Neil Pau'u makes a catch against Washington State on Saturday, Oct. 23. (BYU Photo)

BYU’s deep receiving corps continues to contribute; Cougars ready for ‘Bronco bowl’ with Virginia

While the storyline for BYU’s offense has primarily been the Tyler Allgeier show, the Cougar receiving crew has added plenty of value this season through their depth and consistency.

Other than Puka Nacua’s eye-popping 22.2 yards per reception — good for fifth place in the country — no other BYU receiving numbers jump off the page. Neil Pau’u leads the team with 37 receptions and four touchdowns, but Nacua, Neil Pau’u and Gunner Romney all stand just inches apart from one another with more than 400 yards each.

Thirteen Cougars have caught passes so far this season, but only five have logged more than eight receptions. Nacua’s brother Samson — the most experienced of the group with more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns in his time at Utah — has just six catches to his name in 2021. Even recent returnee Dallin Holker has carried a lighter receiving workload after being a primary target as a freshman tight end in 2018.

Concerning? Hardly. BYU’s group of receivers and tight ends has proven to be one of the deepest in recent memory, focusing more on execution and dependability than flashy numbers or individual dominance.

“It’s all about opportunity,” Pau’u said. “We’ve made the plays when we’ve been called upon to make them.”

Despite having no definitive number one option in the receiving game — or perhaps because of it — the Cougars have done an excellent job of distributing the ball among all their possible playmakers. Aaron Roderick’s offense prides itself on its efficiency and on avoiding turnovers, and their ability to spread the ball all across the field greatly aids both areas and keeps opposing defenses honest, even when BYU’s overall scheme is slanted more toward the run game.

“We also like to think in our receiver group that we can open up the offense as well,” Pau’u said. “We’re going to go up and make the plays that are presented to us and we’ll go from there.”

The threat of so many different receiving options is enough to give opposing defenses headaches in their preparation, especially when only one Cougar receiver has led the team in yards in consecutive games. When Washington State tried to smother Nacua this past week, it just opened up space to feed Pau’u underneath. When Utah had seemingly locked down Pau’u and tight end Isaac Rex over the middle, it allowed Keanu Hill to slip away downfield for 33 yards, leading to an insurance score before halftime.

Other than catching passes, the receivers have proven to be especially valuable as blockers in the run game, a role which has become increasingly vital as BYU’s offensive line has had its ups and downs with injuries.In the fourth quarter against Utah State, Allgeier ripped off a 67-yard run that all but clinched the victory for the Cougars, which would have never been possible without a ferocious block on the perimeter from Puka Nacua.

“Do we wish that the ball will be up in the air more? For sure, but we’re going to block our butts off and create those gaps for Tyler so he’s able to run through them,” Pau’u said. “It’s kind of a team thing.”

As unselfish as they are athletic, there may not be any specific blocking statistics for the receivers, but it largely affects the games they win.

“To the outside world, catching is the most important thing, but without blocking, you can’t win football games,” Rex said.

“Bronco bowl” a huge test for BYU’s defense

There will be no shortage of emotions this Saturday when former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall — now at the helm of the Virginia Cavaliers — makes his first appearance in Provo since his departure in 2015.

“I hope the fans will think about the energy and the time and the hard work that Bronco and his staff did here,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “It deserves gratitude and love. They deserve all the cheers.”

While Sitake loves and appreciates his predecessor, he knows that his job is to avoid any excessive distractions and stay “as focused as possible.”

“I’m going to give him the warm welcome that he deserves. Once the game starts, we go back to the game and we focus on the players,” Sitake said. “Once the game finishes, the appreciation and love will still be there for him and the team.”

The Cavs and Cougars will meet as a pair of 6-2 squads, with BYU ranked No. 25 and Virginia unranked but just a few ticks behind. Despite the advantage in the polls, make no mistake, Virginia is a dangerous opponent.

The Cavaliers score a ridiculous 37.6 points per game, with quarterback Brennan Armstrong leading the nation with 3,220 passing yards along with 23 touchdowns. Dontayvion Wicks has emerged as an elite downfield threat with 847 receiving yards, one of four UVA pass-catchers with more than 450 yards on the season.

“He throws efficiently and makes great decisions,” Sitake said of Armstrong. “When you have that, you’re going to score a lot of points and make the other team’s defense look silly. (Armstrong) watches the defense and finds your one mistake and really exposes it.”

While UVA’s offense is explosive, the defense is a bit more suspect, giving up more points and yards per game than the “bend-don’t-break” Cougars unit. After finally reestablishing their rushing attack against Washington State last week, Jaren Hall and company are looking to help BYU’s offense “put it all together” in what could potentially be a high-scoring offensive shootout.

“Too many times, we’ll have gaps in scoring, gaps in executing in the red zone or shooting ourselves in the foot with small penalties,” Hall said. “You can talk about full fluidity all you want, but at this point, we’ve just got to go and do it.”

If BYU wants to avoid being steamrolled by Armstrong, they’ll have to start by improving their tackling on defense, a recurring theme throughout the injury-ridden season that was exposed as a major weakness against Washington State last week.

“We’ve been trying to address (tackling) as players, and the coaches have been addressing it,” defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua said. “I think that falls on players, we need to actually do better. We’re in the position, and we know how to take our angles, it just comes down to execution.”

With six wins under their belt, the Cougars have already clinched bowl eligibility for the fifth time in the Sitake era, but they feel that there’s still much to play for in the season’s final stretch. The prospect of finishing with double-digit wins is currently much more attractive than whoever they play in December’s postseason.

“The season feels long sometimes, so now it’s time to lock it in even more,” Hall said. “The bowl game means nothing to us right now, we’ve got to go win this next game against Virginia.”

The Cougars and Cavaliers will kick off at 8:15 p.m. this Saturday in Provo. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2.

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