The Boise State football team is used to being the one catching opponents off guard with trick plays.
On Saturday, it was BYU that employed a little sleight of hand to give No. 14 Boise State its first loss of the season, 28-25.
The Broncos (6-1) held the Cougars (3-4) to seven points in the first half, but BYU’s offense came to life in the third quarter. The Cougars outscored Boise State 21-0 in the third, and they reached into their bag of tricks to score two of those touchdowns.
Facing fourth-and-1 from just outside the Broncos’ red zone, BYU quarterback Baylor Romney put his acting skills on display. The Cougars’ third-string signal caller, who was pressed into action because backup Jaren Hall and starter Zach Wilson were injured, pretended to fumble the ball and bent at the waist as if he were trying to pick it up. By the time he straightened up, tight end Matt Bushman was behind the defense and all alone for a 27-yard touchdown, which gave BYU a 21-10 lead.
“I think coaches trusted Baylor Romney to make some plays and execute,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said in a press conference. “But it was everyone. ... I liked the way our game went and the way we executed.”
On the Cougars’ next drive, Romney handed off on second-and-8 to start a reverse but the wide receiver pitched the ball back to his quarterback, who again found Bushman behind the defense. This time he was streaking down the sideline for a 39-yard touchdown and a 28-10 BYU lead.
“I think it just came down to eye control on our aspect,” said Boise State defensive tackle David Moa, who led the Broncos with six tackles and two for loss. “Those are plays we often see or do, so there’s really no excuse. It was just bad eyes.”
The loss snapped Boise State’s six-game winning streak and dented the Broncos’ hopes of making a New Year’s Six bowl game. The fact that it was a nonconference game and the Mountain West Conference championship is still a possibility was of little comfort.
“A loss is a loss for me,” Boise State offensive lineman John Molchon said. “... With how much respect there is in this rivalry, it’s always tough to lose a ballgame.”
The Broncos battled back in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Chase Cord — making his first career start in place of an injured Hank Bachmeier — found wide receiver Octavius Evans on a 13-yard touchdown pass and Garrett Collingham on the ensuing two-point conversion. He also hit Akilian Butler on a 5-yard scoring strike, which cut BYU’s lead to three with 3:17 to play.
But Boise State never got the ball back. On third-and-1 with a little more than 2:00 to play, Romney attempted a quarterback sneak from the Cougars’ 34-yard line. It was initially called a first down, but Boise State coach Bryan Harsin challenged and the play was overturned.
On fourth-and-1, BYU trotted a couple of hefty defensive linemen onto the field as extra blockers and put defensive back Austin Kafentzis at quarterback. He put his head down and climbed over the pile just enough to get the first down. From there, it was just a matter of a couple of kneel downs and Boise State’s undefeated season was no more.
“It’s a game of inches,” Boise State wide receiver CT Thomas said. “You can be off one inch and you can lose it all in one play. But we’re not going to put our head down. We’re just going to go back to work and keep playing football.”
Cord (18-of-31, 185 yards, two TDs) moved the offense down the field on a long scoring drive to open the game, and he moved the chains with his legs a couple times as the Broncos began their ill-fated comeback in the fourth quarter. He also was intercepted twice, and the second set up Romney’s flea-flicker touchdown.
“He had a good rhythm early on,” Harsin said. “BYU, they’ve got a good defense, we’ve known that, and they made it difficult to throw in some of the windows. Chase competed, you saw him tonight. He ran the ball and made good decisions at the end of the game. He’s a competitor and I’m proud of him. We just had the two turnovers, and that’s what it came down to.”
The Broncos reached into their bag of tricks to put the game’s first points on the board. After Cord faked a handoff to running back Robert Mahone, he turned and flicked the ball to Thomas, who began the play lined up wide right and came all the way across the formation. He followed a convoy of blockers around the left side and found the end zone from 12 yards out.
BYU drove right down the field and scored on its first possession, too. The Cougars put together a 16-play, 78-yard scoring drive, which took 6:49 off the first-quarter clock. Running back Lopini Katoa capped it with a 4-yard touchdown, which tied the game at 7 with 3:34 left in the quarter.
That’s when the offense dried up. Both teams had three straight punts in the second quarter. Boise State’s final drive of the opening half was a methodical one. It was highlighted by a 14-yard keeper by Cord and Eric Sachse sent the Broncos into halftime with a 10-7 lead thanks to a 38-yard field goal.
That lead didn’t last long, though. Four plays into the second half, Romney ran a speed option to the left and pitched to Sione Finau, who cut back inside and found a seam for a 46-yard touchdown run, which put the Cougars on top, 14-10.
Kicking into the wind, Sachse missed a 36-yard field goal with a little less than 8:00 left in the third quarter. BYU responded with Romney’s first touchdown strike to Bushman.
Boise State has a bye week before heading to San Jose State on Nov. 2. Before then, the Broncos will try to figure out where Saturday’s game plan went wrong.
“It’s not very major things. It’s always minor,” Harsin said. “And if you want to keep winning, the margin of victory is very small, so how you operate day in and day out, that’s going to be the end result.”