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BYU bounced back from one of its worst seasons ever by shocking Wisconsin

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The Cougars were great against Wisconsin. It’s time to reassess what they can be in 2018.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The most impressive thing anyone’s done in the young college football season might be BYU’s 24-21 win at No. 6 Wisconsin on Saturday. The Cougars — as 23.5-point underdogs, playing against a team that hadn’t lost in the regular season or at Camp Randall Stadium since 2016 — played a steady offensive and defensive game and deserved to win.

It required some drama at the end. Kalani Sitake called a pair of timeouts to ice Wisconsin senior kicker Rafael Gaglianone before his game-tying, 42-yard field goal try went wide left.

But BYU didn’t fluke into anything. The Cougars put up 6.1 yards per play to UW’s 5.5. The Badgers committed the game’s only turnover, an interception that BYU turned into a 27-yard TD drive in the third quarter. The Cougars appear to be good and legit.

Saturday’s win is extra notable because of how bad BYU was in 2017. The Cougars have come a long way in a short time.

Their 4-9 record was the program’s worst in modern times. Before that, BYU had won somewhere between seven and 11 games every year since 2006. And the Cougars had done all of that while playing pretty competitive schedules, as they always do.

What turned one of the sport’s most reliable bets into a dumpster fire? A few things, broadly.

  • The offense lost any semblance of ability to create explosive plays. BYU’s been more ground-and-pound than LaVell Edwards air raid for a while, but the Cougars struggled badly to create chunk plays both on the ground and through the air.
  • The Cougars got pretty good mileage out of running back Squally Canada, but the whole running game never came close to matching what it was when Jamaal Williams had a nearly 1,400-yard year in 2016.
  • The defense created no havoc, and while it limited big plays pretty well, it couldn’t stop teams from slowly working their way up the field with efficiency.
  • Special teams weren’t great, aside from senior punter Jonny Linehan.

BYU addressed these issues against Wisconsin. The offense had nine plays of 15-plus yards, including six runs, one a 49-yarder by Canada, who had 118 yards on 11 carries. The team had 191 ground yards on 28 attempts, a 6.8-yard average against an elite defense.

The defense wasn’t WREAKING HAVOC all day, but it intercepted Alex Hornibrook once and sacked him twice. And the special teams were solid, with Rhett Almond averaging 48.2 yards on punts and Skyler Southam hitting a 45-yard field goal with 10 minutes left that, juxtaposed against Wisconsin’s late miss, stood up as the difference. (Southam missed a 52-yarder in the second quarter. I don’t think anyone expects a college kicker to make that.)

New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes appears to have done good work after replacing legendary QB but maligned OC Ty Detmer.

BYU fired its former Heisman QB at the end of 2017, after his offense put up 5.1 yards per play. That was 106th in FBS. Sitake replaced him with Grimes, then LSU’s offensive line coach. That background suggested he’d emphasize whipping BYU into a better ground attack than the one that averaged a mediocre 4.2 yards per carry in Detmer’s last year.

It seems like it’s working. Tanner Mangum produced 89 yards on 22 pass attempts, and BYU still managed to score 24 on the road against Wisconsin. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Badgers gave up 13 points per Camp Randall game in 2017, 16 the year before that, and 6 the year before that. Scoring points in that stadium is one of college football’s hardest tasks.

The Cougars appear, suddenly, to have a really high ceiling.

In the lead-up to the Wisconsin game, BYU’s S&P+ win projection was 5.4 (yeah, it’ll increase now). But BYU has now showed upside far greater than to teeter on the edge of bowl eligibility.

Once you’ve won at Camp Randall, the rest of the schedule starts to look a lot more favorable. Still ahead are a bunch of teams BYU seems now like it should beat: FCS McNeese State, Utah State, Northern Illinois, UMass, and New Mexico State. There’s a relative tossup against Hawaii, but at least that one’s at home. And games at Washington and Utah seem a lot less implausible than they did at the start of the year.

The Cougars might not take more than a year to get back to their customary eight or nine wins.