BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake has repeatedly said that the only stat he cares about is what is on the scoreboard.
Fortunately for the Cougars, that was a stat was in BYU’s favor Saturday afternoon against UTSA at LaVell Edwards Stadium — barely.
The Cougars endured their sloppiest performance of the season against an upset-minded Roadrunner team but got just enough plays to hold on for the 27-20 win.
“I’m glad we got the win,” Sitake said. “That’s the goal of every game. Obviously there are some things we would love to fix and I wish we could’ve performed just a little bit better in a lot of different areas, but you can’t disrespect this game and not celebrate the wins. The fact that we got that win, I was proud of our team.”
Unlike dominating showings in the first three games, BYU never seemed to find its rhythm. The Cougars had to overcome seven penalties and other mental miscues.
“It felt kind of frustrating,” Cougar junior wide receiver Dax Milne said. “Throughout the game we were able to move the ball. I knew we weren’t in trouble but we needed to clean up some things and we would be alright.”
UTSA did enough to put pressure on the Cougars down the stretch, including having the ball with a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
But the BYU defense made the plays it had to at that point as the Cougars got a big sack from sophomore defensive lineman Gabe Summers to force a Roadrunner punt.
With a chance to create a little separation, BYU junior quarterback Zach Wilson told his offense to make the most of it.
“We had to have that short-term memory that even though things hadn’t gone well, this was a new drive,” Wilson said. “Nothing else before that mattered. All it took was one momentum-swinging play, one thing to get the ball rolling. It was great to capitalize and get a score on that drive.”
The Cougars then used a 12-play drive (nine of them running plays) to go 80 yards and increase its lead when junior running back Tyler Allgeier ran the ball into the end zone from six yards out.
The visiting Roadrunners responded, however, needing just four plays to score on a 34-yard TD pass from junior quarterback Lowell Narcisse to senior wide receiver Brennon Dingle. Narcisse was nearly sacked on the play but managed to escape and found Dingle all alone in the end zone.
“The coach in me keeps thinking about the plays we didn’t make,” Sitake said. “We had that sack and then Narcisse breaks free and throws a touchdown because of a breakdown in coverage. That stuff is what bugs me the most. But our guys responded. The entire game they are on it and want to get back out there.”
That set up some tense moments for BYU fans, especially when the UTSA onside kick got deflected and started bouncing around before the Cougars finally corralled it.
The Roadrunner defense stopped BYU from running out the clock and forced a punt with 21 seconds left.
UTSA elected to go for the block but Cougar freshman punter Ryan Rehkow got the ball away before getting taken out, resulting in a roughing the punter call that gave the home team the ball and the win.
“Going into the locker room, when you don’t play to your potential it gets to you,” BYU senior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi said. “You start thinking about all the things you could’ve done better. That was the mood walking in but Kalani Sitake came in and really encouraged everyone to enjoy the win. That lifted our spirits a little bit.”
The contest was definitely different than the first three Cougar blowouts, although it seems unlikely that season firsts like wearing navy blue jerseys, playing in the afternoon or losing the coin toss had any impact.
BYU looked to be locked and ready to roll on its first drive as two quick completions gained 52 yards at put the Cougars at the Roadrunner 20-yard line.
A pass to junior wide receiver Neil Pau’u had the ball inside the 10-yard line and he made a move that might’ve allowed him to score — only to have the ball knocked free.
Although it initially appeared he recovered, the ball changed hands in the ensuing pileup and the Roadrunners came away with the turnover.
After the BYU defense got an interception by senior safety Troy Warner, the Cougar offense against moved into UTSA territory but had a pass knocked away on a fourth-and-6 play.
Instead it was the visitors who got the first points when Roadrunner senior kicker Hunter Duplessis made a 39-yard field goal.
BYU answered on its ensuing possession, although it wasn’t easy.
The Cougars faced a fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line and Wilson was flushed out of the pocket. He lobbed it up to the back of the end zone, where Pau’u was able to snag it and just keep his toes in bounds for the score.
“They did a good job disguising it,” Wilson said. “I was actually trying to work the boundary there. I ended up scrambling because I was trying to make a play. At that point the guy had his back turned, so I was trying to throw it up and just give Neil (Pau’u) a shot. He did a great job going up, catching it and getting his foot in bounds. That was huge.”
BYU would get an 11-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to junior running back Lopini Katoa later in the second quarter, then — after UTSA got a field goal on the first drive of the second half — Wilson scored from four yards out late in the third quarter to go up 21-6.
But the Roadrunners rallied with a beautiful 32-yard TD pass on a free play (the Cougar defense was offsides when the ball was snapped) when Narcisse was able to get the ball high enough to wide receiver Zahkari Franklin that he could snatch it over the BYU defender.
That set up the nervous final few minutes of the game that saw the Cougars do just enough to stay in front.
“A lot of credit to UTSA,” Sitake said. “Coach Jeff Traylor had that group going and had them playing really, really well in all three phases. They had a great game plan that caused us some issues on both offense and defense. It felt like it took a lot to get going but I’m proud of the way the guys were able to fight through and get a win.”
BYU will now try to get the mistakes ironed out and get back in rhythm before heading to Texas to play Houston on Oct. 16 (7:30 p.m. MT, ESPN).