times.

With four minutes to play, Heckard forced a fumble on Jefferson. Down the stretch, even after cornerback Jakob Robinson missed a near interception to seal the game, BYU got to Jefferson once more to end the night.

Last year, Jefferson put up 367 yards passing and five touchdowns. BYU couldn’t tackle him or bring him down. This year, Jefferson finished with 247 yards, a touchdown and his first interception of the season.

It was everything BYU hadn’t been, but wanted to be in the Big 12.

“It’s a new strength for our defense,” Batty said. “I was super excited to see that. Super excited to be a part of it. That is something we want to continue to do going forward.”

After the celebration ended, BYU coaches and players were asked the same version of one question: What does this win say about the program’s readiness for the Big 12?

Most deflected, saying it was the next game. But Sitake offered a different take.

“We have been waiting for this,” he said. “We have been preparing for this.”

After beating Arkansas, it looks like BYU’s Big 12 preparations are finally coming together.