SAN DIEGO — Imagine taking many of the issues the BYU football team has faced in 2019 and putting them all on the field for the regular-season finale.
That’s basically what happened in Saturday’s disappointing 13-3 Cougar loss at San Diego State.
Failure to finish drives? Check.
Costly penalties? Check.
More turnovers lost than gained? Check.
Devastating special-teams breakdowns? Check.
Defensive missed assignments? Check.
BYU struggled in multiple facets of the game, regressing to the point that Cougar fans were brutally reminded of road losses at Toledo and South Florida.
“It was a tough loss,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “It’s really simple. We weren’t able to put points on the board on offense. They made their kicks and we didn’t make ours. They caused turnovers and we didn’t. That was the difference. It was a defensive battle and you’re not going to win a lot of game scoring just 3 points. None of us played well enough to win, so I’m disappointed in everyone including myself.”
The biggest problem for the Cougars was finishing drives against the stout Aztec defense. BYU drove into San Diego State territory six times but only managed a single field goal.
“We had to find a way to get in the end zone,” Sitake said. “That’s not indicative of what we can do. We’ll find an answer and make sure we perform better. It’s just tough. Defensively the only thing we could’ve done to win the game was shut them out and get some turnovers.”
Cougar sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson struggled at times in the face of the relentless Aztec pressure. He finished the game 31-of-52 for 316 yards with two interceptions and a fumble.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Wilson said. “They are a good defense. They brought a lot of pressure and did a good job getting in the backfield. They caused a lot of havoc, causing bad plays. We moved the ball but we got stopped in the red zone. We’ve got to do a better job of finishing drives.”
BYU’s defense actually held up pretty well against the San Diego State run game, only surrendering 96 yards on the ground.
It was big pass plays that hurt the Cougars as the Aztecs got some key third-down conversions and deep throws to set up their three scores.
The biggest San Diego State pass came at the conclusion of a rough sequence for BYU late in the first half.
A false start turned a Cougar third-and-4 from the 50-yard line into a third-and-9, then Wilson was sacked for a loss of 14 yards.
The ensuing BYU punt by sophomore Jake Oldroyd appeared to go off the side of his foot, going only 30 yards and giving the Aztecs great field position.
San Diego State managed its two-minute drill flawlessly, converting two third downs before Aztec quarterback Carson Baker spotted tight end Daniel Bellinger open behind the Cougar linebackers for a 25-yard touchdown.
“That drive at the end of the first half hurt,” Sitake said. “I thought we should’ve had a pick on that touchdown. We should have had our linebacker there. It was one of those moments where we missed that opportunity to have that pick.”
The BYU defenders admitted that giving up that TD — the only one allowed by either team in the game — was disappointing.
“We knew they had to pass because we were stopping the run,” Cougar junior defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga said. “There was bad communication and that led to a touchdown. Our little mistakes cost us. We gave up a cheap one right before the half and that’s on us as a defense.”
The Aztecs tacked on a field goal in the third quarter to go up by seven points, but BYU rallied with a nice drive. On a second-and-1 from the San Diego State 40-yard line, the Cougars went to their bag of tricks.
BYU running back Lopini Katoa took the handoff, then pitched it back to Wilson. Wilson wound up to throw because he saw a receiver “wide open.”
Unfortunately for the Cougars, Aztec safety Tariq Thompson was coming around the end on a blitz and was able to strip the ball away, then recover the fumble.
“That’s the risk we took on that play,” Wilson said. “We knew it was a long-developing play. We were obviously hoping to not have a fumble there but they love to cause havoc like that. It was super-frustrating.”
BYU had other opportunities to score including a pair of costly missed field goals but it would be San Diego State that would put the game away with one final field goal early in the fourth quarter.
The end result was that the Cougars just made too many mistakes to give themselves a shot.
“I wasn’t happy with a lot of things from the last 60 minutes that we watched,” Sitake said. “There were some good things. If you look at the stats, we got way more yards and more first downs. They just had more points. We lost the special teams battle, the defense was a wash and the offense wasn’t able to put points on the board. It’s my job as the head coach to get that right.”
BYU now turns its attention to preparation for the 2019 Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24, although the Cougars likely won’t find out who they are playing until next week.