BYU athletics: What were the biggest stories of 2022 in Cougar sports?

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A cellphone records as BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe speaks during a press conference in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A year ago at this time, BYU was wrapping up one of the best years in the school’s athletics history, both on and off the fields and courts of play.

A much-welcomed invitation to join the Big 12, a long-awaited victory over rival Utah in football, a better-than-expected 10-3 record on the gridiron that included six wins over Power Five conference teams, Zach Wilson’s ascension to the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft and appearances in their respective national championship games by the women’s soccer and men’s volleyball teams were highlights in 2021.

It was quite a year for the Cougars.

How about 2022? How has this calendar year gone?

Well, the short answer is this: Not nearly as well.

“This was a tough year for our (football) program (with) some changes and things like that. But the faith and the love, all that stuff remains. Even though we went through a bad stretch — because everybody looks at the final results — as the adversity came (we persevered), and I am just proud of these guys.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

Saying BYU athletics took a step backward the last 12 months isn’t entirely accurate — there were plenty of outstanding performances by BYU individuals and teams alike — but matching 2021 was never going to be easy.

It also means that choosing the top 10 BYU sports stories in 2022 is much more difficult than in 2021, especially at No. 1. Truly, BYU’s invitation to the Big 12 on Sept. 10, 2021 was the easy pick for No. 1 in 2021, perhaps even for the entire decade.

And there were some off-the-field stories, controversial happenings, that dominated headlines almost as much as the positive accomplishments turned in by the Cougars and their coaches.

In short, 2022 will go down as another significant and successful year in BYU sports history, but 2021 set such a high bar that it might not be reached for another decade, especially as the Cougars move into the Big 12 in 2023 and the competition level in conference play increases across the board.

Here’s the Deseret News’ look at the 10 most compelling stories of the year for BYU sports.

1. BYU football gears up to enter Big 12, Sitake shuffles coaching staff

BYU coach Kalani Sitake works the sideline during game against the Utah Tech Trailblazers at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake works the sideline during the game against the Utah Tech Trailblazers at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. The 2022 BYU football season was a mixed bag but ended on a high note with bowl victory over the Mustangs.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Football is king at BYU, so developments within head coach Kalani Sitake’s program throughout 2022 make the top of our list. They started at the end of 2021, as Sitake signed an “unprecedented” new contract that essentially called for the school to spend significantly more money on coaches and support staff to become Big 12-ready.

BYU created several new positions in March and then May and promoted three current staff members to new roles, but it was toward the end of the 2022 season when the most significant changes occurred. After having demoted seven-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki to defensive line coach midway through the season when the Cougars were 4-3 and struggling defensively, Sitake released his entire defensive coaching staff after the regular season ended with a 35-26 win over Stanford.

Special teams coordinator Ed Lamb left to take the head coaching job at Northern Colorado, and Sitake hired Weber State coach Jay Hill at a reported $1 million or so a year to become the defensive coordinator who will take BYU into the Big 12 in 2023. Former BYU player and assistant coach Kelly Poppinga was hired to replace Lamb as special teams coordinator and a defensive assistant coach.

“I believe in everything BYU is doing,” Hill said. “The direction they are heading, the excitement of what we can continue to build, that kind of drew me to this opportunity.”

Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford, a key component in BYU’s football recruiting efforts, was retained, while a few other openings were unfilled when the Cougars defeated SMU 24-23 in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 17.

2. BYU football goes 4-1 in September, tumbles in October with four straight losses

East Carolina Pirates Keaton Mitchell runs the ball while avoiding BYU’s Micah Harper during a game on Oct. 28, 2022, in Provo.

East Carolina Pirates Keaton Mitchell runs the ball against BYU on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Provo, Utah. The Pirates won 27-24, leaving the Cougars 0-4 in October.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

It was a tale of three months, all with distinctly different results, for the BYU football team on the field in one of the most up-and-down seasons in Sitake’s seven-year tenure. 

“This was a tough year for our program (with) some changes and things like that,” Sitake said after the bowl win. “But the faith and the love, all that stuff remains. Even though we went through a bad stretch — because everybody looks at the final results — as the adversity came (we persevered), and I am just proud of these guys.”

BYU went 4-1 in September, including a thrilling double-overtime win over then-top-10 Baylor, but fell flat the following week in a 41-20 loss to Oregon. The Cougars recovered with solid wins over Wyoming and Utah State, but star quarterback Jaren Hall sustained a shoulder injury against the Aggies that would doom the Cougars in October. A less-than-healthy Hall played through the pain, but was clearly not himself and BYU’s defense underperformed as well in losses to Notre Dame, Arkansas, Liberty and East Carolina.

Sitake took over defensive play-calling duties after the Arkansas loss, but recovery never really came until November. 

“Yeah, we are excited to go to the Big 12. It will be a lot of fun. … So, let’s go,” Sitake said in Albuquerque. “We gotta work hard. We gotta be a more physical team. And that goes through the offseason.”

