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Season Review

SEASON REVIEW: Cougars produce strong inaugural campaign under Kalani Sitake

2016 Poinsettia Bowl Champions (Photo by BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)

BYU came into the 2016 season with a brand new coaching staff led by former Cougar fullback Kalani Sitake, and the team excelled under his leadership. The Cougars navigated one of the most challenging and diverse schedules in program history to achieve an impressive 9-4 record and Poinsettia Bowl trophy.

PHOTO RECAP: Year in Pictures—BYU Football 2016

With its 24-21 victory over former conference foe Wyoming in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, BYU finished the year with a lot of momentum, winning eight of its final nine games. In so doing, Sitake completed his inaugural year as one of just six new FBS head coaches in their first full season to achieve a winning record. BYU received votes in both of the major final national polls and finished the year rated No. 31 in ESPN’s Football Power Index of all FBS teams.

Playing a strong national schedule that included games against the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, American, Mountain West, MAC and Big Sky, the Cougars proved to be an always-competitive team despite taking on a top-10 early schedule that put BYU on the road for six of the team's first nine games, including three of the first four contests.

Under the leadership of Sitake, assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Ed Lamb and first-time coordinators Ty Detmer (offense) and ‘Ilaisa Tuiaki (defense), BYU’s new coaching staff helped the team rise to the challenge as the Cougars put themselves in position to win every game during the season. Each of BYU’s losses came down to the final moments, if not the final play, with the four setbacks coming by a combined eight points—a new NCAA standard for the fewest points separating a four-loss team from an undefeated season.

The Cougars suffered one-point road losses at both Utah and No. 14 Boise State, and they had three-point setbacks in a road neutral-site matchup against West Virginia and at home against the then Josh Rosen-led UCLA Bruins. West Virginia, Utah and Boise State were fixtures in the national rankings during the season while four BYU opponents overall were ranked as high as No. 13 or better during the year, with Michigan State and the Mountaineers receiving rankings as high as No. 8 and No. 9, respectively. West Virginia (17/18) and Utah (21/23) finished in the final top-25 polls.  

Among BYU’s nine victories, the Cougars went 5-1 at LaVell Edwards Stadium, defeating nine-win Toledo (55-53) of the MAC, St. Petersburg Bowl Champion Mississippi State (28-21) of the SEC, in-state opponents Utah State (28-10) of the MW and Southern Utah (37-7) of the Big Sky, and fellow independent UMass (51-9). BYU picked up regular-season wins away from Provo against the Big Ten’s Michigan State Spartans (31-14), the Pac-12’s Arizona Wildcats (18-16) and the American Conference’s Cincinnati Bearcats (20-3).  BYU’s wire-to-wire win over Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl was highlighted by MVP performances by seniors Jamaal Williams and Harvey Langi.

As part of the intrigue of an independent schedule, BYU played three games in NFL stadiums in 2016. In addition to facing Wyoming at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego for the Poinsettia Bowl, the Cougars matched up with West Virginia at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, home of the Washington Redskins, and opened the season with a win over Arizona at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, home of the Arizona Cardinals.

BYU games were also a regular fixture on national television in 2016. Ten of the Cougars’ 13 games were featured on a prominent national network channel (70-plus million homes), including three games on both ESPN and ESPN2 and one each on ABC, ESPNU, Fox and Fox Sports 1. BYUtv, with a national reach of nearly 60 million households, provided live telecasts of two additional games while also producing live pregame and postgame shows for every BYU game for the sixth straight season.  Since BYU’s partnership with ESPN started as an independent in 2011, only 15 teams in the country have been on national TV more than the Cougars. BYU has had 76 percent of its games on national TV over the past six seasons. Including live BYUtv broadcasts, 86 percent of BYU’s games as an independent have been available to a national audience.

In 2016, the Cougars relied on a strong player leadership core that complemented the goals and labors of BYU’s new coaching staff. Setting the pace in the team’s leadership efforts were senior team captains Harvey Langi and Kai Nacua on defense and Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams on offense.

OFFENSE

In Williams, the Cougars boasted one of the nation’s top running backs in 2016. Williams topped off his final campaign with a 210-yard outing to be named the Poinsettia Bowl Offensive MVP. He finished the year ranked No. 5 in the nation in rushing yards per game (137.5). Among the Heisman Trophy contenders officially recognized by the Heisman Trophy Trust, Williams totaled 1,375 yards on the year despite missing three full games due to injury, including BYU’s one point setback at then No. 14 Boise State. In addition to those three games, Williams also missed parts of BYU’s close losses at Utah and vs. UCLA. Williams finished his career with the most rushing yards in school history with 3,901 and the most games of 100 rushing yards or more with 16. He became BYU’s career rushing leader during the team’s Homecoming win over Mississippi State and also established the school’s new single-game mark with 286 yards in BYU’s victory over Toledo. On the year, Williams had two games over 200 rushing yards, five over 160 yards and six over 100 yards.

