Puka Nacua breaks a tackle against USF. (Dallin Wilks)

BYU football defeats USF in 35-27 bruiser

It was closer than most fans expected, but No. 15 BYU football rode an explosive first quarter to take down South Florida 35-27 Saturday night in Provo. With the win, the Cougars move to 4-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.

BYU made good on quarterback Jaren Hall’s recent promise to “tear this thing open” on offense with five total touchdowns. The only catch was that an injured Hall would be doing none of the tearing, as head coach Kalani Sitake trusted in the medical staff’s assessment to give Hall another week to recover from last week’s physical battle against Arizona State.

“I think we did the right thing by being safe and cautious,” Sitake said.

Backup Baylor Romney was given the keys to the offense and delivered a flawless 305-yard, three-touchdown performance in his first start since November 2019. Romney was poised, accurate and clutch, excelling on play-action bootleg designs and delivering three plays of at least 47 yards.

“When you score that many points early, you’re going to be in a good spot,” Sitake said.

The Cougars — who had yet to score more than 27 points in a game this season — found the end zone in each of their first three drives and took a 28-6 lead into halftime. In the game’s first six minutes, the Cougars scored twice on a mere nine plays.

“We’re not hitting on all cylinders but we’re definitely improving. We’re right on the edge of breaking out as an offense,” receiver Puka Nacua said following a career-best 102-yard performance on four receptions.

However, results from the defensive side of the ball were a bit less ideal.

The Bulls finished the contest just as the Cougars had started it, with three straight touchdowns. Speedy quarterback Timmy McClain — undisputedly the fastest player on the field for either team — bounced around the BYU defense all night to lead the Bulls in rushing for 181 collective yards and dominate the game’s time of possession by more than 10 minutes.

“It’s pretty evident that the defense needs to do a better job of getting off the field. We’ve got to find a way to make plays in the second half,” Sitake said.

BYU’s defense felt the absence of leading tackler Keenan Pili, who was ruled out for the season after a torn ACL against Arizona State. Defensive lineman and sack artist Tyler Batty was sidelined as well, and the typically strong Cougar pass-rushing efforts were diminished from fewer blitzes and McClain’s scrambling ability. The defense was visibly worn down in the second half, unable to keep the Bulls from marching downfield and suffering separate drives of 14 and 19 plays each.

“Looking on the bright side, we haven’t been able to play a full game of our best football,” linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa said.

The injury bug proved contagious for the Cougars as well, with Masen Wake, Neil Pau’u, Gabe Summers and several others all getting banged up throughout the contest. With the physical wear and tear of a 4-0 start growing more evident, BYU will need all the help it can get from the depth at each position.

“I think it’s a great chance for younger guys to get experience, and they showed out today,” Tanuvasa said on how the team would manage despite stockpiling injuries.

Along with Nacua, Romney’s brother Gunner recorded 119 receiving yards, marking only the second time in the Sitake era that two Cougar pass-catchers eclipsed the century mark in yardage in the same game. The Romney brothers linked up for five receptions, including a 47-yard touchdown grab for Gunner in the third quarter.

“It’s alright I guess,” Baylor laughingly said of his touchdown connection with Gunner.

Nacua logged 102 yards on four catches with Pau’u adding 42 yards and a touchdown of his own. Tyler Allgeier ran for two touchdowns and combined with Lopini Katoa for 121 yards on 19 carries, while Wake had five catches, a touchdown grab and another one of his trademark hurdles.

Stepping in for Pili, linebacker Ben Bywater led the Cougars with eight total tackles to continue his breakout campaign. Tanuvasa had seven tackles of his own, Payton Wilgar collected two tackles for loss and Max Tooley brought down McClain for the game’s only sack.

The Cougars head to Logan to face rival Utah State this Friday in their first true road game of the season, kicking off a crucial three-game stretch against the Aggies, Boise State and Baylor that will make or break BYU’s undefeated aspirations.

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