Upward trends: Top 10 BYU football stories for 2021
Start spreading the news -- the New York Jets drafted BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday, making him the highest-ever Cougar draft pick. Here Wilson poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after his selection in Cleveland, Ohio. For full story, see Page B1.
The last 12 months haven’t been easy in many different ways.
But for the BYU football team, it was a time worth remembering.
Many observers looked at the players the Cougars lost from the 2020 season and the assumption that the 2021 schedule would be more difficult and concluded BYU couldn’t possibly maintain its success.
In many ways, however, it was able to do just that as the Cougars put together a 10-3 campaign with a number of highlights.
The future appears to be bright for the BYU program but before the Cougars move on, it’s time for one more look back.
Here are the Top 10 stories for BYU football in 2021:
10. Blame it on the rain
The Cougars played in two games that featured heavy rains, facing Boise State in Provo in October and battling UAB in the Independence Bowl in December. BYU lost eight fumbles all season with four of them coming in those two games, all of which were costly.
Those miscues allowed the Broncos to take control and hand the Cougars their first loss, then prevented BYU from rallying to beat the Blazers.
It’s hard to gauge exactly how much impact the moisture from the rain has on ball handling and the Cougar players and coaches would say that’s no excuse for losing, but it’s a fact that two of the three BYU losses came in those conditions.
9. Power Five successes
Many would argue this was of much greater importance than where it is at on this list, but that would be ignoring the relative strength of the teams from Power Five conferences that BYU faced.
Baylor — who beat the Cougars — had a really good year (11-2, won the Big 12, ranked No. 6 in the AP poll) but the rest of BYU’s big-name opponents weren’t very impressive.
Five of the Cougar victories — Arizona (1-11), Utah (10-3), Arizona State (8-4), Washington State (7-5) and USC (4-8) — came over teams from the Pac-12, which had a terrible year as a league (only one good out-of-conference win, lots of bad losses). The other BYU win was a 66-49 victory over a 6-6 Virginia team.
8. Injuries here, there and everywhere
Since the sport is a physically violent and requires pushing the body to the limit, every team in college football deals with injuries.
BYU, however, seemed to have more than its fair share in 2021, particularly to key players.
Consider the starters who missed multiple games during the season for the Cougars:
- QB Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney.
- WR Neil Pau’u, Gunner Romney and Brayden Cosper.
- TE Isaac Rex and Masen Wake.
- OL James Empey and Harris LaChance.
- DL Lorenzo Fauatea, Alden Tofa and Caden Haws.
- LB Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili.
- DB Chaz Ah You, Ammon Hanneman, Isaiah Herron, George Udo, Caleb Christensen and Keenan Ellis.
- K Jake Oldroyd.
Looking at that list indicates just how impressive BYU’s overall performance throughout the season really was.
7. California stopping
The Cougars found themselves in a dangerous position late in the regular-season finale at USC on Nov. 27. BYU had a four-point lead but the Trojans had moved the ball to the Cougar 11-yard line.
On fourth-and-6 with less than a minute to play, Trojan freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart — a former Roy and Corner Canyon star — dropped back and fired to where sophomore wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. was slicing across the field on a slant route.
Bryant made the catch but was immediately tackled by BYU junior defensive back Kaleb Hayes, pulling him to the turf a yard short of the first down to secure the victory for the Cougars.
It was a thrilling finish that gave the Cougars their second-straight 10-win season.
6. NY6 flirting
Once again in 2021, BYU found itself wondering if it had done enough to reach one of the high-profile New Year’s Six bowl games.
To do so, the Cougars needed to be in the Top 12 of the College Football Playoff rankings and looked like they were on the verge of doing so.
Unfortunately for BYU, the committee ranked the Cougars at No. 13, three spots behind Michigan State. The Spartans earned the final at-large bid, sending BYU instead to fulfill its contract with the Independence Bowl.
5. He’s No. 2
It wasn’t exactly a surprise to see former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson get selected in the first few picks of the 2021 NFL draft.
His stock had risen dramatically as he put together a solid year in the COVID-ravaged 2020 season, then attracted more attention with his postseason workouts.
It became clear that the New York Jets were interested and in the end, they elected to make Wilson the No. 2 selection. That was the highest pick ever for a BYU player as he was the headliner for a draft class that featured five players.
