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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake watches as his team is down one point in the fourth quarter of the football game against Northern Illinois in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.

PROVO — Ordinarily, a 7-6 record isn’t anything to Rise and Shout about. But put into context, posting a 7-6 mark was a big deal for the BYU football program in 2018.

Coming off an abysmal 4-9 season in 2017, it was crucial for the Cougars to show signs that the program is headed in the right direction under coach Kalani Sitake.

With unexpected road victories over Arizona and Wisconsin, and a resounding 49-18 victory over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, BYU managed to secure a much-needed winning season and offer hope for the future.

“I’m really pleased with the way our culture is starting to grasp with our players and our program," Sitake said. “I know that everybody wants to win a bunch of games but I’m looking at the gains that we’ve made off the field and the progress that we’ve made as a program.

“Going into 2019, I feel a lot better about how things have been going and we’re really looking to build onto it. We’ve done a good job of providing a foundation that we can work with.”

That 24-21 win at then-No. 6 Wisconsin shocked the college football world as the Cougars ended the Badgers’ 41-game win streak in nonconference home games. It marked BYU’s first true road victory over a top-10 team since 1984 and propelled the Cougars into the national rankings for a couple of weeks.

" I feel a lot better about how things have been going and we’re really looking to build onto it. We’ve done a good job of providing a foundation that we can work with. "
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake

Few predicted BYU opening the season 3-1, but that’s where the Cougars found themselves. Then BYU dropped four of its next five games before winning three of its final four contests.

The Cougars played three teams that ended up ranked in the final AP poll — No. 13 Washington, No. 22 Utah State and No. 23 Boise State.

BYU lost in embarrassing fashion to Washington and Utah State, and dropped close games at home to Cal and Northern Illinois.

The Cougars squandered an opportunity to knock off Boise State as they failed to score a potential game-winning touchdown from the 2-yard line in the final seconds.

The season will also be remembered for a heart-wrenching loss at archrival Utah. BYU held a 27-7 lead at Rice-Eccles Stadium late in the third quarter before the Utes rallied for a 35-27 victory. Utah extended its win streak against the Cougars to eight games.

BYU won’t have to wait long for another shot to end that streak as it hosts the Utes in the 2019 opener on Aug. 29 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. That game kicks off another challenging September schedule, which includes a trip to Tennessee and home games against USC and Washington.

One of the positive developments from the 2018 season was the youth movement. The Cougars played 28 freshmen, including 18 true freshmen, while 14 different freshmen started at least one game. The freshman class recorded a total of 75 starts.

Here’s a look back, and a look ahead, at all three phases of BYU football:

Offense

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) warms up before playing the Western Michigan Broncos in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.

The biggest reason for optimism going into the 2019 season — the play of freshman quarterback Zach Wilson.

Wilson replaced senior Tanner Mangum midway through the season, and while he experienced some growing pains, Wilson provided plenty of highlights. His potential was on full display in the bowl game in Boise, where he finished a perfect 18 for 18 for 317 yards and four touchdowns. After the season, he was one of eight quarterbacks named a 2019 Player to Watch by the Touchdown Club of Columbus.

Starting seven games, Wilson completed 120 of 182 passes (65.9 percent) for 1,578 yards with three interceptions and 12 touchdowns and finished with a 157.23 passing efficiency rating, while gaining valuable experience in big games. He also rushed for 221 yards and two touchdowns.

Wilson became BYU’s seventh true freshman to start a game at quarterback and, at age 19, became the youngest starting freshman QB in school history.

Under first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, the Cougars averaged 10 points more per game than they did in 2017. BYU relied on the run game early in the season, then aired it out more with Wilson at QB.

“What I liked was our offensive coordinator and assistants were able to pattern a scheme and detail a plan that really worked with the talent we had on the field, specifically at quarterback,” Sitake said. “When Tanner ran the offense, that was the best offense we needed at that point. Looking at the second half of the season, when Zach took over, I felt really comfortable and there was a lot of progress made.”

