Amid the uncertainty and disappointment of seeing the head coach that recruited them and some of his staff leave abruptly days after the Apple Cup, and with the remainder of his staff here but knowing they wouldn't be here past the bowl game, it would have been understandable if the team had looked unfocused and dispirited. But this group demonstrated strong leadership as they rallied behind Keith Price, Hau'oli Kikaha, Sean Parker, Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and their interim Head Coach Marques Tuiasosopo. They knew they still had unfinished business - this was a team that had lofty goals this year, and while they fell short of the loftiest of them, they still had the opportunity to get the program to 9 wins, a mark that hadn't been achieved since the miracle 2000 Rose Bowl team that finished 11-1 under the leadership of that very same Tui at QB. Let's take a look at the position groups and see how they did it:
QB: Keith Price might not have had the fairy-tale capper to his career as a Husky that he deserved, but he was effective and efficient - at least until a questionable play call resulted in him taking a hard shot to the ribs on a QB draw that ended up knocking him out of the game in the 3rd quarter. He finished 17-22 (77.3%) for 123 yards and a terrific TD pass to ASJ to cap the first Husky drive of the 2nd half. He also had a WTF interception late in the 3rd Q and a fumble that was fortuitously recovered by Micah Hatchie. In many ways it was a fitting summary of his Husky career, showing both his strengths and weaknesses. And while it's a shame he didn't get to finish the game, there's little doubt he played a big part in getting the win, off the field as much as on. And if he had put just a hair less on his long pass to a streaking Jaydon Mickens, his numbers would have looked that much better. Cyler Miles closed out the game, and while he looked shaky through the air, he showed off his wheels on a 32 yard scramble to whet Husky appetites for the upcoming QB competition to replace Price. Grade: B-
RB: If this was Bishop Sankey's last game as a Husky, it was a pretty good one. Against a tough, physical defense Sankey continued to show why he's one of the elite backs in the game with jaw-dropping lateral quickness and vision. His 2nd TD was a thing of beauty as he left BYU defenders flat-footed and grasping air with his cuts. He didn't have the most spectacular of numbers - 21 carries, 95 yards, 2 TD's - but had he not suffered a hand injury that knocked him out in the 2nd half, he certainly would have surpassed the century mark with room to spare. It was illuminating to see Callier run as his replacement - with the same holes against the same defense, Callier was mostly ineffective, held to just 24 yards on his 12 carries. To be fair, BYU knew the Huskies were leaning on the run with Miles at QB and a 12 point lead, but it was easy to see just how good Sankey is in comparison. Grade: B+
WR/TE: Early on it looked like this might be the Damore'ea Stringfellow show as the big Fr. looked like a man among boys on the WR screens, carrying defenders on his back. But the coaches mysteriously went away from these plays as the game progressed. Kevin Smith had some big catches and continued to make Husky fans wish he'd redshirted last year. Mickens got free deep against the Cougar secondary twice and was just short of hanging on to both passes, but his speed was clearly a factor in stretching the BYU defense vertically. ASJ had a key first down grab on the Huskies' first drive on 3rd and 16 and then a vintage TD catch in the 3rd quarter. This was a good game by this group, and they were just a few near-misses away from a terrific game. Grade: B
OL: Despite missing Dexter Charles due to a shoulder injury, the OL did a solid job. They were able to keep Price and Miles upright most of the game, not allowing any sacks. While both QB's felt pressure from time to time and were flushed from the pocket, the pass protection was reasonably good. On the ground, they opened just enough creases for Sankey to do his thing, but this was not one of their better run-blocking efforts (though BYU does feature a pretty good front 7). Overall it was a decent job, but with room for improvement. Grade: C+
DL: Danny Shelton continues to show he might be the most important player on the defense - or at the very least, the most difficult to replace. The big NT was a force in the middle with 7 tackles and frequently stopping the Cougar run game from going anywhere. BYU tried to gameplan around him and use their hurry-up and the odd sideline configuration to try to get him off the field and keep him sidelined, a huge sign of the respect the Cougar coaches had for the Jr. Not to be outdone, Hau'oli Kikaha was a force on the edge, constantly applying pressure to Taysom Hill. He ended up with 3 sacks, and was close to a few more were it not for Hill's size and tackle-breaking ability. Kikaha also registered 9 tackles, forced a fumble and delivered a monster hit on BYU's best WR on a reverse/trick-pass play that didn't fool anyone. They overshadowed Evan Hudson and Cory Littleton who each was credited with 0.5 TFL, but also had issues bringing down Hill. Grade: A
