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Cougars start with win, but there's plenty to clean up

PROVO — BYU got a win over Portland State, but more importantly the Cougars gathered enough evidence for Monday meetings to prove they’ve got a lot of work to do if they want to win a game in September.

This opener, a 20-6 win over a Big Sky team, was kind of like Utah’s 24-0 win over Southern Utah a year ago. It left a lot to clean up and plenty of frustration.

Penalties, stalled drives, mental errors, failure to score when opportunities were there for the taking. It is all there. It's stuff you don’t clean up in one of those 52-3 blowouts of a scheduled season-opening win.

“I think the story of the game is that we had penalties and there are things we need to clean up,” said BYU offensive line coach Mike Empey, who played his first string for all 61 plays.

Two critical cut-block penalties in the first half killed drives. A holding call on a 42-yard sprint from scrimmage by Kavika Fonua ended a third-quarter scoring opportunity, and an illegal formation (five in the backfield) nullified a 5-yard touchdown run by Fonua.

Hair-pulled-from-scalp-type mistakes.

“Not to take anything away from Portland State, they played hard. We prepared and knew some things we wanted to work on. Now we have things to clean up as we go down the road to have success,” said Empey.

Chop blocks?

“That’s first-game penalties that kill drives, and those are mistakes I’m talking about. We cut block, everybody cut blocks, but we don’t practice it a whole lot during camp because it is so important that we start our season healthy.

“There are mechanics of when to do it and how to do it legally, and when we were doing it at game speed we hadn’t had a chance to practice it at game speed. That’s on me.

“We talked about it in the first half and then didn’t have a problem with it the rest of the game. The holding, I need to see the tape. You aren’t going to go a whole game and not have a holding call. The chop blocks are what I’m concerned about. Whether the calls are legitimate or not, I’ll have to look at the film and see what it is to clean it up this week."

Aside from sloppy play, his tale of the tape, the two things he looks at is yards-per-carry and sacks. Those are measurable statistics after a game, before he sees game film dissected, that he can digest.

BYU averaged 5.0 yards per tote, gained 177 yards on 34 carries and had Squally Canada rush for 95 yards on 15 touches. Fonua had seven carries for 63 yards with another 46 called back on penalties.

The Cougars allowed one sack.

Against a Big Sky opponent, those numbers should be a baseline. More was expected than no BYU touchdowns in the second half.

Defensively, the Cougars held PSU to two sustained drives for just six points. The first featured a pair of fourth-down conversions. BYU’s best effort came on kickoff and punt cover.

“There’s an adage there is more improvement between Week 1 and Week 2 because you see game speed," Empey said. "We can’t go through fall camp at game speed and have people injured with the schedule we have. We’ve now seen game speed and we can make changes. I’m so grateful we got a win and it seems we are pretty healthy. Now we go back to work.”

Head coach Kalani Sitake told reporters his players were disappointed and expected more. What he didn’t say is BYU kept both defensive and offensive sets fairly vanilla. On offense, certain players were not targeted often, slot receiver Micah Simon made a cameo with one catch. He said it was because of a focus on certain personnel groups.

Offensive lineman Keyan Norman said Ty Detmer basically called about two run plays all day.

“Our run game was pretty basic. We only ran a couple of plays, just basic stuff, so he did hold back a bit.

“After the game, Sitake said a win is a win," Norman, a senior, said. "If you aren’t happy after a win, you are disrespecting the game of football. Our offense is disappointed that we didn’t score more, but a win is a win.

“Physically, we were playing OK. We should have scored 35 points in the red zone, but we had penalties and mistakes, and the offensive line did also some stupid things and a mixture of bad calls. If we’d cut out the penalties, it would have been a different story.

“You can use not practicing cut blocking as an excuse, but we should have known what we were doing out there. We had a lot of yards called back. We could have 250 rushing. We need to clean up the mental mistakes. We left a lot of points and yards out there today.”

BYU did not use running back Riley Burt. No explanation. Coach Reno Mahe said he had five backs get carries, and it was due to how the game flowed.

Of Fonua’s 42-yarder and a touchdown nullified by penalties, Mahe said he feels for the guy.

“He works hard and has a big play called back. I think he averaged about 9 yards a carry and then he also had a touchdown called back (illegal formation). It’s exciting to see him have that kind of impact in a game.”

Mahe wants penalties cut, wants to see better cardio. “I saw some of our guys gassed on some of those plays. I think we did a good job protecting the ball. We just have to work on not having big plays called back.”

There’s a storm brewing in Houston this week, and the Cougars are heading into the heart of it all when they take on LSU in NRG Stadium next Saturday.

There, they’ll see game speed of another kind.