BYU Football: Cougars Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Zach Wilson was putting together a solid sophomore season until he got injured against Toledo

BYU has gone from notching dramatic overtime victories over Power 5 opponents to wondering if it can get bowl eligible this season.

 

The Cougars (2-4) enter the midseason point on a three-game losing streak. Road losses to Toledo and South Florida especially stung since the Cougars entered the fourth quarter with leads in both games. Little has gone right on either side of the ball for BYU since back-to-back wins over Tennessee and USC. The temperature on the hot seat is climbing for head coach Kalani Sitake in his fourth season at the helm.

 

BYU enters the second half of the season needing four wins in six games to secure a trip to the 2019 Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. Can the Cougars do it? There's no guarantee that plateau can be reached at this point.

 

Offensive MVP: QB Zach Wilson

Wilson had some shaky moments during the first month of the season, but he also showed plenty of progress before a thumb injury suffered against Toledo sidelined him. Over BYU's first five games, the sophomore threw for 1,312 yards and five touchdowns while completing 62 percent of his passes.

 

Defensive MVP: DE Khyiris Tonga

If BYU had a defense filled with players mirroring Tonga's talent and effort, the Cougars would be unstoppable on that side of the ball. Tonga is a disruptive force on the line of scrimmage with 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack, and a pair of pass breakups to his credit through the first six games.

 

Best Moment of First Half: Micah Simon's Game-Saving Catch

The Cougars were a few seconds away from falling to 0-2 when Simon got behind a Tennessee defensive back and took a pass from 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 Newcomer: RB Ty'Son Williams

Before tearing his ACL against Washington, Williams delivered exactly what the Cougars needed in the backfield before he came to Provo as a graduate transfer from South Carolina. The senior ran for 264 yards and three touchdowns in a little more than three games. Williams had the right combination of speed and power to give the BYU offense some extra juice while he was healthy.

 

Biggest Surprise: LB Payton Wilgar

A slew of injuries at linebacker opened the door for Wilgar to step in and contribute right away. The redshirt freshman hasn't disappointed. Wilgar recorded interceptions in back-to-back games against Washington and Toledo and had a team-high eight tackles against USF. He leads the Cougars with two interceptions and ranks in the Top 25 among FBS players in that category.

 

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

 

1. Can BYU keep a quarterback healthy?

It feels like 2017 all over again for the Cougars in the quarterback health department. BYU lost two quarterbacks to fourth-quarter injuries in back-to-back weeks. Zach Wilson got sidelined against the Rockets with the aforementioned thumb injury. Jaren Hall did not finish the game in his first career start against South Florida after taking a hard hit to head. Baylor Romney, the third-string QB, ran the offense on the final two drives against USF.

 

2. Can BYU's run defense show some improvement?

Stopping opponents on the ground has been an Achilles' heel for the Cougars. BYU allowed 224.5 rushing yards per game in its first six games, ranking 123rd in the FBS. The Cougars are allowing 4.79 yards per carry. There's no way to sugarcoat how terrible these numbers are. It must improve if BYU hopes to get bowl eligible before the season ends.

 

3. Who will emerge for the Cougars in the backfield?

Ty'Son Williams' season-ending knee injury left BYU without its best option in the running game. The Cougars need Emmanuel Esukpa or Lopini Katoa to emerge as a back who can take some pressure off the quarterback. Neither Esukpa nor Katoa has eclipsed 200 total rushing yards to this point. BYU needs to find a consistent running threat — and also needs improved run blocking up front — to take the pressure off of the quarterback.

 

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

 

1. Oct.19 vs. Boise State

Alternating last-second losses and painful blowouts have characterized this one-sided series. BYU hasn't beaten the Broncos since 2015 and has defeated Boise State just two times overall. It won't likely be any easier to get in the win column this time. The Broncos lead the Mountain West in total offense (488.2 ypg) and rank third in total defense (327.7 ypg).

 

2. Nov. 2 at Utah State

Stopping the Aggies' high-powered offense has been a major problem for BYU over the last two seasons. Utah State has taken two straight games in the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel while averaging 42.5 points in those contests. USU is looking for its third straight win over the Cougars for the first time since taking four in a row from 1971 to '74.

 

3. Nov. 30 at San Diego State

The Aztecs aren't going to dazzle you with a bunch of points, but they know how to lock down opponents. San Diego State ranks eighth in the FBS in scoring defense (13.2 ppg) and ninth in total defense (270.0 ypg). The Aztecs are also hungry to get their first win over their former Mountain West rivals since 2005.

 

4. Nov. 9 vs. Liberty

It's a safe bet that BYU will get a tougher challenge from the Flames than expected before the season. Liberty has won four straight since a 0-2 start. Flames QB Stephen Calvert has three 300-yard passing games this season and WR Antonio Gandy-Golden ranks second nationally with 728 receiving yards.

 

5. Nov. 16 vs. Idaho State

This is the third time these two teams have met this decade. BYU averaged 57.5 points in the first two contests while allowing 8.0 points. The FCS' Bengals are not a serious threat to upset the Cougars.

 

6. Nov. 23 at Massachusetts

Not much has gone right for the Minutemen this season. UMass ranks last in the FBS in scoring defense (49.9 ppg) and gives up an FBS-worst 554.4 yards per game. Even BYU should have little trouble moving the chains against the Minutemen.

 

— 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 @BYUFootball)

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