One last ride for the Wagon Wheel: No. 19 BYU overcomes ugliness to defeat Utah State 38-26

It looks like the Wagon Wheel is staying in Provo for good, even if the way it was earned turned out much more distressing than expected.

After yet another problematic first half, No. 19 BYU corrected its course to rally and defeat Utah State 38-26 Thursday in what could possibly be the final matchup in the century-long rivalry series.

“This is one of the big in-state rivalries, so it always feels good to beat this team,” wide receiver Gunner Romney said. “It’s always an extremely competitive game, no matter what the records are, and it’s satisfying to come out with a win.”

A win is a win, and rivalry games always add an element of entropy to the equation, but the Cougars flirted with disaster far too often in continuing their initial struggles and discipline issues, both having become nauseating staples for Kalani Sitake’s squad.

“We just made a lot of mistakes and undisciplined play, just little things that we can fix,” Sitake said. “I didn’t like that. Last week I talked about us not playing clean, and then the same thing happened again. That’s my job, to demand better from our guys.”

It felt as if the Cougars were destined for smooth sailing early, leaping for 14 quick points on a two-play touchdown drive and scoring again on Max Tooley’s second pick six of the season on the ensuing defensive possession.

In fact, BYU’s defense marked a season-high with two takeaways in just the first 16 minutes, but such an accomplishment felt worthless with the halftime score tied at 17 points apiece. The seemingly hapless but inspired Aggies were clearly the more energized unit, sparked by quarterback Cooper Legas making his first career start to post 246 yards of offense in the first half.

“Their players were fired up and ready to play this game, and we played a little bit tight,” Sitake said. “I thought they played with an attitude of nothing to lose, and we played with an attitude of trying too hard not to make mistakes and then ended up making some mistakes. I need to find a way to get our guys to play more loose, have more fun out there and not make boneheaded mistakes.”

If you’re reading this, chances are that you generated more rushing production than BYU in the first two quarters, where the Cougars were pushed backward for negative 21 yards. BYU ran just 19 total plays prior to halftime, went 1-5 on third downs and drew five penalties in perhaps the team’s all-around worst half of 2022.

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: Second half adjustments ultimately won the game for the Cougars.

BYU nearly doubled the Aggies’ offensive output by a 290-146 yard margin after halftime, yielding results that had been glaringly absent since the game’s opening minutes. After running 54 plays in the first half, Utah State was held to 27 snaps down the stretch, failed on four third down attempts and coughed up another interception to Ben Bywater.

“The smallest adjustment can make the biggest difference,” defensive lineman John Nelson said.

Jaren Hall had another valiant outing under center for the Cougars, throwing for 274 yards and three touchdowns while keeping BYU’s offense turnover-free for the fourth straight game. Most importantly, Hall remained in one piece against an Aggie squad historically known for injuring Cougar quarterbacks, even surviving an awkward landing on a late, low hit in the fourth quarter to finish out the night.

“I’m sure he’s sore, but he’ll be fine,” Sitake said of Hall. “Luckily, we have some extra days to rest, so we’ll take advantage of that. He seems to be in good spirits and seems fine.”

Finally activating the run game late, Chris Brooks ran straight out of the doghouse for 90 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while Miles Davis added eight carries for 39 yards. Kody Epps caught five passes for 82 yards and a score, Keanu Hill and Ethan Erickson both caught touchdowns while Brayden Cosper and Romney combined for seven catches and 107 yards in Romney’s season debut.

“We’re a better team when Gunner’s playing,” Sitake said. “We feel great about our receiving group, but Gunner came back this year for a reason and I’m glad that he’s able to get out there and make plays now. I loved seeing that light in his eyes and the excitement of being on the field.”

On defense, safeties Micah Harper and Talan Alfrey led the Cougars with 10 tackles each, Bywater added nine tackles with an interception, Alden Tofa recorded a sack and Harper forced a fumble. Tooley added a sack of his own along with the first quarter pick six, but addressed the need for more consistent, cohesive defensive play going forward.

“It’s a lot of the fundamentals, just the basic things like wrapping up and tackling,” Tooley said. “Myself included, I left way too many plays out on the field today. I’m not really satisfied to be honest. I feel like staying focused all week is something we really need to focus on, just staying locked and dialed in with our technique and fundamentals.”

Even with a sack and a score, Tooley’s most notable moment against the Aggies was tossing Legas’ cleat toward the sideline after a tackle for loss in the first quarter, drawing a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct and keeping the Utah State offense on the field in what should have been a punting situation.

“I remember Zac Dawe throwing his (shoe) a few years ago (at Tennessee), and I thought that would be pretty legendary,” Tooley said. “I didn’t think what I was doing would get me a personal foul, but I’ll learn from it.”

Aside from the shoe toss, other “boneheaded” mistakes from the Cougars included a nearly-squandered Lopini Katoa fumble, Gabe Jeudy-Lally being ejected for targeting and, in another of the season’s apparent trends, Jake Oldroyd missing two field goals.

After failing from both 33 and 35 yards against the Aggies, Oldroyd has missed five of his past six field goal attempts going back to Baylor on Sept. 10. Sitake said he still had “a lot of belief” in Oldroyd but acknowledged that a change at kicker may be on its way.

“No one’s harder on himself than he is, so right now he’s not happy, but I’m trying to get him to be happy because we won the game,” Sitake said of Oldroyd. “He had some uncharacteristic misses.. now the competition will be on.”

With the Wagon Wheel victory, BYU moves to 4-1 on the season with an extended preparation period before heading to Las Vegas to face Notre Dame on Oct. 8.

“Notre Dame is traditionally a great team, and we have an amazing team going into Vegas too, so it’s going to be pretty sick,” Epps said. “I think the story is going to be epic for years to come.”

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