LAS VEGAS (ABC4 Sports) – BYU did enough on both sides of the ball to hold off Arizona in its 2021 season opener in front of 54,541 fans Saturday night at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, 24-16.
Quarterback Jaren Hall, making his third career start, completed 18 of 28 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Neil Pau’u caught eight passes fo 126 yards and two touchdowns, while Tyler Allgeier rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown for the Cougars.
“I am really happy about the win,” said head coach Kalani Sitake, who improved to 5-1 in season openers. “Obviously, there is a lot of things that we can improve on. I was really proud of the fight from our team to respond and find a way to get the win. I am glad we got the win and find a way to improve from week one to week two.”
Hall, the redshirt sophomore from Spanish Fork, also added one catch for nine yards and 36 yards on the ground, including a 39-yard dash down the left sideline that set up his second touchdown pass.
“We played an overall clean game,” said Hall. “We took the plays they gave us and took care of the ball. We take this win and go on from here. Arizona’s defense came ready to play. There were a lot of question marks about what kind of team they would be. They are well-coached and they came out wanting to win this game. We just didn’t make plays to start out, but we figured it out and started rolling.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Allgeier scored on a 15-yard touchdown run to give the Cougars a 6-0 lead.
Hall then found Pau’u wide open over the the middle of the field for a 57-yard touchdown pass, and after a 2-point conversion on a pass from Hall to Lopini Katoa, the Cougars took a 14-0 lead.
“I thought he made some plays,” Sitake said about Hall’s performance. “He created some space for himself with his legs in the backfield. I liked the composure he had. He is a great leader for us.”
It was 14-3 at the half, when Hall found Pau’u for a 6-yard scoring strike to give the Cougars a seemingly commanding 21-3 lead.
But Arizona got back in the game after a safety and a touchdown pass from Gunner Cruz to BJ Casteel to cut the deficit to 21-13. The Wildcats had a chance to close the gap even further early in the fourth quarter, but Tyler Batty sacked Cruz for a 17-yard loss, forcing a field goal attempt, which was missed.
“We dialed up some pressures,” said defensive end Uriah Leiataua. “There are a lot of things that we can fix like open-field tackling is one that we can work on. I am proud of the young defensive lineman that came in and did their roles. They didn’t back down. Some of them had some nerves but they started to shape up and we have some things to fix for next week. But we are going to come out swinging next week.”
Linebacker Keenan Pili led all tacklers with 17 total tackles including 10 solo stops and a sack. The BYU defense tallied four sacks on the night with Keenan Pili, Uriah Leiataua, Payton Wilgar and Tyler Batty all picked up one sack apiece. Defensive back Hayden Livingston grabbed his first career interception in the back of the end zone to seal the game late in the fourth quarter.
Arizona, which played its first nonconference game in 721 days, lost its 13th consecutive game dating to 2019. It was also the debut for Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch, the former quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots. Fisch replaced Kevin Sumlin, who went 0-5 in 2020.
Cruz was 34-for-45 passing for 336 yards with a touchdown and an interception as the Arizona starter. Cruz split time with Will Plummer, who amassed only nine yards passing on three attempts before Cruz finished the game.
“I think it was first-game jitters,” Allgeier said about BYU’s slow start. “We have seen it all around the country. I think we did a great job in bringing it back, bringing it down and getting those jitters out.”
Cornerback Keenan Ellis was carted off the field after sustaining an apparent head injury with 10:15 remaining in the first quarter. Ellis made a play on Arizona receiver Michael Wiley on third-and-5 when his head collided against Wiley’s back. Ellis, a junior, was transported to University Medical Center — Las Vegas’ only Level I trauma center since 1992 — for further evaluation. A BYU spokesman says the CT scans on Keenan Ellis were normal, but he will spend the night in the hospital for observation.
BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney suffered a leg injury in the first quarter and did not return.
This was the the largest crowd ever for a football game in the state of Nevada.
The Cougars next host Utah September 11th at LaVell Edwards Stadium.