Every breath Puka Nacua drew was short and labored. He could barely string sentences together as he jogged off the blue turf.
“Whew, I am tired,” Nacua said, sucking in as much air as he could. “My chest hurts.”
But Nacua smiled as he said it. He fidgeted with his pads, trying to take pressure off his ribs while he soaked in the moment. This was the happy, if not uncomfortable, price to pay for an iconic performance.
What Nacua did on Saturday night, almost single-handedly willing BYU to a win over Boise State, should not be soon forgotten.
It was a performance made indelible by the last-minute, go-ahead touchdown. Spinning, twisting, bobbling the ball with one hand and finally toe-tapping into the end zone, it was nothing short of a herculean effort on a fourth down-and-goal.
But that play wasn’t the reason this was an all-time game. It just sealed it in history.
For 59 minutes before that, Nacua had every answer. With injuries mounting and BYU trading leads, Aaron Roderick kept asking Nacua to be the response.
He was peppered 19 times with the ball and had 15 touches. He ran for 66 yards after the catch as he extended plays and kept BYU’s improbable chances alive. Twice he had go-ahead touchdowns.
He looked up and he had 157 yards. He ran all over the field, in every way possible, to keep BYU afloat. He carried it out of the backfield and recorded the third-most receptions in a single game in school history.
“He does it all, nothing he can’t do,” quarterback Jaren Hall said, still marveling at the breadth of the performance. “He loves the game. He loves us.”
And that last part is what made Saturday so special. Because Nacua could have packed it up a long time ago and said he wasn’t risking an injury that would hurt his NFL draft prospects.
BYU’s loftiest goals are long in the rearview mirror at 5-5. The Cougars were playing with a fifth-string running back and without two starting receivers. Nacua might even have been justified in saying, “Hey, stop using me this much.”
He never has.
“When you have a special player like that, you have to get him the ball,” wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake told The Tribune last week. “He is happy with [his usage]. If there was any doubt on his end, I’m sure he would speak up.”
Nacua played the most snaps all season, 55, against Boise State. The last three weeks really, he has taken on a massive workload. He played 53 snaps against East Carolina. Three of the last four weeks he has grinded out over 100 yards.
He has carried his team when nobody else could.
So when Nacua finally took off his pads on Saturday, caught his breath, and waved to the yelling fans waiting for him to take a bow, he could breathe it all in.
And BYU could finally exhale.
The defense shows real growth
Couch this entire section with the knowledge that Boise State’s offense isn’t exactly the greatest show on blue turf.
Despite having six wins, this is a Broncos team still led by a freshman quarterback and a unit that fired their offensive coordinator two games into the season. For every 40-point night, they put up 19 points against Air Force.
That said, BYU’s defense deserves some real credit. They allowed less than 400 yards for the first time in almost a month and finally had sustained periods of getting stops.
At one point, the defense forced three consecutive three-and-outs for the first time all season.
“I just think we are trusting the players more and believing in them,” head coach Kalani Sitake said about what he has done differently since taking over the defense three weeks ago. “Just trying to play fundamental, sound football.”
It was a non-answer, but the numbers support the theory there was improvement.
Boise ran the ball for 3.5 yards per carry. The longest run was 13 yards. A couple of times quarterback Taylen Green was able to bounce some runs, but not nearly as often. The shape of the defense looked better.
It wasn’t perfect, and down the stretch the defense looked tired. The Broncos scored on three straight possessions late in the second half. The formula for BYU is still keeping the defense off the field as much as possible (as the Cougar offense stayed on the field for 36 minutes).
But it was something to work with. That’s not something we have said in a while.
Will Sitake stop going for it on fourth down?
I fully expected after last week’s fourth-down debacles that Sitake would change his approach to going for it as often as he did.
Sitake even said he would reevaluate his fourth-down approach going forward because BYU was 5 for 20 this year in conversions.
Yet, first quarter, BYU was going for it again on a fourth down-and-short inside Boise State territory. The offense again didn’t pick it up and gifted the Broncos a touchdown.
Later in the second quarter, BYU was about to go for it on a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line. A false start pushed it back and BYU settled for a field goal, it probably was for the better. BYU hasn’t picked up fourth down-and-inches situations, much less three yards.
Then finally, on the final play of the half, BYU elected to run the ball from the 1-yard line instead of taking the points. The debate could be made whether Lopini Katoa actually got in, but in the end he was stopped and BYU failed on a short-yardage situation again.
This week the questions aren’t as loud because of a win, but it is a really baffling struggle. And why Sitake keeps going for it is also slightly surprising.
The facts are BYU has been bad in short-yardage situations. It is 5 for 21 (two of its last 18) on fourth down. It’s cost BYU games, and continues to change the trajectory of others.