LAS VEGAS — BYU kicked off the post-Zach Wilson era in Las Vegas Saturday night against the Arizona Wildcats. BYU was favored by nearly two touchdowns, but the 24-16 win didn't come easy.
With plenty of distractions, including multiple injuries for the Cougars before and during the game, a new quarterback to replace the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft, and a potential invite to a Power Five conference possibly days away, BYU had their work cut our for them. At times they made the win look easy, and at other times it looked to be hard fought.
Here are three lessons from BYU's opening win over Arizona:
Jaren Hall has progressed as a QB
This one seems obvious, but there were some great things from BYU's new QB1, Jaren Hall, in the Cougars' win.
Hall, obviously, has some big shoes to fill after Wilson, who led BYU to their best record since 1996 and is the team's highest drafted player ever, left the program. Cougar nation wants to see BYU continue their success from 2020 and they're placing a lot of hope on Hall.
Did Hall look like Wilson in Allegiant Stadium? No, but he did show a lot of promise and progress.
Hall started out a little shaky and missed some open throws, but he was smart with the football and eventually found his rhythm in the second quarter — many would argue his best play was his 67-yard touchdown toss to receiver Neil Pau'u in the second quarter.
Hall showed poise in the pocket as he waited for the right moment with pressure in his face. He placed the ball perfectly in Pau'u's hands in stride and got the 6 points. As you watch, the ball was a bit of a duck through the air, but it didn't matter because it was on point and right where it needed to be.
Hall had several great throws and ended the night with 198 passing yards through the air and a pair of touchdowns. He is known as a mobile quarterback and added another 36 yards on the ground on five carries. And it was actually on one of his runs that I believe Hall showed off how much he has grown as a QB.
Hall was a throw-first QB Saturday night except for one play in the second half where he scrambled on a broken play and found a hole. He took off and showed his impressive speed and out-ran defenders to pick up a 39-yard first down. What impressed me most was not his speed — we already knew he was fast — it was his decision to run out of bounds at the end of the run.
Hall is 6-foot-1, 205 pound QB who has size and speed behind him, but he's been known to lower his shoulder for extra yards. He could have on his run play and maybe gained another yard or two. But he didn't; he made the smart play and veered out of bounds to avoid the hit. It felt like the Hall from the 2019 season would not have avoided contact, and that caused him to be sidelined with multiple injuries.
The play shows maturity and growth in the redshirt sophomore, and it's just one of multiple examples from Saturday night that show he's grown as a leader and a football player.
Defense seems to be back to a 'bend, don't break; mentality
If you looked at just the numbers, you would assume Arizona won the game in Vegas.
The Wildcats had 27 first downs to BYU's 18; they had 426 total yards to BYU's 368; and their time of possession was 31:07 to BYU's 28:53. But somehow BYU won the game with a score of 24-16. I would say this is due to something BYU fans remember all to well from the Bronco Mendenhall era: a bend, don't break defense.
I'm not sure this was the defense's mentality, but that's what we saw Saturday night.
BYU fans we're pulling their hair out as they watched the Wildcats march down the field on wide open passes across the middle, missed tackles resulting in big plays, and a lack of penetration at the line of scrimmage as Arizona running backs picked up a handful of yards on first down.
When Arizona would hit the red zone, the BYU defense turned on. Arizona made it into BYU's red zone four times but only walked away with 6 points off those trips. BYU gave up yards, but when Arizona got close they brought the pressure, sacked the QB and even got an interception.
Arizona's one touchdown came off a 39-yard reception, which started outside the red zone. On every trip to the red zone, BYU held the Wildcats to field goals, and the Arizona placekicker went 2-for-4 on those attempts.
It wasn't always pretty, but the defense stepped in when it needed to in order to keep points off the board. Will that work against stronger offenses like Utah, Arizona State, Baylor and USC? Probably not, which means red zone trips need to be cut down dramatically before the Cougars square off against these opponents, and that's only a week away.
There is still a lot to learn about this BYU team
It's fun to see BYU back out on the field. They had some great moments in Allegiant Stadium, and most importantly they left with a win. There is a lot of potential in this 2021 team, but there is also so much we don't know.
The Arizona game was an interesting one with a lot of odd factors playing into the game.
All the intensity was lost just minutes into the game when starting cornerback Keenan Ellis went down with a serious injury. The game was delayed for at least 20 minutes and the crowd fell silent as everyone was concerned for Ellis' health. It was a reminder that this is a game and there are much more important things to worry about.
In addition, BYU already had multiple weapons sidelined with injuries including Pac-12 transfer receivers Samson and Puka Nacua, ace placekicker Jake Oldroyd and linebacker Max Tooley. On the field, they lost the aforementioned Ellis and starting wide receiver Gunner Romney to injury. The Cougars were not at full strength Saturday night. We don't know what this team looks like with all their weapons on the field, and we'll have to wait to see it.
BYU also seemed to be in control for most of the game except for about a two-minute stretch when Arizona gained all the momentum following a great punt. After that, the Wildcats got a safety and followed it up with great kickoff return before a quick score on a 39-yard pass. After that, BYU seemed to get their heads back and get back in the driver's seat.
Overall, the game was sloppy for BYU and shows a lot of work needs to be done to clean up mistakes and to make better decisions, but there was a lot of positives on the field and we have many more lessons to learn about the 2021 Cougars.
BYU hosts Utah in Provo on Saturday at 8:15 MT.