Hill, a fifth-year senior, started every regular-season game for BYU at quarterback before suffering, incredibly, the fourth season-ending injury of his career early in the fourth quarter of BYU’s victory over in-state rival Utah State in the home finale. The three-year team captain won 23 games as a starting quarterback at BYU and accounted for 9,744 total yards of offense, which ranks No. 4 in school history, just ahead of Jim McMahon. The dual-threat signal caller finished his career with 6,929 passing yards and 2,815 rushing yards, the most rushing yards by any BYU quarterback, while ranking fifth among all players. Hill also accounted for 75 total touchdowns (43 passing, 32 rushing), No. 5 all-time at BYU, surpassing Steve Young in his last game before being injured. Sophomore Tanner Mangum, the 2015 Touchdown Club of Columbus National Freshman of the Year, started in the bowl game in Hill’s absence and guided BYU to victory. Mangum made appearances in five games overall and finished the year going 22 of 33 for 241 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

BYU featured a balanced offensive attack that emphasized managing games with an efficient, ball-control strategy. With this in mind, the Cougars averaged 399.1 yards per game in total offense, while ranking No. 3 nationally in red-zone efficiency (.945), No. 12 in third-down conversions (. 477) and No. 18 in time of possession (32:39). The Cougar offense achieved top-25 rankings in five statistical categories overall.

The Cougars had eight games with more than 200 yards rushing while averaging 201.2 yards per game on the ground overall and 197.9 through the air. Williams led the team with 1,375 rushing yards while senior Nick Kurtz paced the team with 541 receiving yards on the year. Williams also topped the team with 12 rushing touchdowns, while senior Colby Pearson led receivers with four scoring catches on the year. Hill accounted for 20 touchdowns, scoring eight with his legs and 12 with his arm, while throwing for 2,323 yards and running for another 603 yards.

DEFENSE

BYU ranked 34th in total defense (365.0 ypg) while excelling at creating turnovers and stopping the run. The Cougars were No. 2 nationally in forced turnovers (31), including No. 4 in interceptions (21) and No. 8 in defensive touchdowns scored (4), while also ranking No. 9 against the run (112.8), No. 10 in red-zone defense (.743) and No. 14 in scoring defense (19.5). Overall, the Cougar defense earned top-25 rankings in seven statistical categories and also contributed with its aggressive approach to the team’s No. 7 ranking in turnover margin (0.92).

Senior safety Kai Nacua ranked No. 7 nationally with six interceptions while linebackers Fred Warner, a junior, and Francis Bernard, a sophomore, each made three picks. Warner, Bernard and freshman cornerback Dayan Lake each boasted pick-six touchdowns, while Lake ranked 14th nationally with 113 interception return yards overall. Warner led the team with 86 tackles, while fellow linebackers Butch Pau’u (83), a sophomore who missed three games due to injury, and Bernard (80) were close behind. Senior defensive end Sae Tautu led the team in sacks (6.0) and tackles for loss (11.0).

Langi was all over the field, by design, playing four different positions (defensive end, middle linebacker, outside linebacker and running back) during the year. He was named the Poinsettia Bowl Defensive MVP after a career-best 16-tackle performance. On the year, he contributing 57 tackles overall, which was fourth on the team, and ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns on the offensive side of the ball.

SPECIAL TEAMS

BYU's special teams were consistently strong in 2016, ranking statistically in the top 25 in six different categories. The coverage units excelled, ranking No. 6 nationally in punt coverage (2.53 ypr) and No. 20 in kickoff coverage (18.30 ypr). The longest punt return allowed by the Cougars all season was just nine yards. BYU didn’t allow a blocked kick all year while blocking four opponent attempts to rank No. 13 in blocked kicks. BYU also ranked No. 20 in net punting (39.93) and No. 23 in blocked punts (2).

