In what ended up being a far more interesting game than the record of the two participants or the final score would indicate, the BYU Cougars (8-4, 6-2 home) and the Utah State Aggies (3-9, 1-7 MWC) met for the 86th time on Saturday night to battle for the Old Wagon Wheel. BYU held a 47-35-3 advantage in the series going into the game, with Utah State last having won in 2014, and only having three wins in the last 20 meetings between the two teams. The Cougar faithful and the team turned out in black out for the game in front of a packed crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium. And the Cougars delivered with a bittersweet victory that saw BYU dominate despite an unsteady performance and the potential loss of Taysom Hill with an arm injury.
BYU came out sluggish to start the game. The Cougars’ first two drives ended in a punt and an interception, respectively. Utah State, however, was able to move the ball and penetrated deep into BYU territory on both of their opening drives, but the Cougar defense stiffened and—aided by a couple crowd induced penalties—was able to hold the Aggies to a single field goal.
This would prove fortuitous, as BYU fed Jamaal Williams on their third possession of the game. Williams put the Cougars on his back during an eight play, 90-yard drive that took nearly four minutes off of the clock and bridged the gap between the first and second quarters. A couple of Utah State pass interference penalties didn’t hurt either. Williams capped off his 31 yards with a two-yard touchdown plunge on his sixth carry of the drive to give the Cougars a 7-3 lead.
BYU and Utah state then traded field goals on their next couple of possessions, with the Cougars’ promising drive falling short on a drop by Mitchell Juergens that mercifully fell to the turf through the hands of two Utah State defenders. On their ensuing possession, Utah State attempted to go for it on fourth down, and Damion Hobbs was stripped by Logan Taele. The ball bounced into the hands of nickel cornerback Michael Shelton, who sprinted 52 yards to the endzone, breaking a couple of tackles along the way for a 14-3 advantage.
Things looked good for BYU to add to its lead after forcing a three and out on Utah Sate’s next possession, with 2:50 left in the first half and all three timeouts, but Taysom Hill’s slant pass caromed off of he hands of Nick Kurtz and into the hands of USU’s Jalen Davis, who returned it all the way to the BYU six-yard line. It was Hill’s second interception of the half. He would finish the first half 6 of 12 for only 66 yards and two picks. Two plays later, Hobbs would find a modicum of redemption for his earlier fumble by smashing through the goal line to bring USU within one score at 14-10.
BYU’s Aleva Hifo would scuttle any chance of a push for a score with the remaining 39 seconds, getting tackled by the turf monster at his own five-yard line, leaving the Cougars with little choice but to take a knee and go into the half with a four-point advantage.
Things didn’t get much easier in the second half for the Cougars, as a 15-yard penalty after the play by Moroni Laulau-Pututau wiped out a 27-yard gain by Jamaal Williams. But the Cougars remained undeterred with their commitment to the run game and managed to drive inside the USU 30-yard line before a fumble on a mishandled snap by Hill and a holding penalty would push them back outside of field goal range. BYU failed to convert on a 3rd and 27 following the miscues, and the promising drive fizzled. The Cougar special teams managed to take advantage of the short field, however, as Jonny Linehan and Garrett Juergens combined to pin the Aggies at the one yard line. Utah State would go on to flip the field position behind the arm of Kent Myers, driving to the 50 before a mishandled snap of their own stalled their drive, forcing them to give the ball back to the Cougars.
On their ensuing possession, BYU would go 75 yards on 15 plays for a score to increase their lead to 21-10 on a 10-yard catch by Mitchell Juergens. Fred Warner would cut USU’s next drive short with a pick, and the Cougars would go down the field to score on a five-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Mangum to Colby Pearson, stretching their lead to 18 points at 28-10. However, tragedy struck on this drive as Taysom Hill hurt his arm hurdling a USU defender near the goal line and went to the locker room. Mangum would finish the game for the Cougars under center.
BYU would bleed the clock from there, missing a field goal on the way to a 28-10 final. While the Cougars ended up with a solid win in a physical game, it is small consolation due to the loss of Hill, who, depending on his injury, may not play in the Poinsettia Bowl in a month’s time. The Cougars will be well served with Mangum under center, and he’ll have a month to prepare. BYU should be fine, but we may have seen the last of Taysom Hill in the white and blue. If we have seen the end of Taysom’s BYU career, it’s a bitter irony that his injury occurred in the final game of the season, once again against Utah State, after having been healthy the entire year.