3. BYU football rights itself in November, wins final four games to build momentum for Big 12

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BYU wide receiver Keanu Hill runs with the ball against Boise State Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. BYU won 31-28, snapping a four-game skid.

Steve Conner, Associated Press

After a 27-24 loss at home to East Carolina dropped BYU’s record to 4-5 and put its bowl hopes in jeopardy, the Cougars were heavy underdogs on the blue turf of Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho. But somehow BYU managed to pull off a 31-28 win, with star receiver Puka Nacua making a touchdown catch for the ages, and it would not taste defeat again in 2022.

Wins over Utah Tech, Stanford and SMU in the bowl game, their final game as a college football independent, left the Cougars at 8-5 for the year.

“These guys stuck together and worked through it and just showed the unity that we have in this program and belief we have in our culture and in our team,” Sitake said.

The way the Cougars defeated a favored Mustangs team in the bowl game deserves mention as one of the more compelling moments for BYU athletics in 2022, as fourth-stringer Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters filled in for the injured Hall, becoming the first Pacific Islander to start a game at quarterback for BYU, and led the Cougars to victory.

And the much-maligned defense played a key role, too, as linebacker Ben Bywater returned an interception 76 yards for a touchdown and nickel back Jakob Robinson made the game-saving tackle with eight seconds remaining.

4. BYU fans, and opposing fans, draw national attention for all the wrong reasons

Oregon’s band and fans attend game with BYU at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

Oregon’s band and fans attend the college football game with BYU at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Several of the most-read sports stories involving BYU, its fans and opposing fans in the Deseret News the past year were about events that happened in the stands or on the sidelines.

After BYU’s women’s volleyball team defeated Duke 3-1 at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Aug. 26, Duke volleyball player Rachel Richardson alleged that she was the subject of racial slurs throughout the match. 

BYU responded by banning a fan from its campus who was identified by Richardson as the person using racial slurs. However, after a school investigation that included discussions with more than 50 people, including members of Duke’s program, BYU reinstated the fan and said it found no evidence of any racial harassment that night.

Four weeks later, video surfaced of Oregon fans directing a vulgar chant at BYU fans’ religion during the Ducks win over the Cougars at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. The offensive chant toward members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints drew the rebuke of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who tweeted that “Religious bigotry alive and celebrated in Oregon.”

Oregon officials apologized that same night and the next day, calling the chants “despicable” and saying “there is no place for hate, bias or bigotry at the University of Oregon. These actions are simply unacceptable.”

Another Pac-12 school found itself apologizing to BYU fans in November, after Stanford’s band acted out a same-gender wedding as part of its halftime show to mock the religious beliefs of BYU fans and Latter-day Saints in attendance.

“The (band) deeply regrets that this performance caused offense to spectators, and the halftime performance review and approval process is being adjusted to ensure that issues like this do not occur again,” said a statement from Stanford athletics to BYU’s student newspaper, The Daily Universe.

5. Longtime BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins leads Cougars into NCAA Tournament, then steps down

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BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins looks on during the loss in 2022 WCC Women’s Basketball Tournament championship game to Gonzaga at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. The longtime coach announced the following month that he was stepping down.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After leading BYU’s highly successful women’s basketball program for 21 years, former NBA player Jeff Judkins resigned in April. Judkins had a 456-204 overall record (.691 winning percentage), the most wins by a head coach in BYU basketball history, men’s or women’s.

“The program is in a good place and it is a good time for me,” Judkins said. The former standout at the University of Utah took his teams to the NCAA Tournament 10 times and reached the Sweet 16 twice. He won five conference regular-season championships and four postseason championships.

Judkins’ final team was one of his best, as the Cougars were ranked as high as No. 15 in the nation and earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. After falling to Gonzaga in the WCC championship game in Las Vegas, BYU was upset 61-57 by Villanova in a first-round game and finished the year with a 26-4 record.

Judkins’ replacement came as somewhat of a surprise as BYU hired Burley (Idaho) High School coach Amber Whiting, a former BYU player, on May 18. She became the seventh women’s basketball coach in BYU history, but was dealt a big blow days later when star guard Shaylee Gonzales entered the transfer portal on June 2 and committed to Texas on July 11.

6. BYU men’s basketball posts another solid season, but fails to make Big Dance

BYU basketball coach Mark Pope looks on during game against San Francisco in the 2022 West Coast Conference tournament.

BYU basketball head coach Mark Pope reacts as the Cougars play San Francisco in the 2022 West Coast Conference men’s basketball quarterfinals at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 5, 2022. BYU lost 63-75.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Coach Mark Pope’s BYU men’s basketball team overcame some injuries and illnesses to post a 24-11 record in 2021-22, but failed to make the NCAA Tournament and was relegated to playing in the NIT. A disappointing 75-63 loss to San Francisco in the WCC quarterfinals doomed the Cougars to the NIT, and they defeated Long Beach State 93-72 and Northern Iowa 90-71 before being ousted on their home floor by Washington State when they were a win away from making it to the NIT’s Final Four at Madison Square Garden.

