BYU triumphs over Cincinnati 35-27 for program’s first Big 12 victory

Let’s be real here: BYU just wasn’t going to lose its first Big 12 home game.

Obviously any outcome on the field is impossible to guarantee, but Friday night’s festivities in Provo proved incapable of allowing the Cougars to fail.

A talented visiting Cincinnati squad — favored by two points prior to kickoff — racked up 203 more total yards than BYU. The Bearcats ran 84 plays to the Cougars’ 54. Cincinnati maintained possession for 35 minutes and picked up 26 first downs, leaving the Cougar defense on the field far longer than anyone would have liked.

None of it would matter. Newly minted Big 12 BYU earned its first conference victory in 13 years by flipping the second half script for a 35-27 win over Cincinnati, closing September and heading into the bye week at an encouraging 4-1 mark.

“(Cincinnati) kind of put us in a tough spot as they possessed the ball for such a long time,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “The fact that we scored that many points on so few plays means that we probably had some explosive plays, but we also need to possess the ball, convert some first downs and get some drives going. Defensively, we also need to get off the field and get some stops. I’m glad we were able to force some turnovers and turnovers on downs. I’m happy that we won, but we also have room to improve and get better.”

The “explosive plays” Sitake referenced seemed to surface whether the Cougars truly designed them or not. BYU’s first score came on a Jakob Robinson pick-six, where Robinson accidentally fell off his man assignment only for the pass to be hucked right to him. A Chase Roberts 59-yard touchdown reception came on a wide Kedon Slovis throw intended for Keanu Hill.

Even long snapper Austin Riggs, of all people, found himself recovering a muffed punt to steal an additional possession for BYU, which resulted in an LJ Martin touchdown five plays later. When your LONG SNAPPER is recording fourth quarter turnovers to set up scoring chances, you know the night belongs to you.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Fortune clearly favored the Cougars Friday, but a bad team wouldn’t have posted a 35-spot, especially not against a quality Cincinnati defense that held juggernaut Oklahoma to just 20 points a week ago.

“I don’t care how the points show up on the scoreboard, I just want them to show up there,” Sitake said.

Translation: Points are points, wins are wins. In conference play, you can’t afford to be picky.

Avoiding such pickiness was evident late in the second half, as BYU stood on its own 18-yard line trailing 10-7 with just 36 ticks until halftime. The Cougars had practically nothing to show for the past half hour of regulation, with 17 total plays yielding a meager 38 yards. Slovis had compiled just six feet of passing. BYU appeared punchless offensively. Nothing was working.

The situation wasn’t ideal in the slightest. Yet, having allowed the Bearcats more than 20 minutes of possession time already, Slovis and company weren’t in any position to pass up a rare offensive opportunity.

Three plays later, Darius Lassiter and his fellow royal-clad Cougars were raving with the ROC in the end zone, as Slovis had slung three perfect passes to travel 82 yards – more than doubling BYU’s prior yardage total — for a go-ahead Lassiter touchdown just before halftime.

The Cougars would never look back nor trail again. A drive beginning with 36 seconds remaining was more than enough to awaken a dormant offensive unit and swing all the momentum back to BYU.

“We started looking at their tendencies and what they were doing,” Roberts said. We started calling plays that fit what we were seeing. I think it was just getting the right feel for what they were doing and how we could best attack them. Then we got it going.”

Slovis finished the night 13-for-24 in passing for 223 yards and two touchdowns, good for a 159.7 rating and fourth career win as a Cougar. The fifth-year senior displayed his greatest command of the offense all season in the second half, rattling off a number of impressive throws while maintaining near-perfect composure within the pocket.

“He has such a good feel for the game,” Roberts said of his quarterback. “He is able to make plays and throws from whatever arm angle or whatever way he is rolling out. I’m grateful for him, his leadership and how he’s able to keep the team together when things aren’t going how we want them to.”

Roberts enjoyed his finest performance to date in catching six passes for a career-high 131 yards and two scores. Keanu Hill added three grabs for 41 yards, with seven total Cougars tallying receptions against the Bearcats. Following a horrific outing against Kansas where the Cougars ran for just nine yards at a 0.4 average, BYU’s run game rebounded as Martin gained 66 yards on 16 carries, finding the end zone twice in the process.

The Cougar offensive line, plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness prior to Friday, put together its best outing of the season, bringing the run game back to life and preventing a single sack of Slovis. “I trust those guys with my life,” Martin said of the line.

Defensively, Max Tooley totaled a career-high 16 tackles, with fellow linebackers AJ Vongphachanh and Harrison Taggart adding 10 each as well. Safety Tanner Wall made five tackles and prevented the Bearcats from attempting any kind of deep passing attack while he was on the field, and Tyler Batty picked up his fourth sack of the year.

BYU ends September at 4-1 heading into a much-needed bye week, following which the Cougars will take on the bulk of their Big 12 schedule beginning with a road test against TCU on Oct. 14.

“We fight. We’re gonna win some games,” Roberts said. “We’re gonna be a powerhouse in the Big 12. Everyone’s bought in.”

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