Big wins, tough losses highlight BYU football’s Top 10 moments of 2018

December 30, 2018
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake shakes hands with the Utah State Aggies head coach Matt Wells after the game on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. The Aggies won 45-20.

After enduring a 2017 season that was a dismal disappointment, the reality of the ups and downs the BYU football team went through this past season was that it was still an improvement.

It was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows for the Cougars, ending on a positive note that instilled cautious optimism for the the future in the BYU fanbase.

But how that will all shake out is something we will all find out in the months and years to come.

Right now, with the year drawing to a close, it is time to look back.

Here is a look at the Top 10 BYU football stories from 2019:

1. BYU football stuns No. 6 Wisconsin in Madison

After the Badgers had completely overwhelmed the Cougars in Provo in 2017 and were coming in with national title aspirations, few observers gave BYU much of a chance as the visitors where 22-point underdogs.

But the Cougar defense limited the powerful Wisconsin ground game, while the BYU offense reeled off some big plays. A double pass from Aleva Hifo to Moroni Laulu-Pututau for a TD put the Cougars in front and they never gave up the lead.

BYU did need some help in the final seconds, but Wisconsin’s game-tying field goal attempt sailed wide and the Cougars picked up their biggest upset win since 2009.

It was a moment to savor for a team that had struggled so much and BYU fans made the most of the chance to bask in the glory of a stunning victory.

2. Quarterback Zach Wilson leads Cougar youth movement

New NCAA rules gave all college football teams much more flexibility with young players, since an individual can compete in four games and still redshirt.

BYU used that to encourage competition and many underclassmen took advantage. The Cougars had more than 25 freshman play in games during the season, with quarterback Zach Wilson leading the way. The true freshman battled for the starting job in fall camp, then took the reigns midway through the season.

Wilson and many of the freshman had moments where they struggled, but had enough moments of brilliance to make gridiron fans excited for the potential of the team moving forward.

3. BYU silences rival Utah for three quarters before brutal collapse

Any Cougar supporters who tuned in late to the annual rivalry matchup on Nov. 24 against Utah must have initially wondered if the scoreboard had malfunctioned.

No one outside of the BYU locker room had any reason to believe that the Cougars would dismantle the vaunted Ute defense enough to build a 20-0 halftime lead or a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter.

But it was too good to last as key Cougar injuries and a mistake-free finish for Utah allowed the Utes to escape with the home win, disappointing BYU once again.

4. The Cougars have a nearly-flawless second half, rout Western Michigan in the bowl game

The grumbling from BYU fans around the world was almost audible all the way to Boise, Idaho, as the Cougars headed back into the tunnel at the end of a lackluster first half in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. BYU trailed the Broncos, 10-7, and needed to get some things going.

Then everything changed on both sides of the ball.

Led by an inspired effort by Sione Takitaki, the Cougars shut down the Western Michigan offense while BYU’s aerial attack with Zach Wilson firing strikes put up points in bunches. The end result was a big win and an impressive conclusion to the season.

5. BYU slows Arizona star quarterback Khalil Tate in season opener

When the Cougars headed to Tucson, Arizona, to face the Wildcats to kick off the year in early September, all the hype was directed at Khalil Tate. The Arizona quarterback had put together some impressive running performances in 2017 and the thought was that he could be one of the best players in the nation.

But BYU’s defense stole the spotlight.

With Cougar defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi spying Tate for much of the game, BYU held the talented Wildcat to just eight official carries for a net of 14 yards on the ground. Arizona did enough to put some pressure on at the end, but it was the visitors who emerged victorious.

6. Utah State comes to Provo and outplays the Cougars to get second-straight win over BYU

It has been since 1973 and 1974 that the Cougars had lost back-to-back games to the Aggies, but that streak ended in 2017 and 2018.

After losing 40-24 in Logan last year, BYU looked to rebound at home this season, but failed miserably. Utah State took advantage of an early pick-6 to get the momentum, then crushed any hopes of a Cougar comeback by putting up the first 14 points of the second half.

The loss to the Aggies resulted in some big changes to what BYU was doing on both sides of the ball and changed the rest of the season.

7. Injuries result in dramatic changes to Cougar lineups

BYU had a tough time keeping starting running backs, tight ends and linebackers on the field.

When Butch Pau’u and Zayne Anderson got hurt, the Cougars turned to Sione Takitaki to play a bigger role at linebacker. The loss of Moroni Laulu-Pututau (and other tight ends) eventually changed BYU’s offensive scheme. With running backs Squally Canada and Lopini Katoa battling injuries, long-time Cougar workhorse Matt Hadley got a chance to shine.

Every team deals with guys being unable to play. In some spots, BYU had guys ready to fill in while in others, the injuries really impacted the season.

8. Run game carries the Cougars to victories vs. overmatched foes

Hawaii, UMass and New Mexico State were teams that, on paper, BYU should be able to defeat easily.

It was the rushing attack that made those games turn into blowouts as the Cougars put up their three highest run totals of the season.

BYU rushed for 221 yards in its 35-16 win at UMass, tallied 280 rush yards in its 49-23 home win over Hawaii and put up 317 yards on the ground in its 45-10 home win over New Mexico State.

9. BYU suffers humbling close losses to Cal and Northern Illinois in Provo and at Boise State

When the Cougars got blown out by Washington in Seattle, it wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it was clear the Huskies outplayed BYU in that contest.

But that wasn’t the case when the Cougars came up short at home against Cal and Northern Illinois, nor at Boise State.

In all three games, BYU needed to make one more big play, to get a key bounce to go its way, and the Cougars could’ve been victorious. The might-have-beens sting longer than the big struggles.

10. New staff stays unchanged since being finalized early in 2018

On Feb. 6, BYU announced that AJ Steward had joined the Cougar coaching staff as the new running backs coach. He would be the sixth new addition to the group since the end of the 2017 season, joining Jeff Grimes, Ryan Pugh, Aaron Roderick, Fesi Sitake and Preston Hadley as newcomers.

Nearly 11 months later, that collection of coaches has seen successes and failures — but as of this moment they are all in Provo with head coach Kalani Sitake.

That type of continuity should be beneficial for the BYU players, since they know the schemes and expectations. Now that has to pay dividends on the field in 2019.

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