Tight end Matt Bushman once again led BYU in receiving yards, finishing with 29 catches for 511 yards and two touchdowns. He was followed by Aleva Hifo, who had 28 receptions for 358 yards and a pair of TDs. Both players return next season, as will tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau, who suffered a midseason knee injury.

Freshman wideout Gunner Romney had some impressive moments, while Talon Shumway, Neil Pau’u and Micah Simon are among the returning group of experienced receivers. Freshman tight end Dallin Holker announced recently that he will serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While leading rusher Lopini Katoa returns after rushing 76 times for 423 yards, the Cougars lose Squally Canada and Matt Hadley to graduation, and Riley Burt to a transfer. BYU is looking to shore up its depth and talent at that position.

The young offensive line included center James Empey, who was named a freshman All-American, freshman left tackle Brady Christensen and sophomore Tristen Hoge. Also returning are Thomas Shoaf, Keanu Saleapaga, Kieffer Longson and Chandon Herring, among others. The Cougars lose only one senior starter on the O-line — right tackle Austin Hoyt.

Sitake is looking for a new O-line coach to replace Ryan Pugh, who left to take the offensive coordinator’s job at Troy.

Defense

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku (5) dives in for a touchdown 35-10 over the Broncos after the PAT, during the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.

Overall, BYU’s defense improved in several categories from 2017, leaping from No. 105 to No. 22 nationally in pass efficiency defense; from No. 51 to No. 18 in total defense; from No. 46 to No. 24 in scoring defense; from No. 44 to No. 27 in rushing defense; and from No. 67 to No. 29 in passing defense.

The Cougar defense allowed 21.4 points and 324 yards per game.

Sione Takitaki turned in a stellar season, totaling 118 tackles while switching from outside linebacker to middle linebacker during the season. He earned National Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Wisconsin.

Takitaki capped his Cougar career with a career-high 19-tackle performance in the bowl game. It was the fourth-highest total in BYU history and he was named to the All-Bowl Team by Sports Illustrated and USA Today.

“Moving Sione to middle linebacker was probably one of the best moves we made as a defense,” Sitake said. “We moved him from defensive end to linebacker in 2018, then in the middle of the season, when we had some injuries, we put him at middle linebacker.”

Takitaki and 6-foot-9 senior defensive end Corbin Kaufusi were a force on the Cougar defense. Kaufusi recorded a team-high 8.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss.

While both players are looking to continue their careers in the NFL, BYU’s defense returns several key contributors, including safety/cornerback Dayan Ghanwoloku, who finished the season tied for No. 2 nationally with four fumble recoveries; defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga; linebackers Isaiah Kaufusi and Zayne Anderson; and safeties Austin Lee and Troy Warner.

Anderson suffered an injury in the Wisconsin game after recording a key interception. He is expected to receive a medical waiver and return for the 2019 season.

Several young defensive backs saw a lot of time in 2018, including D’Angelo Mandell, Keenan Ellis, Isaiah Herron and Malik Moore, which should provide spirited competition at that position during spring ball and fall camp.

Special Teams

Ravell Call
Brigham Young Cougars place kicker Skyler Southam hits a field goal against the Northern Illinois Huskies during NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.

As a unit, BYU’s special teams were ranked No. 4 in the country in the ESPN Team Efficiencies rankings. The Cougars led the nation in field goal defense, with opponents making only seven of 19 attempts. BYU blocked three field goals, one by Corbin Kaufusi, one by Tonga and one by Michael Shelton.

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The Cougars also ranked No. 13 in kick return coverage and No. 15 in punt return coverage.

“I thought the special teams were pretty good for us,” Sitake said.

Senior punter Rhett Almond booted 17 attempts inside the 20-yard line and averaged 40.3 yards per punt. Freshman Skyler Southam connected of 42 of 44 PATs and 11 of 16 field goals. His 45-yard field goal against Wisconsin proved to be the difference, and his 47-yarder against McNeese State marked the longest field goal by a BYU kicker since 2010.