New-look BYU defense carries Cougars over Sam Houston 14-0

Whatever you expected for BYU’s season opener, the end result probably felt just a tad bit wacky.

Who would have guessed for the night to feature more Cougar interceptions than touchdowns, even in a double digit win?

Who could have possibly foreseen a shutout effort on defense — the program’s first against an FBS opponent since 2012 — in the first outing following a campaign in which BYU allowed nearly 30 points per game?

And did anyone have two rushing touchdowns from the historically gunslinging Kedon Slovis on their bingo card?

Whatever was anticipated prior to kicking off against Sam Houston quickly evaporated into wishful thinking, as BYU logged an equally frustrating yet encouraging 14-0 win over the Bearkats Saturday night in Provo to open the program’s Big 12 era.

“A lot of the offensive guys aren’t happy, but the defensive guys are fired up,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said following the win. “I’m really happy with the aggression (on defense) and how we tackled.”

New defensive coordinator Jay Hill showed exactly why BYU made his hiring its top priority in the offseason, crafting a near-perfect game plan to smother the Kats’ attack and putting his players in position to make plays, as cornerback Jakob Robinson snatched two interceptions and fellow corner Eddie Heckard found another pick as well.

“This was the most prepared we’ve ever been (on defense),” Robinson said. “We just knew what was coming. We were calling it out beforehand.”

“We gained a lot of trust in (Hill) tonight,” linebacker Ben Bywater added.

In another debut effort, the veteran quarterback Slovis flashed at times in his first BYU start — most notably on a pair of first- and fourth-quarter touchdown runs, the first of his career and lone Cougar scores on the night — but the offense often sputtered to the tune of eight penalties, a 5-17 showing on third down and an abysmal 3.8 yards per play.

“I’ve seen that offense be really explosive against our defense, so we’ve got to get back to that. We’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot,” Sitake said. “We’ve seen (Slovis) perform better… I know (offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick) will get it fixed.”

True freshman running back LJ Martin proved to be the contest’s breakout performer, marking his first collegiate action with 91 rushing yards on 16 carries to give the Cougar offense a spark it desperately needed in the second half.

“I thought he looked much more mature than a true freshman,” Sitake said of Martin. “We’ve been bragging about how good he is. He had some Tyler Allgeier in him tonight.”

Slovis finished his BYU debut 20-33 in passing for 145 yards, with Chase Roberts catching five balls for 42 yards and transfer addition Darius Lassiter adding another 43 yards on four receptions. Aside from Martin’s impressive showing, the Cougars averaged just 1.17 yards on 18 other rushing attempts.

Defensively, linebackers Bywater and Max Tooley finished with nine tackles each, Tyler Batty recorded an early sack and Hill’s unit produced six total tackles for loss. On special teams, Tanner Wall led the charge with three tackles while Ryan Rehkow put on a clinic by punting for 479 yards on nine attempts — by far his career highs in both categories.

“I don’t want (Rehkow) punting that many times in a game,” Sitake said, citing the need for improvement on offense. “Let’s only put him on the field for (extra point attempts).”

The Cougars move to 1-0 on the young season and will face Southern Utah this coming Saturday at 1 p.m. MDT in Provo.

“From week one to week two, we can make a lot of improvement,” Sitake said. “It’s humbling for our players, especially on the offensive side, but we can get better and show up next week.”

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