Neil Pau'u runs in a touchdown against Arizona in front of a majority BYU crowd at Allegiant Stadium. (BYU Photo)

Cougars take down Arizona 24-16 for opening win

BYU football rode a pair of Neil Pau’u touchdowns to a 24-16 victory over the Arizona Wildcats in Las Vegas on Saturday, the program’s seventh opening win in the last eight seasons.

“We played an overall clean game,” quarterback Jaren Hall said. “We’ll improve each and every week, but today we took care of the football.”

Hall, the victor of BYU’s quarterback competition to replace Zach Wilson, threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns in his first start since October 2019. The redshirt sophomore added a 39 yard scrambling rush, connected with seven different receivers and avoided ever turning the ball over.

“I like the composure and poise that he had; he’s a great leader for us,” head coach Kalani Sitake said of Hall. “I like the way he controls the offense.”

Running back Tyler Allgeier ran for 94 yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.5 yards a carry to pick up right where he left off in his monster 2020 campaign. Pau’u had a career night with eight catches, 126 yards and two touchdown grabs, including a 67-yard bomb from Hall just before halftime to give the Cougars their biggest lead of the night.

“He made plays like we knew he would, that’s just the kind of player he is,” Hall said of Pau’u.

Linebacker captains Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar led the charge on defense, combining for 26 tackles and each recording a sack. Defensive linemen Uriah Leiataua and Tyler Batty also crashed the backfield for sacks, with linebacker Ben Bywater racking up 10 tackles of his own.

Punter Ryan Rehkow was a quiet hero for the Cougars, flipping the field on five punts averaging 48 yards each, including a 59-yard boot in the third quarter to help stall an Arizona rally. Kicker Justen Smith — filling in for an injured Jake Oldroyd — netted a clutch 40-yard field goal in the game’s final minutes to provide a much needed insurance score.

Quarterback Gunner Cruz threw for 336 yards and a touchdown for the Wildcats, playing nearly the entire game after the Arizona coaches scrapped their initial dual-quarterback system with Will Plummer. A wild overthrow from Cruz found the hands of BYU safety Hayden Livingston deep in the end zone for a game-sealing, fourth quarter interception, the lone turnover of the contest.

The injury bug bit the Cougars early, most notably with cornerback Keenan Ellis being carted off the field and taken to a local hospital after suffering serious neck trauma early within the first five minutes. Starting wide receiver Gunner Romney exited early in the first quarter with a left knee issue, and fellow receivers Puka and Samson Nacua — both nursing various injuries — dressed for the game but were kept sidelined, with the exception of Samson catching an onside kick in the fourth quarter.

“The decision was to keep them out and get them healthier for next week,” Sitake said of the Nacuas and linebackers Jackson Kaufusi and Max Tooley, who were also late scratches from the lineup.

Arizona receiver Stanley Berryhill III carved up the Cougars for 102 yards on 12 catches, and defensive lineman Kyon Barrs recorded a lone sack of Hall. Other than the sack and a third quarter safety, center James Empey led a solid showing for the Cougar offensive line.

Although fatigued and inconsistent at times, the BYU defense gave up just one touchdown and showed up when the stakes were highest with third-down sacks from Wilgar and Batty along with Livingston’s interception. Arizona missed two field goals and converted just five of its 17 third down opportunities, possibly due in part to the deafening sea of BYU blue among the crowd of more than 54,000 fans at Allegiant Stadium.

With the opening victory under their belt, the Cougars turn their focus to the long-awaited rivalry matchup against No. 24 Utah at home on Sept. 11 in hopes of breaking a nine-game losing streak to the Utes.

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