A two game losing streak was not what BYU fans were expecting would happen after starting 4-0 this season. The offense last week was not completely different from what we've seen in the previous four and half games with Taysom Hill at the helm. But it was noticeably less reliant on the quarterback running the ball out of the read option, though that didn't stop Stewart from keeping it himself or tucking and running. Stewart even showed some Taysom-like running ability on a long third down conversion in which he scrambled for a first down.
The BYU Cougars compiled 342 yards of total offense, although most of the yards for BYU were in the 3rd quarter. Cougar fans would love to see that kind of production consistently throughout the game. Inconsistency is to be expected from a quarterback who has only one start under his belt. Look for the offense to continue progressing. The likely return of Jamaal Williams to the lineup will allow Stewart to lean on a strong rushing attack and give him a chance to get in an early rhythm.
One good reason for optimism is the improvement of the defense. Despite the absence of starting safeties, Craig Bills and Dallin Leavitt, and playmaking linebacker, Alani Fua, the defense held UCF to 389 yards. Last game was a noticeable improvement over the game against Utah State which the Cougars gave up 457 yards to the Aggies. Young replacements showed they were up to the task of stepping in for three of the top playmakers for the Cougars. With injuries continuing to pile up, how the young players and backups step up will likely be a story line that continues until the season ends.
Nevada has a fairly balanced, and effective, offense. This should be a very back and forth game. With that said, here are my bold predictions for Saturday's game against the Nevada Wolf Pack.
1. Christian Stewart will throw for 250 yards, pass for two touchdowns and rush for one
Stewart has a strong arm but his accuracy has suffered as he's had little time to develop the needed chemistry and timing with his receivers. He didn't really start to get going until the second half when he threw three touchdown passes to start the half. Stewart barely hit more than 150 yards passing last game but I expect that to improve. His accuracy went up from his game against Utah State. A strong run game will alleviate some pressure and give Stewart a chance to make some easy throws.
Although Stewart is obviously not Taysom, his running ability should not be ignored. He had 52 rushing yards on 13 carries, 20 of which were gained on a 3rd down run. He won't typically gain big chunks of yards on runs like that but he's got the ability to keep plays alive and keep the defense honest. I would not be surprised to see Stewart scramble into the end zone Saturday night.
2. Devin Mahina will catch another touchdown pass
Mahina has struggled to establish himself as the next big-time tight end in a long line of BYU greats. After catching two touchdown passes last week, expect to see Mahina prove last game was not a fluke. He's been expected to break out for years and he has yet to do so. As I predicted at the beginning of the season Mahina will bring the tight end position back as a staple of the offense. Last week was the needed jump start to get him to those preseason expectations. Both touchdowns were well deserved. His first displayed his ability to get yards after the catch. His second catch was a thing of beauty. Stewart threw a back shoulder pass to the corner of the end zone and Mahina snagged it with his back to the quarterback. Don't be surprised if Mahina proves to be a favorite target for Stewart, his security blanket if you will.
3. Scott Arellano will average 50 yards per punt
Arellano has being the bright spot of the BYU special teams. He is averaging 44.4 yards per punt with his best game coming against Virginia. In that game he average 55 yards per punt on five punts with a long of 65 yards. Throughout the season he has consistently pinned the opponent inside its own 20, doing it four such times against Virginia. Winning the field position battle has been crucial to the Cougars success. Arellano has averaged at least 43 yards per punt every game except against Houston and Utah State, games he averaged 38.3 and 36.5 yards respectively. Arellano has always had a strong leg and this season he's greatly improved his accuracy and placement of kicks. Punting isn't the most exciting thing to talk about but will continue to be crucial for the Cougars as the season goes on.
4. BYU will have a non-offensive touchdown
This could be tough to pull off for the Cougars as a pick-six could be difficult to accomplish. Fajardo has thrown six picks this season but four of those came against Boise State. Throwing interceptions are not unheard of for Fajardo but they aren't common place either. The BYU secondary has been picked apart all season. Teams that don't pass a lot have tended to pass more against this struggling secondary. I expect to see the Wolf Pack to continue to test the Cougar secondary. This could leave to some good opportunities for the defensive to take one back to the house.
The front seven got more pressure last game against UCF. Getting sacks, tackles for a loss, hits on the quarterback and forcing tough throws all night. This pressure from the front seven led to four Knight turnovers. As long as the front seven can build upon last games success forcing more turnovers is not out of the question. A forced fumble and recovery after a punt that pins Nevada near its own end zone could lead to a defensive return.
BYU also has a strong group of exciting returners. Devon Blackmon has great speed and has the chance to run it back any time he touches the ball. The loss of Adam Hine to injury will be a hit to the return game but it will just present the opportunity for someone else to make the play.
After what looked like a possible undefeated season, two straight losses can't sit well with this BYU team. This team has too much pride to let themselves lose a third straight. The Cougars will want to reward their fans for coming to a late Saturday night game by giving them a win. Nevada won't go down quietly but I expect the Cougars to have a solid game all around. Cougars win 31-21.