Sophomore defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, who also plays on the BYU basketball team, took advantage of his 6-foot-9 frame in his first season playing football for the Cougars, blocking two kicks, which ranked No. 5 in the nation. BYU’s specialists each consistently delivered good results for the team. Sophomore kicker Rhett Almond ranked 30th nationally in field goal conversion percentage (.810), senior punt returner Garrett Juergens rated 31st in punt returns (8.6 ypr) and junior punter Jonny Linehan ranked 38th in punting (42.5 ypp). Not to be overlooked, sophomore long snapper Matt Foley and senior holder Mitchell Juergens expertly handled their important responsibilities all season. Freshman Aleva Hifo led the team with 21 kickoff returns, including a team-best return of 50 yards, while junior Matt Hadley achieved a team-high 27.9 yards per return on his seven kick returns.

BYU’s place kickers delivered some memorable moments for the Cougars in 2016. Despite the lack of game experience entering the season and the fact that three different kickers attempted field goals for the Cougars during the year, BYU’s kickers not only provided solid results but also came through in the clutch with game-winning boots. Freshman Jake Oldroyd knocked a 33-yard kick through the uprights with just eight seconds on the clock to give BYU its 18-16 season-opening win over Arizona. He was 3 for 4 on field goals, missing only an attempt over 50 yards, before being sidelined for the year with an injury. Almond, who went 17 for 21 on field goals and 39 of 40 on point-after touchdown attempts, also delivered a game-winner, converting a 19-yard field goal as time expired to give BYU a 55-53 shootout victory over Toledo.

AWARDS AND HONORS  

BYU had 15 players named to the Phil Steele 2016 Postseason All-Independent teams, including six earning a spot on the first team. First-team selections included Williams and center Tejan Koroma on offense; defensive tackle Logan Taele, Tautu and Nacua on defense; and Linehan on special teams. Second-team members on offense were Hill, Kurtz and offensive guards Keyan Norman and Tuni Kanuch; while Warner, Bernard and Lake all earned second-team recognition on the defensive side of the ball. Specialists garnering second-team honors were Almond and Garrett Juergens.

Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Thomas Shoaf was named to the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America Team. Shoaf played in 11 games in 2016, including nine starts at right tackle.

Nacua was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top defensive back and a finalist for Polynesian College Football Player of the Year selected by the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.

Pro Football Focus rated Koroma, who was on the Rimington Trophy Watch List, the No. 2 center in 2016. The top-graded centers by PFF were Frank Ragnow of Arkansas (89.4), Koroma (86.5) and Tyler Orlosky of West Virginia (85.3).

In addition to Williams being named the Poinsettia Bowl Offensive MVP and Langi the game’s Defensive MVP, Williams was named to the Athlon Sports All-Bowl Third Team and received all-bowl honorable mention from the Associated Press. Koroma also received all-bowl honorable mention from AP and was a second-team all-bowl selection by Athlon.

Hill was selected as a National Football Foundation National Scholar Athlete and was one of 12 finalists for the 2016 William V. Campbell Trophy presented annually to the nation’s best scholar athlete. As a finalist for the Campbell Trophy, Hill received an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship as a member of the 2016 NFF National Scholar-Athlete Class. Hill, who graduated from BYU in finance, was honored by the NFF at its 59th Annual Awards Dinner in December at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Hill is the Cougars’ fifth NFF National Scholar-Athlete, joining Matt Bauman (2009), Jared Lee (2000), Steve Young (1983) and Stephen Miller (1976).

Kurtz and Taele were both named to the 2016 CoSIDA Academic All-District First Team. Kurtz, a business major, and Taele, a finance major, received the recognition for their combined performances both on the field and in the classroom.

Williams and Langi were both invited to play in the prestigious Reese’s Senior Bowl following the season, while offensive tackle Andrew Eide, fullback Algie Brown and Nacua all accepted invitations to play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Many rated Williams as the top running back prospect participating at the Senior Bowl, while Langi had a solid game performance that included a two-point try interception in the end zone to seal a one-point victory for the South team in the closing moments.

Following the regular season, Sitake was named Communicator of the Year at the 29th Annual Golden Spike Awards, an annual program that recognizes excellence and best practices in public relations and business communications in Utah.

Detmer was one of just six former NCAA student-athletes selected to receive the prestigious NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, which annually recognizes distinguished individuals on the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of their college athletics careers. Detmer received the honor at the 2017 NCAA Convention in January following the season. The 1990 Heisman Trophy winner is the sixth former Cougar to receive the distinguished NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, joining Dylann Duncan Ceriani (women’s volleyball, 2012), Steve Young (football, 2009), Danny Ainge (basketball, 2006), Gifford Nielsen (football, 2003) and Larry Echohawk (football, 1995).

