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SALT LAKE CITY — The BYU Cougars wrapped up the regular season Saturday night in Los Angeles as they took on their fifth Pac-12 opponent of the year in USC.
BYU came in as the favorite, with the Trojans hoping to become bowl eligible. The Cougars controlled a majority of the first half but were outmatched late in the second quarter and for the bulk of the second half to take a late lead. BYU regained a lead late in the game and managed to hold the Trojans on a fourth down deep in Cougar territory to hold onto the win.
The Cougars now await their postseason fate, but in the meantime there were a few things we learned about BYU in their last regular-season game of the 2021 season.
Here are three lessons from BYU's win over the USC Trojans:
BYU is deeper than they ever have been
USC often looked like the better team Saturday night and owned the line of scrimmage on offense. But BYU ultimately made the plays they needed to secure a 10-win season.
The Trojans are a more talented team than their record would suggest and will always have NFL caliber talent, but with a coaching change and uncertainty, the year has been a struggle. On Saturday night, the Trojans found a rhythm against the Cougars, who were depleted in depth.
BYU was without six starters on defense, including Payton Wilgar, Chaz Ah You, Keenan Ellis and Micah Harper, and wide on offense wide receivers Gunner Romney and Neil Pau'u. But matters got worse for BYU as the game went on as others were beat up and bruised.
Every time Puka Nacua got hit, there was doubt he'd get back up; Tyler Allgeier looked exhausted and it started to show when he coughed the ball up late in the game. Thankfully for BYU, tight end Dallin Holker made a heads up play and picked up the ball and carried it another 30 yards.
BYU was beat up and played their third-string players on defense for much of the game. But despite the setbacks and losing star tight end Isaac Rex to an apparent ankle injury, BYU reached deep into the bag and managed to still get a win on the road against a Power Five program.
In the past BYU could not have done this. While second- and third-string players aren't as strong as the core starters, they can still help the Cougars win games when needed.
BYU is tough but may need to get tougher
While we're on the subject of injuries and depth, let's talk about what that will mean for the Cougars when they jump to the Big 12.
BYU played one of its toughest schedules in years with seven games against Power Five schools. For anyone who saw the game against USC, it was obvious the Cougars were beat up and tired. It's the effects of a long and brutal schedule.
BYU is a physical team, and they always have been and will likely be so moving forward; but if they hope to compete year in and year out in the Big 12 they need to be able to play a schedule like 2021 and stay healthy and strong.
Every season is going to start to look like the 2021 season with games against Baylor, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State every year. These are physical football teams that will do everything in their power to push BYU around and make them hurt.
BYU's depth needs to continue to improve; and their toughness, while very high, needs to get even stronger while keeping players healthy on the field.
Despite bowl destination, this is a special BYU season
BYU just secured a 10-win season with a top 15 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings, but despite all of that they still may very well end up in the Independence Bowl. It's disappointing for fans to see their Cougars heading to a lower-tier bowl after the dust settles on the season, but Cougar Nation should keep their heads high.
BYU just finished one of the most brutal regular season schedules they've ever faced and managed 10 wins. They went 6-1 against Power Five programs, with their only loss to a top 10 Baylor.
BYU did lose to Boise State, which is the only real black eye on the season, but after a two-week skid they went on a five-game tear and beat Washington State and USC on the road, and beat what was the best offense in the nation at the time in Virginia.
On top of that they beat two ranked teams, Utah and Arizona State, and managed to end their rivalry drought. The team also produced the ninth all-time leading rusher in BYU history and likely the best receiving corps to ever suit up for the Cougars.
Yes, it feels like a trip to the Independence Bowl to take on a Conference USA team does not seem to do this team justice, but that does not take away from what they did in 2021. This is one of the best teams the Cougars have assembled in a long time, and whatever postseason awaits Cougar Nation should be proud of their team and what they accomplished.
Up next for BYU is a waiting game.