BYU football exceeding expectations, despite close losses

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Michael Davis celebrates after a play in the game against Mississippi State. (Ari Davis)

The BYU football team is just over the midway point of its first season under Kalani Sitake. At 4-4, the team has collected wins over teams from the Pac 12, Big 10 and SEC.

ESPN currently predicts the Cougars to finish the season at 8-4, putting the Cougars in position for their 12th-straight bowl game. When compared to the 6.5-5.5 projected win-loss for the Cougars at the beginning of the season by the same ESPN football power index, it’s apparent BYU is exceeding expectations, despite their four close losses.

Kalani Sitake started out his head-coaching career 1-0 thanks to a close win over Arizona to kick off the season. The game marked the Cougars’ first victory over a PAC-12 team since a 42-35 win over Cal in 2014.

“I’m really thankful that we had a good opponent like Arizona, it was a great game,” Sitake said following the game. “Things just went our way. We were able to get the victory, I’m super pleased with how the guys played.”

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Taysom Hill celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the game against Utah. BYU came up one point short against the Utes.

Things took a turn for the worse when BYU then went on to lose its next three games by a combined total of seven points.

Against Utah, Taysom Hill had a chance to run the ball in for a two-point conversion and win the game, but was stopped short of the goal line.

Final score: 20-19.

The following week was another close loss, despite offensive struggles. The Cougars scored a second touchdown with 37 seconds on the clock to make the game feel closer than it actually was. The Bruins handed the Cougars their second-straight Pac 12 loss.

Final score: 17-14.

The West Virginia game was kept close once again, but too many Cougar turnovers put the Mountaineers on top.

Final score: 35-32.

Sitake voiced the team’s frustration following the WVU game.

“Our guys have been battling it out and been playing hard the entire game,” Sitake said. “And I think when you go against quality opponents like we’ve had, you gotta find ways — this one play here and this one play there — that makes a difference and we were on the wrong end of it three games in a row, so we gotta find ways to flip it.”

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Defensive lineman Tomasi Laulile blocks Toledo’s field goal attempt. (Ari Davis)

Fortunately for the Cougars, they found many ways to flip their circumstances. Returning from the nation’s capitol, the Cougars fired on all cylinders against Toledo. It quickly turned into a war of the offenses as BYU and Toledo put up a combined 108 points, and the game was yet again decided by fewer than three points, this time with kicker Rhett Almond saving the day for the Cougars.

“Our guys fight, and we are proud of our team,” Almond said. “It has been a tough couple games, but we are ready to turn it around.”

Michigan State looked extremely tough on paper before the 2016 season kicked off. The Spartans were riding the momentum of their first College Football Playoff berth and were ranked No. 12 as the season began. BYU dominated Michigan State to give the Cougars their biggest win of the season.

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Jamaal Williams runs the ball against Mississippi State. Williams is now BYU’s all-time leading rusher. (Ari Davis)

The homecoming matchup with Mississippi State was close the entire way through, but once again the Cougars found a way to survive. The Bulldogs put on the pressure despite having disappointed their fans’ expectations during the season’s first half. The Bulldogs made their SEC presence known, and it took two overtimes and four touchdowns from Hill for BYU to take its first and final lead.

“I echo what Kalani said: a win is a win,” Hill said following the win. “It was gratifying to win at home in double overtime. We certainly have respect for the SEC, their conference and what they do. We feel confident we can compete with anybody in the country.”

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Running back Squally Canada recorded 95 total yards in the Cougars’ one-point loss to Boise State. (Ari Davis)

Next the Cougars traveled north to face No. 14 Boise State. The Cougars and Broncos battled down to the wire and withstood a crazy final two minutes, but Boise State ultimately held on for a 28-27 victory.

BYU is on a bye this week before traveling to Cincinnati to take on the Bearcats on Nov. 5. It’s a game the Cougars will most likely be favored to win. After that, the team plays its next three games at home, hosting Southern Utah, UMass and Utah State — three more likely wins.

“We keep trying to put ourselves in positions to win games,” Sitake said earlier this season. “Eventually, it will turn to where we can put more big plays together in all three phases of the game and find ways to win games easier than these nail-biters we’ve had.”

While the Cougars faced a brutal slate of opponents in September and October, their remaining strength of schedule ranks 117th according to ESPN.

Look for Williams to add on to his dominating rushing record and for Hill to continue working Ty Detmer’s pro-style offense to his advantage as the Cougars coast through November and into the Poinsettia Bowl.

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