GAME-BY-GAME SUMMARIES | 2016 Final Statistics

BYU 18, Arizona 16, Glendale, Arizona, Sept. 3, 2016
True freshman Jake Oldroyd made a game-winning 33-yard field goal with eight seconds left to give the BYU football team an 18-16 win over Arizona in its first game under head coach Kalani Sitakeat University of Phoenix Stadium in the Cactus Kickoff. BYU was led by Jamaal Williams, who had 29 carries for 162 yards. Taysom Hill completed 21 of 29 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown.The Cougars (1-0) held the Wildcats (0-1) to 328 total yards and no first-half points en route to the win. BYU forced the Wildcats into two turnovers. BYU’s new-look offense recorded 415 total yards.

BYU 19, Utah 20, Salt Lake City, Utah, Sept. 10, 2016
In a game that saw nine total turnovers, BYU attempted a two-point conversion for the win but came up short as Utah escaped with a 20-19 home win at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Despite forcing the Utes (2-0, 0-0 Pac-12) to turn the ball over six times, the Cougars (1-1) only scored 13 points off of turnovers. Hill completed 21 of 39 passes for 176 yards with two interceptions, rushing for both of BYU's touchdowns. Kai Nacua had two interceptions to go along with his two tackles. Francis Bernard tallied eight tackles, one interception, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

BYU 14, UCLA 17, Provo, Utah, Sept. 17, 2016
BYU’s late rally came up short in its home opener against quarterback Josh Rosen and the UCLA Bruins at LaVell Edwards Stadium, falling 17-14. The Cougars (1-2) scored all 14 points in the second half but were still playing catch-up as time expired. The Bruins (2-1) nabbed BYU in a close game for the second year in a row. Jamaal Williams and Nick Kurtz both scored their first touchdowns of the season in the game. Linebacker Butch Pau’u tied the BYU record (since 2000) for tackles in a single game with 19. Taysom Hill finished the game completing 26 of 48 passes for 250 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

BYU 32, West Virginia 35, Landover, Maryland, Sept. 24, 2016
In another close battle, BYU suffered its third straight close defeat, falling 35-32 to undefeated West Virginia at FedEx Field, the home of the Washington Redskins. With less than five minutes left, the BYU offense had two chances to take the lead, but turnovers proved to be costly. BYU’s final possession ended in scoring position when a tipped-ball interception sealed the hard-fought victory for the Mountaineers. BYU (1-3) outgained West Virginia (3-0) 521 to 481 yards but had three interceptions and one lost fumble. The Mountaineers scored 14 points off of those turnovers. Jamaal Williams totaled 169 yards with two touchdowns. Taysom Hill completed 23 of 35 passes for 241 yards with two touchdowns to go with his 105 rushing yards. On the defense, Fred Warner totaled 14 tackles. 

BYU 55, Toledo 53, Provo, Utah, Sept. 30, 2016
Rhett Almond kicked a 19-yard field goal as time expired andJamaal Williams had a career night to give BYU a 55-53 win over Toledo at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Williams broke the BYU (2-3) single-game rushing record with 286 yards on the ground and had five rushing touchdowns to tie a school record. The previous single-game rushing record, held by Eldon Fortie, was set in 1962. A Toledo (3-1) touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:11 on the game clock gave the Rockets a 53-52 lead and set up the Cougar offense up for its game-winning drive. Almond's kick went right down the middle for the win.

BYU 31, Michigan State 14, East Lansing, Michigan, Oct. 8, 2016
Seniors Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams led BYU to a 31-14 win over Michigan State on the road with a big second-half effort. The Cougars (3-3) outgained the Spartans (2-3) 398 to 206 in total yards. The BYU defense held Michigan State to its lowest output since 187 yards against No. 13 Nebraska in 2011. Hill completed 18 of 27 passes for 138 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 47 yards and one touchdown. Williams tallied 163 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the win. Sae Tautu notched six tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss.

BYU 28, Mississippi State 21, Provo, Utah, Oct. 14, 2016
Jamaal Williams became BYU's all-time career rusher as the Cougars beat Mississippi State 28-21 in two overtimes at the Homecoming game in LaVell Edwards Stadium. Taysom Hill rolled right and found tight endTanner Balderree who did most of the work after the catch for a 25-yard touchdown to give BYU (4-3) a 28-21 lead after the Cougars' second overtime possession. BYU linebacker Fred Warner broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone on the Bulldogs' (2-4) final possession to seal BYU's win. Williams rushed for 76 yards in the game to increase his career-rushing total to 3,468 yards, which broke Harvey Unga's career mark.

