Jaren Hall runs against the Utes on Sept. 11 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. (Dallin Wilks)

BYU football looks to Arizona State, Hall earns early-season recognition

Momentum is everything in college football. Luckily, BYU has a lot of it.

The Cougars have won two straight Power 5 matchups to start the season, stand at No. 23 in the AP rankings, finally punched their ticket to the Big 12 and just took down rival Utah for the first time since 2009.

Life is good for head coach Kalani Sitake’s bunch, but there’s a lot to do in order to keep it that way.

“Saturday (against Utah) was so much fun, but winning that game isn’t our end goal,” center James Empey said. “We have 10 more games to battle, especially one this weekend.”

The first such battle comes on Saturday against No. 19 Arizona State, a third straight Pac-12 foe for the Cougars. Between the Big 12 announcement and Utah win, it would be easy to get lost and stumble in the rush of emotions, but Sitake expects the same “razor-sharp” focus his team showed last week heading into their Holy War trouncing of the Utes.

“Let’s just do the exact same thing again,” Sitake said. “Let’s have that same type of mindset, that same type of focus and the same type of intensity that we had coming into practice and into our meetings.”

The Sun Devils come to Provo 2-0 while averaging nearly 40 points a game against Southern Utah and UNLV. Their offensive attack is largely run-dominant, anchored by talented dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels and his 8.7 yards per carry from under center.

The Cougar defense has shown flashes of strength against the run but still gives up about 137 yards on the ground per game. Controlling the line of scrimmage on both ends — much like against the Utes — will be crucial against the Sun Devils. Defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea says that stopping the run has been “an emphasis every week,” but ultimately the defense will trust whatever defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki cooks up for them.

“All praises to Coach Tuiaki. He is a guy who does his job,” Fauatea said. “He listens to the players and we listen to him. We have been trusting in each other.”

Saturday’s contest is the first matchup between ranked teams at LaVell Edwards Stadium since 2009, and a win would mark the first time since that same year that the Cougars have defeated ranked opponents in consecutive games. It may be early, but the difference between a solid season and a special season is on the line based on how BYU fares against the Sun Devils.

“Hall” of fame

After convincing performances against Arizona and Utah, Jaren Hall has shown exactly why he was crowned champion of BYU’s preseason quarterback competition.

The redshirt sophomore has been praised as one of the top breakout players in the nation already and was named to the Davey O’Brien Award’s “Great 8” list on Monday, recognizing the eight best college quarterback performances each week.

His statistics may not seem too crazy: 347 passing yards with five touchdowns in two games, but Hall has proved to be efficient, poised and reliable, having yet to surrender a turnover this season and converting 11 of 19 third downs against Utah.

“In regards to numbers, he’s doing great with the numbers that matter the most, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Sitake said. “I’m just really happy with the way he is performing. A lot of that has to do with the preparation that he takes on during the week.”

Hall’s success has come even with early struggles in both games, sporting just a 56.8 passer rating in the first quarter this season compared to a 170.1 mark in the remaining periods. Interestingly enough, none of Hall’s 13 total rushing attempts have come in the first quarter, where he has also completed just 43% of his passes. Once Hall heats up after the first quarter, however, he completes 69% of his passes and averages more than 7.3 yards per play.

Hall’s abilities as a runner clearly benefit his passing opportunities and vice versa, most effectively displayed in a 33-yard strike to Keanu Hill against Utah. The play was made possible thanks to Hall’s mobility, with the threat of Hall’s legs causing a mob of Ute defenders to swarm and leaving Hill wide open to the goal line.

“He was able to avoid pressure by using his legs and was able to extend drives,” Sitake said of Hall following the victory against Utah. “He can run, and it’s a weapon that we can use.”

With Hall under center, the Cougar offense is continuing to evolve week after week. They can hurt you on the ground, they can burn you in the air and they won’t cough up any turnovers. For Hall, the offensive firepower has less to do with himself and more about the unit clicking together as a whole.

“Through the whole offense, we’ve got 11 guys who are seen as leaders. They are experienced and very influential,” Hall said. “The energy we’ve had and the confidence we’ve had in each other is contagious.”

Hall and the upstart Cougars face the Sun Devils Saturday, Sept. 15 at 8:15 p.m. MDT in Provo.

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