Wilson, offensive lineman Brady Christensen, wide receiver Dax Milne and defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga have all gotten chances to play on NFL teams during the 2021-22 season.
4. The Roundhouse
The signature on-field play of the 2021 season came against Arizona State on Sept. 18.
BYU sophomore quarterback Jaren Hall, while in the grasp of a Sun Devil defender, had tossed an ill-advised pass that was snagged out of the air by ASU senior linebacker Merlin Robertson.
There was no one between Robertson and the end zone, and he took off with his sights set on the pick-6 to give his team the lead.
BYU junior running back Tyler Allgeier was blocking in the backfield, so he took off in hot pursuit, catching up to Robertson near the BYU 20-yard line.
“I just wanted to catch up to him and get him,” Allgeier said after the game. “Thankfully it was successful. I was just trying to do my part. Anyone would have done it and I just happened to be the one who did it.”
Instead of just tackling Robertson or pushing him out of bounds, Allgeier leapt in the air and swung down with all his might on the ball, popping it loose from Robertson’s grip and creating one of the plays of the year in college football.
Hall recovered the fumble and that enabled the Cougars to secure the win.
3. Upping and re-upping
On Aug. 31, 2021, BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe made the university’s appreciation of the efforts of head football coach Kalani Sitake clear by extending his contract through 2025.
“We are happy to sign Kalani to an extension that keeps him connected to BYU for years to come,” Holmoe said in the press release announcing the extension. “This is about setting our student-athletes up for success. Kalani’s culture of love and learning has created an incredible environment for his student-athletes and Cougar Nation that we are all inspired by.”
Three months later, with reported interest from other institutions in hiring Sitake, Holmoe once again showed his determination to keep Sitake at BYU.
“We have this amazing combination of character and football acumen and love and mentoring and leadership that we feel is super important for our program, our university and all of Cougar nation,” BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe said during a press conference on Friday. “I feel like Kalani has made an incredible commitment to BYU football. He’s made a commitment to the student athletes. He’s made a commitment to his staff. He’s made a commitment to Cougar nation. You can see and feel how Kalani has galvanized everybody around Cougar nation to incredible heights where everybody is feeling great about the Cougars and the way they play the ball.
“So thus, we felt that it was imperative and very important that we made that same commitment back to him. Today, I’m happy to say that we have an unprecedented contract with Kalani and BYU football that will keep him here for years to come. ”
2. Stopping the streak
BYU fans everywhere were fed up with hearing Utah supporters crow about how their Utes had defeated the Cougars nine straight times on the gridiron.
It was a moment to savor when that streak ended on Sept. 11.
This time it was the Cougars who made the big plays and the final result showed it as BYU knocked off Utah with a 26-17 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 63,470 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“There was a huge sense of urgency from the fanbase,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said after the game. “It was nice to get the win for the fans and for our players. I’m just really proud of them. It was a great night. It was a good game. We’ve been on the other side of these games. We feel really fortunate and really happy that we got the win.”
Cougar fans in the stadium and throughout the country almost couldn’t believe it was happening, since for so long they had endured seeing their squad make the big mistakes or fail in key moments.
This time, however, BYU proved it was the better team.
The Cougars never trailed the Utes (for the first time in the rivalry matchup since 1998), had no turnovers (for the first time since 2009), and surrendered no sacks (for the first time since 2008).
1. End of independence
It was more than a decade ago when the wildly gyrating landscape of college football resulted in BYU deciding to leave the Mountain West Conference and go independent in football.
In 2021, thanks to a move to the SEC by Oklahoma and Texas, the college football world started shifting again and the Cougars are now getting ready to join a conference again.
The Big 12 conference officially confirmed on Sept. 10 that it was inviting BYU — as well as Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — to join the league. The Cougars are scheduled to become a member in 2023-24.
“Congratulations, Cougar Nation,” BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe said in a press conference. “It’s been a long time coming and now here we are.”
While the move will provide BYU with significant competitive and financial advantages, it will also limit the opportunities for the Cougars to schedule rivalry games with Utah, Utah State and Boise State as well as limit chances for the far-flung BYU fan base to see the Cougars in action.
There is still no doubt that it was the biggest story of the 2021 year for the BYU football team, since it looks to affect the program for many years to come.