The program was in the news again in April when assistant coach Chris Burgess left BYU to join Craig Smith’s staff at Utah. The Cougars got a little bit of revenge, however, beating the Utes for the third straight time in mid-December at the Marriott Center.

Rudi Williams scored 26 points off the bench and BYU won 75-66 for its 16th win over Utah in the last 21 meetings.

7. BYU women’s volleyball continues winning ways, overcomes early season drama

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Members of the BYU women’s volleyball team huddle up during match against Portland on Nov. 1, 2022, at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

BYU’s women’s volleyball program was thrust into the national spotlight on Aug. 27, the day after it defeated Rider and Duke at the doTerra Classic in Provo, when Blue Devils player Rachel Richardson accused BYU fans of hurling racial slurs at her during the match on Aug. 26.

One of the results of the accusations, which were later reported by BYU to be unfounded, is that BYU officials moved the student section at Smith Fieldhouse away from where the players serve.

Meanwhile, coach Heather Olmstead’s Cougars struggled a bit in early September against some of the top programs in the country, then got it going and won nine straight matches.

The Cougars went 15-3 in WCC play, behind only national semifinalist San Diego, and finished 22-7 overall. BYU defeated James Madison in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling 3-0 to No. 2 seed Pittsburgh in a second-round match. The Panthers, like San Diego, made it to the semifinals, meaning four of BYU’s seven losses came against teams that made the Final Four, Pitt and San Diego.

BYU was ranked No. 18 in the final AVCA poll.

8. BYU women’s soccer stuns Stanford in NCAAs, pushes North Carolina in Sweet 16

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Members of the BYU women’s soccer team celebrate when learning their opponent in the first round of the NCAA soccer championships. The Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 before bowing out to perennial power North Carolina on its home pitch.

Matthew Norton, BYU Photo

A year after making it to the championship match of the NCAA College Cup Finals (a 0-0 loss to Florida State in penalty kicks (4-3), BYU faced a bit of a rebuilding season but still fared well in 2022.

The Cougars again made some noise in the NCAA Tournament, beating UVU 3-0 to get revenge for a regular-season loss and then stunning Stanford at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in a second-round match.

BYU pushed perennial power North Carolina to the limit on its home pitch on Nov. 19 before falling 3-2 in a Sweet 16 match.

“We have had such a fantastic season and we have come so far,” coach Jennifer Rockwood said after the match. “We were up against a very good, very talented North Carolina team and I think we gave them all they could barely handle.”

North Carolina fell 3-2 to UCLA in the 2022 College Cup championship match.

9. Ten-year BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood abruptly resigns midseason

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BYU head coach Mike Littlewood, right, talks with Arizona’s coach at a game in 2016. The longtime skipper abruptly resigned during the 2022 season and was replaced by Trent Pratt.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

In what came as a stunning development on April 11, BYU announced that 10-year head baseball coach Mike Littlewood had resigned, citing “personal reasons.” No other details were given for the middle-of-the-season resignation of the popular coach who was a former BYU standout infielder.

The Cougars were 17-12 overall, 6-6 in the West Coast Conference, and were coming off a three-game sweep of Provo. Littlewood declined to discuss his reasons for resigning when contacted by the Deseret News last April.

He led BYU to conference titles in 2016, 2017 and 2019 and was the WCC Coach of the Year in 2019. 

Trent Pratt was named interim head coach after Littlewood’s resignation and guided BYU to a 16-9 record while at the helm (10-6 in WCC games). On June 8, Pratt was named BYU’s head baseball coach and appears to be the skipper who will lead the Cougars into the ultra-tough Big 12 baseball race in 2023.

10. BYU drops from No. 1 to No. 29 in final Directors’ Cup standings after disappointing 2021-22 school year finish

Fans in the student section hold up a BYU banner during a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Oct. 15, 2022.

Fans in the student section hold up a BYU banner during a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. The Cougars host East Carolina Friday night, hoping to get back on track.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Thanks to those aforementioned high finishes in 2021, BYU was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the Learfield Directors’ Cup standings after the fall sports seasons had concluded.

Despite some strong showings in indoor and outdoor track and field and men’s and women’s golf in the spring of 2022, the Cougars tumbled to 29th in the annual metric that awards points based on each school’s placement in NCAA championships.

Still, the Cougars remained the top college athletic program in the state of Utah, having held that spot since the award originated in 1993. Utah finished 44th, while Utah State was 116th.

BYU women’s golf placed second in the WCC championships and qualified for the NCAA Regional in Franklin, Tennessee, where it placed seventh. BYU men’s golf placed third in the NCAA Regional in Stockton, California, to earn a berth in the NCAA Finals.

The Cougars took 21st in that event in Scottsdale, Arizona, with Cole Ponich the highest BYU finisher at T55.