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USF football: Five things to know about BYU

Like the Bulls, the Cougars are on their second starting quarterback of the season.
BYU is 22-22 under fourth-year coach Kalani Sitake, whose team plays USF on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. [GEORGE FREY  |  AP]
BYU is 22-22 under fourth-year coach Kalani Sitake, whose team plays USF on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. [GEORGE FREY | AP]
Published Oct. 8, 2019

A quick look at BYU (2-3), which plays at USF (2-3) Saturday at 3:30 at Raymond James Stadium:

1. Life after Zach

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, the Cougars' offensive catalyst the past two seasons, will miss Saturday's game at USF with a hand injury. [RICK OSENTOSKI | AP]

BYU will be playing its first game minus 6-foot-3 sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson, out for the foreseeable future with a hand injury.

The Cougars’ offensive catalyst over the past two seasons, Wilson passed for 1,312 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions in five games before being sidelined in a 28-21 loss to Toledo two weekends ago.

He crashed the national radar with an 18-for-18 passing performance in a 49-18 romp of Western Michigan in last season’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Similarly, his recent efforts in overtime wins at home against USC (280 passing yards, one TD) and at Tennessee (232 yards, TD throw in OT) weren’t small potatoes either.

Redshirt freshman Jaren Hall (4-for-7, 58 yards in 2019), also an outfielder for BYU’s baseball team, replaces Wilson. He’ll have a solid arsenal of targets in BYU’s spread system, with six Cougars having caught at least 10 passes already.

MORE USF: Peers stunned over shooting death of former USF defensive back Joshua Brown

2. A battle-tested bunch

BYU's Jake Oldroyd (39) celebrates a 33-yard field goal with teammate Hayden Livingston in the second half of the Cougars' overtime victory at Tennessee on Sept. 7. [WADE PAYNE | AP]

Even before Wilson’s hand injury, few teams warranted a bye week more than BYU, which has played the nation’s 11th-toughest schedule so far according to college football computer geek Jeff Sagarin.

The Cougars were the only team in the country to open the season with four consecutive Power Five foes (Utah, Tennessee, USC, Washington), and their first five opponents (including Toledo) own a combined 16-10 record. The weak link of the bunch ― Tennessee ― nonetheless was an SEC opponent BYU had to face before 92,000 fans in Knoxville.

The trip to Raymond James Stadium will be the Cougars’ third to the Eastern Time Zone already this season.

3. Who’ll spark the run game?

Like USF (at least until last weekend), the Cougars have struggled mightily on the ground, averaging only 102 yards a game (3.52 per carry). Worsening matters is the season-ending torn ACL sustained by top rusher Ty’Son Williams (264 yards, 5.4 ypc) against Washington.

Look for BYU to run via committee Saturday. Senior Emmanuel Esukpa, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound Rice transfer, was the top rusher against Toledo (12 carries, 61 yards); but sophomore Lopini Katoa ― who led BYU with 423 yards in 2018 ― could complement him.

4. Who’ll stop the run game?

Utah running back Zack Moss (2) carries the ball as BYU nose tackle Khyiris Tonga (95) defends in the first half of the Utes' 30-12 victory in both teams' season opener. [RICK BOWMER | AP]

The deeper we dove into BYU, the more we realized they’re a statistical mirror image of the Bulls in many ways. That includes run stoppage, or lack thereof. BYU allows 220.8 rushing yards a game, which ranked 118th nationally through September (USF allows 167.8 after holding UConn in check).

A sequence of injuries, mainly in the secondary, have hindered the Cougars. They possess a beast, however, in 321-pound junior nose tackle Khyiris Tonga (18 tackles, one sack, two pass breakups). Safety Dayan Ghanwoloku (44 tackles, one INT, one breakup) is the leading tackler.

“They mix it up on defense,” Bulls coach Charlie Strong said. “They come with some zone pressure. Really big inside; they have a nose guard who’s a really great player.”

MORE BULLS: USF delivers best effort of season, tramples UConn

5. Quick start is key

Considering how both teams have struggled and are using green quarterbacks, early momentum could be critical. Unfortunately for the Cougars, they haven’t been able to seize much of it.

Four of BYU’s five opponents scored on their respective opening possession, and all scored first. In fact, the opponent has scored first in 29 of Kalani Sitake’s 44 games as BYU coach. The Cougars are 22-22 on his watch.

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