Khyiris Tonga has been the heart and soul of the Cougars' defense this season
BYU endured a true roller-coaster season.
The Cougars notched home wins over Top-25 opponents USC and Boise State, but dropped winnable games against mediocre teams like South Florida and Toledo. Still, BYU did just enough to reach a bowl game for the third time in four seasons under head coach Kalani Sitake. The Cougars will face former WAC rival Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve.
Who stood out for BYU in 2019? What were the defining moments of the season for the Cougars? Here's a quick snapshot at the regular season and what lies ahead for BYU in 2020:
Offensive MVP: Zach Wilson, QB
Wilson missed four games after injuring his right thumb in the final minute of the loss to Toledo. He still ended up having the biggest impact of any BYU offensive player. The sophomore quarterback threw for at least 200 yards in seven games and 300 yards in two games. Wilson totaled 2,108 yards, 11 touchdowns, and seven interceptions in eight games while completing 63 percent of his passes.
Defensive MVP: Khyiris Tonga, DE
If BYU had a defensive line filled with players mirroring Tonga's level of talent and continuous energy, the Cougars could raise their defense to an elite level. Tonga is always a concern for opposing offensive coordinators because of his disruptive playmaking up front. The junior tallied 42 tackles, 4.0 tackles for a loss, two pass breakups, and a sack during the regular season.
Best Newcomer: Payton Wilgar, LB
A slew of injuries led Wilgar to take on a larger role on defense than originally anticipated. The freshman exceeded expectations. Wilgar showed right away he had a nose for the ball. He ended up totaling a team-high three interceptions during the regular season. Wilgar also ranks fifth on the team with 52 tackles.
Best Play of the Season: Micah Simon's game-saving catch vs Tennessee
The Cougars were a few seconds away from falling to 0-2 when Simon slipped behind a Tennessee defensive back and took a pass from Zach Wilson 64 yards to set up a field goal that forced overtime. BYU eventually pulled out an improbable 29-26 double-overtime victory over the Volunteers to get its first victory of the season.
Best Performance by a Player: Baylor Romney, QB
When injuries sidelined Zach Wilson and backup QB Jaren Hall, Romney stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. Romney went 3-0 as a starter, leading BYU to victories over Boise State, Utah State, and Liberty. The redshirt freshman threw for 674 yards and seven touchdowns in those games while completing 74 percent of his passes. Originally a walk-on, Romney earned a scholarship at season's end because of his outstanding play.
Best Game (Team Performance): Blowout of UMass
Facing the nation's worst defense allowed BYU to put up video game numbers before halftime in a 56-24 victory over the Minutemen. The Cougars led 49-0 before pulling all of their starters at the start of the third quarter. BYU rolled up 628 total yards and 26 first downs on offense. Jackson McChesney led the way with 228 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 15 carries. Zach Wilson threw for 293 yards and four touchdowns on 17-of-20 passing in just two quarters.
Defining Moment: BYU upsets Boise State
BYU's season was on the verge of going off the rails after a three-game losing streak to Washington, Toledo, and South Florida. It turned around when the Cougars knocked off the Broncos 28-25 in Provo. BYU pulled out the bag of tricks during a dominant third quarter and then weathered a late Boise State rally. It sparked a five-game winning streak that secured the Cougars a trip to the Hawaii Bowl.
Biggest Surprise: Sione Finau, RB
Finau began the season buried on the backfield depth chart. Injuries opened the door for him to start and the freshman made the most of his chance. Finau totaled 359 yards and a pair of touchdowns over five games before suffering a season-ending injury. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry and gave the Cougars a true running threat with his speed out of the backfield.
Biggest Disappointment: Field Goal Kicking
Inconsistent kicking cost BYU in multiple close games this season. After going 10-of-11 on field goals in the Cougars' first four games, Jake Oldroyd made 4-of-10 attempts over the next seven. Two missed field goals against Toledo ultimately played a huge role in a 28-21 loss to the Rockets. Skyler Southam took over in the regular-season finale against San Diego State and fared no better. Southam missed a pair of 26-yard field goals in a 13-3 loss to the Aztecs.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most: Dayan Ghanwoloku, DB
Ghanwoloku made plays all over the field during the regular season for the Cougars. The senior leads the team with two sacks. He is second in tackles (60), tackles for a loss (4.5), and interceptions (two). His contributions have been critical in a secondary wracked by injuries.
Player to Watch in 2020: Chaz Ah You, LB
Injuries limited Ah You to 10 regular-season games, but he made a splash in that time. The sophomore led the Cougars with 5.5 tackles for a loss. He totaled 27 tackles overall, three pass breakups, a sack, an interception, and a forced fumble. Ah You seems poised to take on an even bigger role as a junior with his speed and field vision.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Who will emerge at running back?
Efforts to generate a consistent running attack in the backfield never panned out during the regular season. The injury bug bit hard. Ty'Son Williams and Sione Finau both suffered season-ending injuries right as they emerged as primary backs. Lopini Katoa stayed relatively healthy but did not fully build on the potential he showed as a freshman. BYU may have to dip into the transfer portal or junior college ranks to make the offense less one-dimensional next season.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of byucougars.com)