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BYU coach Kalani Sitake said his teams would be tougher in the trenches, but this one isn’t in another deflating upset loss

Cougars can’t stop the run, again, and can’t control the line of scrimmage when they get into scoring territory

University of South Florida fans celebrate a rushing touchdown in the Bulls victory over BYU in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019.
University of South Florida fans celebrate a rushing touchdown in the Bulls victory over BYU in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019.
Robert W. Grover, For the Deseret News

TAMPA, Fla. — After BYU shocked the college football world 13 months ago with a stunning 24-21 upset of then-No. 6 Wisconsin by limiting the run-happy Badgers and Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor to just 204 rushing yards on their home field, Cougars coach Kalani Sitake after what will likely be his most impressive win in his tenure in Provo awarded the game ball to his strength and conditioning staff and said the days of BYU being bullied in the trenches were long gone.

Maybe he should ask for that ball back.

That’s because the Cougars a year later are as soft as tissue paper at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and somebody needs to take the blame — in BYU fans’ ever-critical minds. It might as well be the guys who are supposed to make the big players bigger and stronger. Whatever they are doing, it isn’t working.

That was again evidenced Saturday afternoon against lowly South Florida — bulldozed 49-0 by Wisconsin, of all teams, in a season-opener back on Aug. 30 on the same Raymond James Stadium field. The Bulls rushed for 243 yards, 178 of them in the second half, and took a 27-23 win over reeling BYU.

“I will have to go watch the film, but it looked like we were getting knocked off the line of scrimmage,” Sitake said. “They were knocking us off the ball and getting chunk yardage. … So, it was guys not holding their ground, and guys getting knocked off the ball, and it became a fight.”

And USF won — by a knockout.

More than 2,000 miles from where the Cougars swore they toiled all summer in the weight room and LaVell Edwards Stadium stands to get ready for games like this, they wilted in the Florida heat.

“I don’t know what it was,” said center James Empey, downplaying the fatigue factor.

As they did two weeks ago in that just-as-maddening 28-21 loss to Toledo, the Cougars faltered in all three phases — defense, offense and special teams. Sitake said all those areas will be evaluated and it is his job as coach to get them corrected, but that’s what he always says after losses.

Too often, to some.

What rankles Sitake the most — and should, given his background as a defensive genius tutored at stopping the run by his mentor, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham — is that for the second straight game against an opponent that was supposed to be inferior in the trenches, the Cougars were manhandled in the second half.

The Bulls used the same two running plays and some nifty escapes by quarterback Jordan McCloud, who threw for only 72 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown pass, to ram the ball down the Cougars’ collective throats in the second half. Even when all 35,375 fans in the place knew a run was coming, BYU couldn’t stop it — until the end when it miraculously forced a punt that gave the Cougars one last chance to disappoint their sizable group of supporters in the east stands.

“Defensively, we talked about stopping the run coming in,” Sitake said. “That was the key and we weren’t able to do that, especially in the second half when it mattered the most, and that’s what gave them the opportunity to score points … So I am really, really frustrated right now about that. This is not the type of defense that I expect from our guys and our staff. It has to be a huge area of improvement.”

It might also be time for Sitake to take over the defense, as Bronco Mendenhall famously did in 2010 after dismissing Jaime Hill. Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki doesn’t deserve the same fate — BYU’s defense has been a strength in Sitake’s era — but Sitake needs to take a hard look as BYU tumbles even lower in the run defense rankings than 118th of 130 teams, as it was before Saturday’s disaster.

In fairness, BYU played without arguably its best defensive player, cornerback Dayan Ghanwoloku (undisclosed injury) and is still missing run-stopping safety Zayne Anderson. But the strategy of constantly shuttling defensive linemen is failing, and a young group of linebackers is struggling to tackle.

“Yeah, that is the answer I have to come up with,” Sitake said. “I thought we had addressed it from the Toledo game to this one and now obviously I have to re-address everything. That’s my job as head coach and this is something that I am going to have to really, really evaluate and make sure we get fixed.”

On the other side of the ball, the Cougars were without two injured offensive linemen who didn’t make the trip, Tristen Hoge and Kieffer Longson, and two more went out with injuries in the course of the game, Keanu Saleapaga and Thomas Shoaf. They picked up a reasonable 218 yards on the ground, but when they really needed the tough yards in the red zone, they couldn’t get them.

That’s why they had to settle for four field goal attempts, three successful, one not. Had a couple of those long drives ended in touchdowns, the Cougars wouldn’t have needed to ask third-string quarterback Baylor Romney to pull out a miracle in the fourth quarter.

Again, the Cougars weren’t tough enough in the trenches.

“We had a lot of opportunities in the red zone to score, and came up with less than a touchdown. So that’s not going to work,” Sitake said. “We talk about scoring more and getting more touchdowns and those things didn’t happen. … That’s what I get paid to do — figure it out. And so everything is up in the air right now. We are too good of a team for us to be having this many issues.”

Indeed, the Cougars won almost every statistical category but the one that matters most, the score. They out-gained the Bulls 439-315, ran 89 plays to USF’s 58, held the ball for 37 1/2 minutes and racked up 26 first downs to USF’s 17.

And somehow lost.

“I don’t know all the numbers, but for the last two games it would be interesting to see the issues we have had in the red zone,” Sitake said. “The drives that stalled were (partly) due to some of the mistakes we made. A lot of it has to do with play-calling or scheme or not executing. All of it matters, and all of it goes into the evaluation process.”

Just like two weeks ago.

But you’ve heard that before.