BYU may have set some Pac12 teams at ease regarding Mike Leach’s first season at WSU. The blue Cougars put on a dominating effort on both sides of the ball in the first half, posting a 24-6 lead at the break. But WSU was really finished after just the first series. After driving all the way into BYU territory, a tipped pass was intercepted by BYU’s Uona Kaveinga to effectively stop the WSU drive. Riley Nelson led BYU to a touchdown on the ensuing possession, and the blue Cougars never looked back en route to a 30-6 victory.
While WSU is pretty much the bottom of the barrel of BCS teams, I figured they’d put up more of a fight, as I picked the game at BYU 27, WSU 20. I really don’t mind when the blue Cougars outperform my expectations. Here’s a look back at what went right and wrong for BYU.
Riley Juice. Riley Nelson had an amazing game. He connected on 25/36 pass attempts for 285 yards and 2 touchdowns, connecting with Kaneakua (Kane) Friel and Skyler Ridley on the scores. Friel had 6 receptions for 101 yards and had another TD grab from Taysom Hill. For the BYU, this marks the first time since 2009 (Dennis Pitta) that a TE has had 100 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. If this was not just a one game fluke, it is going to have a huge impact on the season. Speaking of huge impacts, BYU started the game at 7/9 on third down conversion attempts. A high 3rd down conversion % has become one of the hallmarks of a Riley Nelson led offense.
Cody Hoffman was hot early, catching 3 passes for 46 yards, but he was injured on that third pass. In for him was Skyler Ridley, who made some fantastic plays of his own, hauling in 6 passes for 54 yards and the aforementioned TD. Hoffman just had a thigh bruise, and should be back next Saturday against Weber State. Seeing Ridley have the same kind of connection with Nelson as Hoffman does is also a great sign for the Cougars, as Ross Apo has yet to develop quite the same chemistry there.
I was really surprised to see Riley Nelson taking snaps late into the 4th quarter. By the end of the third it was clear that there would be no comeback from WSU. Riley is too valuable of an asset to leave out on the field when it’s unnecessary, especially considering his physical style of play. Those minutes would be better spent developing backups Lark and Hill.
I absolutely loved the energy of this offense. After big plays, Riley Nelson was engaged on the sidelines with none other than Max Hall, and we got occasional shots of Brandon Doman and his staff celebrating up in the booth, especially after the Taysom Hill TD pass. It’s great to see the offense with the kind of energy that matches that of the defensive squad.
The Rush Attack. As predicted, Michael Alisa led the Cougars in rushing. He carried 13 times for 54 yards, and he looked impressive doing it. He doesn’t quit on a run, and there were a couple of times where he was able to continue a run simply because he didn’t give up on it. Overall, outside rushing yards were easier to come by against WSU, as most of what the Cougars tried inside was stuffed. One play that seemed to work inside was the quarterback draw; Riley sold the pass just enough to open up some pretty good running lanes for himself, though his runs didn’t amount for much overall. David Foote added a few good runs of his own, carrying 4 times for 26 yards.
Special Teams. Partly due to the new rules, and partly due to Leach’s propensity to go for it on fourth down, BYU had no kick returns and no punt returns this game. But the blue Cougars were credited with a blocked kick as team pursuit broke up a fake punt, which ended up turning into a frantic rugby-style punt. Riley Stephenson filled in on FG duties, and went 3/4 on the day with a long of 31 yards. Our kickoff coverage was average, if you average it. On pretty much every kick, we were on top of the return man almost immediately, but on a few of those, he escaped the coverage and got another 20-30 yards down field.
Bronco D. I was really excited to see these guys play, and they did not disappoint. Kyle Van Noy led the way with 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, a pass disruption, and two holding penalties against his opponents. The defense may have allowed WSU a pretty decent first drive, but once Daniel Sorenson tipped Jeff Tuel’s pass to Kaveinga for the INT, Bronco’s defense was in control the rest of this game. The only other drives of consequence that WSU put together after that were aided by penalties on the BYU defense. Most of those where because of playing with too much intensity…which I’d hate to ask the boys to back off from. That Sorenson-Kaveinga INT was actually the second potential tip-to-INT on the first drive. I’m not sure if BYU is practicing that or not, but they certainly appear to be good at it.
On that first WSU drive, Tuel was 7/8 passing for 54 yards, and the crimson Cougars looked pretty good driving down the field. The Kaveinga INT really rallied our defense, and Tuel only completed one of his next five passes.
Also of note was Jordan Johnson’s 64 yard interception return at the beginning of the second half. If WSU had any confidence coming out of the locker room, it vanished in that play.
What we know about Washington State (0-1)
WSU is still WSU. Mike Leach will undoubtedly do some great things with this team. Despite this poor performance, the crimson Cougars will have a pretty good year. I think Leach hit the nail on the head when he said they are a better team than they think they are. It’s about confidence. They showed they could be a really good team on a couple of drives, but really couldn’t sustain anything once they hit some adversity (read, “BroncoD”). WSU will face FCS Eastern Washington next week. The EWU Eagles will be ready and full of confidence, as they just took down FBS foe Idaho last week.
What we know about BYU (1-0)
The Cougars have won their season opener for the sixth consecutive year under Bronco Mendenhall, but with Weber State up next week, they will avoid Bronco’s typical 1-2 start. Bronco insists that the week to week focus is on our own team, but this may be a good opportunity to start looking ahead to Utah, if only just a little. This was a dominating performance against a team that was a huge question mark. Next week won’t help define this year’s team, but subsequent games against Utah, Boise St., and Hawaii will surely help with that.