BYU 27, No. 14 Boise State 28, Boise, Idaho, Oct. 20, 2016
Despite the defense forcing five turnovers and BYU leading entering the fourth quarter, No. 14 Boise State came back to edge BYU 28-27 on the blue turf in Boise. BYU had two chances get the win after reaching scoring position on its final drive, but the Broncos blocked BYU’s game-winning field goal attempt on a second down and then after BYU recovered the kick also batted down BYU’s Hail Mary pass into the end zone on the final play. The Cougar (4-4) defense had two pick-six interceptions and forced five turnovers overall, but BYU’s offense was only able to convert a field goal off of the other three turnovers. Boise State (7-0, 3-0 MWC) had 571 total yards to BYU’s 322. Fred Warner and Dayan Lake each recorded an interception for a touchdown. Warner filled out the stat sheet with seven total tackles and a forced fumble to go along with the interception. Freshman Lake totaled eight tackles, including five solo stops.

BYU 20, Cincinnati 3, Cincinnati, Ohio, Nov. 5, 2016
BYU took down Cincinnati 20-3 on the road with a stout defensive effort and a strong run game. BYU (5-4) outgained Cincinnati (4-5, 1-4 AAC) 338 to 286. The Cougars were successful on third down in the game, converting 10 of 16 attempts. The Cougar defense held Cincinnati without a touchdown. It was the fewest points the Bearcats have scored since a 10-3 loss to Rutgers in 2012. Taysom Hill completed 15 of 25 passes for 130 yards and one interception while rushing for 75 yards and a touchdown. Francis Bernard led the team with nine total tackles along with one pass breakup. 

BYU 37, Southern Utah 7, Provo, Utah, Nov. 12, 2016
BYU beat Southern Utah 37-7 at LaVell Edwards Stadium to become bowl eligible for a 12th consecutive season. The Cougars (6-4) recorded several offensive season highs in the win. They tallied 596 total yards, 441 of which were through the air. Taysom Hill played for most of the first three quarters and passed for 320 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 59 yards and another trip to the end zone. Freshman running back KJ Hall contributed significantly to BYU’s offensive attack, rushing for 59 yards and a touchdown, along with 68 receiving yards.

BYU 51, UMass 9, Provo, Utah, Nov. 19, 2016
Behind a strong rushing attack and second half takeaways on defense and special teams, BYU defeated Massachusetts 51-9 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Cougars (7-4) rushed for 247 yards and amassed 437 yards of total offense while holding the Minutemen (2-9) to just 40 rushing yards on 20 attempts. KJ Hall rushed for 101 yards on 18 carries and senior Harvey Langi gained 56 yards on 14 carries in his first game on offense this season. Senior quarterback Taysom Hill passed for 165 yards. Sophomore Francis Bernard recorded seven tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown.

BYU 28, Utah State 10, Provo, Utah, Nov. 26, 2016
BYU beat Utah State 28-10 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in the regular-season finale, claiming the Old Wagon Wheel for the second consecutive season. The Cougars (8-4) collected 355 total yards in the game, including 249 rushing yards, while holding Utah State (3-9) to a season-low 200 total yards. Taysom Hill went 10 for 21 with 101 yards and a touchdown and Jamaal Williamshad 131 rushing yards on 18 attempts. Fred Warnerand Francis Bernard anchored the defense with six total tackles apiece and Michael Shelton returned a fumble 52-yards for a score.

Poinsettia Bowl — BYU 24, Wyoming 21, San Diego, California, Dec. 21, 2016
On a rare wet and rainy night at Qualcomm Stadium, BYU capped off its 2016 season with a wild 24-21 win over Wyoming in the 2016 San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. BYU (9-4) led wire-to-wire and topped the scoreboard 24-7 in the fourth quarter, but a furious Cowboy (8-6) comeback made it a thriller in the final minutes. Wyoming cut the advantage to 24-21 and had the ball at the Cougar 32-yard line with 1:22 to play before senior Kai Nacua picked off a pass heading near the end zone to end the final comeback threat. Sophomore quarterback Tanner Mangum started at quarterback with Hill out with an injury. Senior running back Jamaal Williams put on a show in his final game at BYU, running for 210 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries. Harvey Langi led the team with 16 tackles, a career high, while Butch Pau’u and Fred Warner had 11 and 10 tackles, respectively.