LB: This was a mixed-bag. On the one hand John Timu put up big numbers, leading all tacklers with 14 and adding a sack and a game-clinching interception late in the 4th quarter. On the other hand the LB's were guilty of a lot of missed tackles against Hill and were repeatedly burned by play-action slants over the middle. Shaq Thompson had a nice stat line with 8 tackles and a pass break-up, but that was more due to the number of plays BYU ran (97!) - it wasn't one of his better games; nor did Princeton Fuimaono or Travis Feeney look their best, though Fui did pick up a sack. Grade: B-
Secondary: Adversity struck this group prior to the game as Sr. S Will Shamburger was sent home for an unspecified rules violation; with Fr. Kevin King out with injury, that left little-used RS-Fr. Brandon Beaver to get the start opposite Parker. And at CB, stud RS-So. Marcus Peters sat out the first quarter due to academic issues. In their place Tre Watson stepped in and had a big-time effort as he got the start for Peters and then moved back to S when Peters was inserted into the game. He finished with a remarkable 6 pass break-ups to go with his 6 tackles. As a group they were effective in keeping Hill from having a big game passing (25-50, 50%, 293 yards, 1 pick), though that was at least partially due to his own errors - his accuracy came and went, and the Huskies were clearly better off when he chose to throw instead of tucking it to run (31 carries, 133 yards, 1 TD). But like the rest of the defense, they were stingy when it counted, holding BYU to 2 FG's and 1 TD in their three Red Zone chances and pitching the shutout in the 2nd half. Grade: B
Special Teams: While you probably shouldn't read too much into the absence of Johnny Nansen on the staff for this game, it was interesting to see the Huskies have - by a good margin - their best performance of the year on special teams. Travis Coons nailed another FG (a 45 yarder) and was solid on his punts, but where they really shined was the return game and kick coverage. John Ross finally busted a TD on a kickoff return, a beauty in the 2nd quarter that gave the Huskies a lead they would not relinquish. The running lane was there (and no flags!) and Ross showed his speed and elusiveness to do the rest. BYU was so spooked they spent the rest of the game pooching their kickoffs, and Callier made them pay on the 2nd of them, returning the short kick 47 yards to give the Huskies the ball at the BYU 35 and set up their 3rd TD of the first half. They were solid in coverage too, giving up a 29 yard KO return to Adam Hine but otherwise keeping him in check. The one negative was allowing BYU to convert on a fake punt early in the first quarter which allowed them to grab some momentum that ended with their first TD, but given the unique sideline situation and the difficulty in making substitutions and play calls on the far end of the field, I'll give them some slack. Grade: A
Coaching: When it was first announced that Tui would take over as the interim head coach for the bowl game, it seemed a curious choice - why not Justin Wilcox? Tui is in just his 2nd year as a full-time assistant coach and hasn't even had experience as a coordinator, much less a head coach. But in hindsight it was a brilliant choice - with capable vets like Wilcox, Eric Kiesau, Dan Cozzetto and Tosh Lupoi around him, what this team needed wasn't so much X's and O's brilliance from Tui, it was his leadership. As a revered legend and someone that had his own experience going through a coaching change as a player, he was the perfect guy to rally the troops, keep them focused and give them the inspiration they needed to finish the season right. Kudos to Scott Woodward for the decision. It was a thing of beauty to see the normally mundane and played-out Gatorade shower at the end of the game and look of joy on Tui's face as he is now undefeated as Head Coach of his alma mater.
It was interesting to see the gameplan and play-calling with Kiesau given full control; the schemes really didn't change, nor did the gameplan look new - they stuck with the things that had made them successful all season. I could quibble some with how they abandoned the WR screens and swing passes that were effective early in the game, and I'm still scratching my head over the 3rd down play call early in the 2nd half that had Price alone on a QB keeper which failed and ended up knocking him out of the game.
Defensively I thought the Huskies were schematically sound, but issues with poor tackling reappeared as they struggled mightily to contain Hill. It was a minor miracle they limited BYU to 16 points in the first half as the Cougars were overpowering our back 7, and they probably caught some breaks when BYU coaches out-thought themselves on some of their 3rd down play calls in the Red Zone. But they shored up their tackling in the 2nd half and limited them to 176 yards after getting gashed for 297 in the 1st half.
But as noted above, the most important thing the staff did was help keep the team focused and motivated, and for that they earn a lot of praise. Grade: A