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Provo • For a little more than a quarter on Friday night, the BYU Cougars played as if they were still stuck in a funk from last week's rivalry game loss to Utah. A fumbled punt led to an easy touchdown for Middle Tennessee State, and two other times the Cougars lost scoring chances by losing the ball inside the 5-yard line.
The hometown crowd was getting a little antsy.
But a familiar strength quarterback Taysom Hill's running ability lifted them out of the malaise.
Hill's 50-yard touchdown jaunt midway through the second quarter sparked the uprising, and BYU cruised to a 37-10 win over the visitors from Conference USA in front of 58,763 fans at chilly LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Hill finished with 165 rushing yards on 18 attempts, and also did some decent damage with his arm for the first time this season. The sophomore connected on 14 of 19 passes for 177 yards. He was intercepted once when a short pass slipped through Paul Lasike's hands.
"In general, I thought our throwing game took a step forward," coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
The success through the air came without the services of star senior receiver Cody Hoffman, who was suspended for one game earlier Friday for violating team rules. Top running back Jamaal Williams sat out with a concussion.
The Cougars (2-2) will certainly need them next week at Utah State (3-2), but they were fine Friday, as senior RB Mike Alisa picked up 55 yards and two rushing touchdowns and Hill proved too elusive for the Blue Raiders.
"We certainly missed Jamaal, that's clear," Mendenhall said, lamenting the first-half fumbles.
Special teams was a mixed bag for BYU. Adam Hine returned a kickoff 90 yards to set up their first TD, but JD Falslev fumbled away two punts. Hine later left the game with a concussion, but Mendenhall said he was lucid and recovering quickly on the sidelines.
MTSU's opening field goal was set up by a 50-yard kickoff return, and its touchdown came after a BYU turnover at the Cougars' 24. The Blue Raiders finished with just 212 yards.
"The defense played well," said safety Craig Bills. "A couple times we should have had interceptions, and didn't."
Falslev redeemed himself with a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, the school's first punt return for a TD since 2011 when Falslev had one against TCU. But he was not a happy camper in the post-game interview room, calling his performance "unacceptable" and then ranting about how Hill has been unfairly blamed for the problems in the passing game.
Safety Daniel Sorensen led the defensive effort, picking off a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter. The Blue Raiders had just 123 yards in the first half and 163 yards through three quarters. Kyle Van Noy recorded a safety and seven tackles.
"I don't know if [the safety] was a momentum-changer or not. It was time to make a play," Van Noy said.
Asked about silencing the critics for at least a game with a stellar passing effort, Hill said the criticism has never bothered him, he's never lost confidence in his ability, and that when he found out Hoffman wouldn't play, "I didn't worry about it a bit."
Asked about the suspensions that have rocked the program the past two weeks, including the one that kept his good friend Hoffman on the sidelines in a hoodie Friday night, Van Noy said he didn't feel the need to respond to the question.
"They're good people. Leave it at that," he said.
In the first half, the Cougars shot themselves in the foot several times, or might have been able to run away with it early. Hill fumbled the ball away from the 1 (which eventually resulted in BYU getting a safety) and Alisa fumbled into the end zone on back-to-back possessions.
Still, Hill engineered a seven-play, 67-yard drive just before halftime to send the Cougars into the break with a 23-10 lead.
"That's traditional BYU football," he said.
O In short • Despite missing 4 offensive starters, including suspended receiver Cody Hoffman, BYU dominates after some first-half turnovers.
Key Moment • The Cougars fumble twice inside the MTSU 5-yard line in the first half to keep the game close early.
Key Stat • Taysom Hill completes his first five passes and goes 8 of 9 in the first half.