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BYU football: Are Cougars improving against overmatched opponents? – Deseret News

PROVO — Another BYU blowout against another entirely overmatched foe — that’s five in seven games, for those scoring at home — and another search for something to nit-pick about.

Actually, there’s a little bit in the cupboard to snack on in that regard, if you can ignore the margin of victory, 31 points. The latest snoozefest involving BYU wasn’t as crisply played as the others. Coach Kalani Sitake’s team will need to play better than it did the last day of October to remain undefeated, particularly on third-down defense.

“I feel like at moments we were playing at our best and I feel like at times we weren’t, so if we can get that done for 60 minutes, I really like our chances in games,” Sitake said. “We are getting better because we are playing football, and the more we play football the more we get to look at different situations.”

Minor criticisms notwithstanding, the 7-0 and No. 11-ranked Cougars continued to take care of business on Saturday night in front of about 6,500 fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium, dumping mistake-prone Western Kentucky 41-10 to remain undefeated in this season of mostly boring games.

“Going into Game 8, I like where we are right now,” Sitake said.

That’s the bottom line, really. These guys are good. They’ve set a high bar. Fans are getting a bit spoiled. Anything less than dominant feels unsatisfying. But more difficult games are on the way.

Although the first-half stats suggest otherwise, especially the one that says BYU was 5-for-5 in the first 30 minutes on touchdown drives, the Cougars didn’t play perfectly. Near-perfect play is what we’ve come to expect against teams not named Houston, Boise State and San Diego State in this pandemic-altered season’s 10-game schedule.

One question that emerged was whether the Cougars are actually getting better against this lineup of subpar competition. Then again, it is difficult to provide a true assessment because Sitake substituted freely, as he is wont to do, even in the first half. BYU’s best guys were clearly better than the top Hilltoppers.

That question will quite likely be answered, one way or the other, next week at No. 25 Boise State, a convincing 49-30 winner at Air Force Saturday afternoon despite being seriously shorthanded due to COVID-19. Are the Cougs improving?

“Absolutely,” said star linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi. “And that’s really just the ultimate goal. We have no control over the talent that we are facing, so the goal has been every week to get better.”

Let’s just say this Halloween Night win was less impressive than the others — especially in the second half when the Cougars were held to two field goals and outscored 7-6. In fairness, Tyler Allgeier’s 29-yard jaunt to the end zone late in the third quarter was brought back by a holding penalty, forcing the Cougars to settle for a 49-yard field goal. The call robbed Allgeier of a 100-yard rushing night; he finished with 95.

But in the first half, before a lot of voters presumably went to bed, and when style points are awarded, the Cougars were pretty solid. They did have some help from one of the most undisciplined teams to visit LES this season. Two WKU players were disqualified for targeting.

“I can’t complain about the score, but I would like to see us play better in the second half,” Sitake told the BYU Radio Network on his way to the locker room. His team was ahead 35-3, had outgained the Hilltoppers 312-100 in yards and had not committed a penalty while the visitors already had six for 59 yards.

Tough love?

Whatever the motive, Sitake was right.

“Stuff has been gifted to us,” he said.

For instance, WKU committed two false starts and had to call timeout twice on its first possession, but still managed to hold the ball for eight minutes, 14 seconds and culminated the drive with a 44-yard field goal — the third time in three games that opponents have registered points the first time they touched the ball vs. the Cougars.

“Defensively, I thought we did some good things, but I am sick of people driving it long on us and taking up the clock and scoring points,” Sitake said. “We gotta find a way to get the score down a little bit more.”

Also in the first half, when the game was still competitive, the team from Bowling Green, Kentucky, fumbled the ball away after a 15-yard run on its second possession. Credit Kaufusi for causing and recovering the fumble.

On BYU’s fourth possession, the visitors forced an incomplete pass on third-and-12, but safety Devon Key was disqualified for targeting and the Cougars got new life. Two plays later, Lopini Katoa took a short pass and turned it into a 42-yard touchdown.

The Hilltoppers also seemingly had BYU stopped on its fifth possession, but Dominique Bradshaw hit Dax Milne late after an incomplete pass on third-and-7. Well-coached Boise State doesn’t make those kinds of grievous mistakes.

Quarterback Zach Wilson ran 25 yards into WKU territory, and completed the scoring drive with a 5-yard TD toss to Isaac Rex.

“So I am being really picky, right?,” Sitake allowed. “Because I am disappointed in the second half. … I am a positive guy, but I really believe you can get better every week, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, there are some things you can get better on.”

Speaking of not being real sharp, Wilson struggled with his accuracy for the first time since the 27-20 win over UTSA, and posted his lowest passer rating of the season, 139.7. He had a 177 against the Roadrunners — all the other games he was over 200.

He’s been that good. But there were a few drops — nothing blatant — and he simply misfired on a couple, including an ill-advised first-down throw that WKU’s Dionte’ Ruffin picked off and returned to the 3 to set up a touchdown.

Wilson’s streak of 184 passes without an interception — he passed Charlie Peterson for the school record in the first half — was snapped. The Cougars went the entire second half without a touchdown, the first time in seven games they’ve failed to score a touchdown in a half.

Wilson’s final numbers were fine — 18 of 32 for 224 yards and three touchdowns with one interception — but not what we’ve come to expect from the junior Heisman Trophy candidate.

“Credit to those guys for running a weird defense,” Wilson said. “I don’t think they thought they could do their normal defense on us, because we have been explosive this year. And they tried to throw some different stuff at us. So credit to them in that aspect. The thing they gave up was a lot of big plays.”

Any time you hold an opponent to 262 yards, you’ve had a good night. But BYU’s defense wasn’t as dominant as it could have been. The Toppers were 6 of 13 on third down, for instance, and picked up first downs on third-and-11 and third-and-7 on their first drive.

BYU’s defense didn’t have a three-and-out until the fourth quarter when Darius Ocean replaced starter Tyrrell Pigrome at quarterback. WKU had the ball just more than six minutes more than BYU did.

“We just need to get off the field,” Kaufusi said. “We got to do better. We gotta find a way.”

However, coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s crew should be credited for an impressive goal-line stand, stopping Pigrome and his pals four straight times from the 1-yard line. Kaufusi called that the “highlight of the game for the defense,” perhaps forgetting about the turnover he caused in the first half.

“Got backed up, and the mentality of the defense was we are not going to let these guys score,” Kaufusi said. “We took it as a challenge. We looked it right in the eyes, right in the face, and we were just amped up.”

Alas, Wilson’s first pick since the Navy game was returned to the 3, and the Hilltoppers found the end zone on that particular surge inside the 5-yard line to win the second half scoring battle.

“Just thankful for the win,” Sitake said. “I am not really worried about the momentum.”

If he can say that late next Friday night, there will be nothing left to complain about.

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