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Plenty of signs pointed to September struggles for BYU

PROVO — How will BYU react to its two-game losing skid when No. 10 Wisconsin visits Provo on Saturday?

Well, tough guys don’t quit, bellyache or complain, and good teams don’t point fingers and play the blame game. What you do is bear down and try harder — that’s all you’ve got.

For fans who need to be talked away from the edge of the cliff, a reality check might be in good order. This team’s win-loss record is about where it should be in September. Portland State was a 90-10 percent win, scheduled so. Back in January, certainly in July through August, the LSU game was always going to be a 30 (BYU)-70 percent chance of winning. BYU-Utah was going to be a 50-50 to 40-60 type chance for a win.

BYU looks like it has only a 10-20 percent chance of beating Wisconsin, but that has been the case all year long.

You mix it up against elite defensive talent, an offense missing two of the top four rushers in school history, a revamped offense with inexperienced receivers and backs, and you get what you’ve got — one of the lowest scoring offenses since 1974.

That shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.

What is unsettling and even surprising to this coaching staff is that during August camp, this offense showed a lot of potential, some real firepower and big plays. That has never surfaced so far in three games.

And there are reasons.

As BYU coach Kalani Sitake told reporters Monday, there’s a lot of work to do. His team needs to find an identity, something “to hang its hat on,” as everyone is asked to “trust the process” and “keep improving.”

A few things impacted BYU’s August that made September tougher. First, visions of using a double tight end formation with Matt Bushman and Moroni Laulu-Pututau went out the window when MLP hurt his foot. BYU had to switch from personnel groups that inserted Talon Shumway as a kind of inside receiver. That grouping, plus the need for extra protection schemes, has limited the use of Micah Simon as a slot receiver in a four-receiver set.

Second, the camp injury to freshman Ula Tolutau set back BYU’s run threat for a month. Now listed at 100 percent healthy, Tolutau showed what he brings to the run game by scoring one of two BYU touchdowns against Utah.

Third, as a receiver and running back group, BYU’s offense has struggled to make the right reads and pick up blitzes, like the blindside hit by Ute safety Chase Hansen on Saturday. At times, receivers have cut off or extended routes and spacing has been off, as in Tanner Mangum’s first interception Saturday to Boobie Hobbs. BYU’s wideouts were clumped together, drawing three defenders to where Mangum threw the ball.

Fourth, Mangum, for whatever reason, has struggled these three games, trying to find a comfort level with all the operations. It isn’t all his fault, if an offense isn’t in sync, with linemen, receivers and backs all doing their parts together, it looks like what it’s been.

Fifth, BYU needs faster starts and fewer turnovers. “Be more productive on the offensive side,” said Sitake. “The big negative was turnovers (against Utah). There are some things we should have taken advantage of. We had some opportunities to make some bigger plays.”

Mangum looked more comfortable using the shotgun with tempo late in Saturday’s loss to Utah. There are other adjustments offensive coordinator Ty Detmer can tweak this first month. But nothing is more important than working harder, fixing mistakes and everyone getting more precision out of their work.

Detmer’s approach has been to build a pro-style offense and it isn’t a quick fix. It is absolutely necessary he recruits a trio of big-play tight ends, mammoth and strong offensive linemen, and productive running back threats. If he doesn’t have those types of players, it’s going to be a struggle.

It is evident Detmer and running backs coach Reno Mahe gave every opportunity for Squally Canada to be the chairman of the board of the running back committee. But his two best rushers, say many insiders, are big, powerful, one-time Wisconsin signee Tolutau and converted linebacker and tough guy Kavika Fonua.

For two weeks Sitake has spoken of making changes. We then saw Fonua gain more reps because of productivity and Tolutau finally make an appearance after overcoming an injury.

This week may see other changes after the mistakes that were made in the 19-13 loss to the Utes.

“We need to fix the issues,” said Sitake. “We need to adjust things and be more efficient. We need to fix it quickly because we are losing games.”

Sitake said Detmer is working to get the most out of the talent level and is working through his roster to find playmakers and put them in positions to be productive.

“It’s difficult. Everyone wants to score a lot of points. You look at what we want to build here. Patience is not my best virtue. We just need to keep working at it. What Ty does well is he knows what his talent level is and tries to get the most out of it. If things don’t go well, we address other things whether it is players or schemes. We did that last year with Taysom Hill.”

This September is a tough slate for Sitake. When his boss Tom Holmoe drew it up, it wasn’t a 4-0 start. Football science said BYU would be very fortunate to get out of September with a .500 record.

Facing defenses such as LSU's, Utah's and Wisconsin's is like a lumberjack attacking a tree with a dull axe. They are big dogs with size and speed.

Sitake hates losing. He’s on edge, looking for any answers he can get and he’s leaving no stone unturned.

To the sky-is-falling crowd crowing about coaching changes and drastic edge-of-cliff melodrama, it’s a little early for that.

This September is not normal for BYU and for a rebuilt offense its growing pains are football science.

Ask Ohio State and Notre Dame fans how they feel this week.