Arizona 31, BYU 21
BYU Team Grade: C

Max Hall was unable to shake the turnover bug he caught against Utah in the last game of the regular season, and gave the ball away three times to Arizona in a 31-21 loss at the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday. Three missed field goals and 76 yards in penalties were also key in the Cougars’ self-destruction effort.

Hall ended the season with nine turnovers in BYU’s final two games.

Losing 10-7 at the half, the Cougars recovered a fumble by Wildcat QB Willie Tuitama on the first play of the third quarter and scored a few plays later to take the lead at 14-10.

It was all Arizona after that. The Wildcats eagerly capitalized on Hall’s giveaways and the excellent field position handed to them. BYU tried to make a game of it with under four minutes remaining, scoring to tighten the score to 31-21, and recovering an onside kick before a missed 37-yard field goal ended the Cougar comeback attempt.

BYU was also plagued by 76 yards in penalties.

Cougar Offense Grade: C-minus

The highlight of the game for BYU was junior Austin Collie extending his streak of 100-yard games to 11 with 120 yards on 10 receptions. Senior wide receiver Michael Reed finished his college career with a stellar effort, gaining 116 yards on nine grabs. It was the first time this season that both receivers racked up over 100 yards in the same game.

Dennis Pitta wasn’t much of a factor early in the game, but managed to pull down five balls for 58 yards in the second half.

Aside from his three turnovers and several errant throws–three others which should have been picked off–Hall finished 29 of 46 for 328 yards and a 1-yard TD toss to tight end Andrew George.

Harvey Unga banged out 71 yards on 17 carries, but he looked slow and often neglected to confront tacklers head-on as has been his trademark. Brian Kariya hit the line of scrimmage with a quickness not seen in the bulkier Cougar backs like Unga and Fui Vakapuna and picked up 24 yards on three attempts. The senior fullback Vakapuna sat out most of the game with a shoulder injury.

Among all of the penalties amassed in the game, the most crippling to BYU was a holding call that came at the 2:38 mark in the fourth quarter. A Hall-to-Pitta completion which moved the ball down to the Arizona 8 was negated and pushed the Cougars back to the 25.

The offense was held 14 points under its season average.

Cougar Defense Grade: B-minus

If you take away the short field positions the Cougar defenders were handed along with constantly fighting for momentum because of the offense’s sloppy play, you have to give them credit for holding Arizona to six points under its season average.

BYU held the Wildcat rushing attack to 90 yards, but yielded 328 through the air. The Cougars’ bend-but-don’t-break strategy that’s intended to take pressure off their young secondary worked most of the time, but four long pass completions off blown coverage ultimately resulted in Arizona touchdowns.

Senior linebacker David Nixon had the Cougars’ only sack of Tuitama. BYU’s inability to pressure the Wildcat signal caller throughout the contest was also a significant factor in the game’s outcome.

The most futile play by the defense occurred with just over two minutes remaining in the game. Trailing by 10 points, the defense gave up a crucial first down on an 11-yard run to Nic Grigsby after it had seemingly bottled him up to force a punt. That play was the final dagger in the Cougars’ back.

Cougar Special Teams Grade: C-minus

Three missed field goals. Enough said.

The only bright spot on the Cougars’ special teams was a successfully recovered onside kick by freshman O’Neill Chambers with just over two minutes left in the game.

Chambers fumbled a kickoff return and Reed White fumbled a punt—both of which were recovered by Cougar teammates.

The kick return and punt return units were satisfactory.

Final thoughts…

This was a game that was clearly winnable, but the Cougars played undisciplined, uninspired football, and beat themselves with too many turnovers, three too many missed field goals, and far too many penalties.

True, the officiating was sadly lacking in this game, evidenced on Arizona’s first possession when Wildcat receiver Mike Thomas was stripped of the ball and Nixon recovered and raced into the end zone. The referees called the play dead, although replays that clearly supported the fumble left even the ESPN announcers scratching their heads.

Rather than bouncing back from his atrocious performance against Utah at the end of the conference regular season, Hall showed virtually no improvement in his game. If he doesn’t manage to raise his own personal performance bar next year, Cougar fans are in for a wretchedly disappointing 2009 season.

As Hall goes, so go the Cougars, and this season was on a downslide ever since their Week 7 loss to TCU. Sure, they ended up 10-3 on the season, but they only played five teams with winning records and lost to three of them.

Losing this year’s bowl game casts a long shadow across a football program that believed it was ready to ascend to the ranks of the major BCS bowl game circuit. Instead, BYU took a major step backward in 2008, losing the conference crown, its bowl game, and much-needed momentum heading into 2009.