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BYU football’s emphasis this week is ball security as Cougars put loss behind them, focus on Baylor

Cougars had two turnovers through their first five games, then committed four in the disappointing 26-17 loss to unranked Boise State

BYU and Boise State compete during an NCAA college football game.
BYU and Boise State compete during an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

It has been difficult to diagnose the reasons for some of BYU’s losses during the Kalani Sitake era the past six seasons.

Saturday’s 26-17 loss to unranked but underrated Boise State in front of 63,470 mostly deflated fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium didn’t fall into that category.

Rather, it was easy to explain why the Cougars fell short. Four turnovers, including three that either set up the Broncos (3-3) on short fields for their only two TDs or kept the Cougars from scoring a TD at a time when they were easily slicing through the BSU defense, were the culprit.

Or, from Boise State’s perspective, the big break it needed to upset a team more talented than the injury riddled outfit they rode into Provo with.

Arizona State witnessed that firsthand on Sept. 18 when falling 27-17 to BYU, a team that the Sun Devils (now 5-1 and ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25) felt they would be able to overwhelm with superior talent. The Cougars (5-1) dropped to No. 19 in the AP poll, No. 20 in the Coaches poll.

“Coach Kalani always talks about the small and simple things, and that is something that obviously was a big thing, was ball security for us,” said BYU receiver Puka Nacua. “We didn’t go out there and handle the ball the way we wanted to. Boise State, they were able to capitalize on that.”

So the Cougars lost a game — and their perfect season — despite out-gaining BSU 413-312 and averaging 6.5 yards per play to the Broncos’ 4.2.

“We know we had that game, we just didn’t play to the best of our abilities tonight,” said Nacua, who caught four passes for 75 yards. “Obviously, ball security was a thing.”

Ball security.

It will be hammered even harder than it already is in practice this week as the Cougars prepare to leave the state of Utah for the first time since their 24-16 season-opening win over Arizona in Las Vegas on Sept. 4.

BYU plays at 5-1 Baylor on Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) and is a three-point underdog.

“Nobody feels worse than those running backs right now,” Sitake said after Tyler Allgeier coughed up the football for the first time in his career and Lopini Katoa lost it twice, once on a carry deep in BSU territory and the other on a kickoff return.

“We emphasize it and we explain to these guys how important ball security is. It is something that we are always preaching, and it is something that I can never get enough of as a coach. I will never tell a player that his ball security is too good. So it is something that we can always improve, and always get better at,” Sitake said.

The coach was happy with the extra effort, but said sometimes digression is the better part of valor when it comes to carrying the ball.

“Mistakes happen,” he said. “It just seems that we made way too many today to battle back from. Even with all those mistakes that were made — not converting on fourth down or the fumbles or the interception, I felt like guys still battled and played hard. They gave us their best effort. We just need to be a little bit more focused, be able to execute a little more efficiently.”

Much was made of the way Boise State rushed for 140 yards, about twice its game average. However, the Broncos picked up just 3.1 yards per carry, which isn’t that good. Sure, BYU’s offensive and defense lines weren’t as dominant as they were expected to be, but they weren’t bad, either.

The biggest mistakes the linemen made were penalties that hampered BYU drives or prolonged Boise State drives.

“We made too many mistakes overall as a team. It is not just defense or offense or special teams,” Sitake said. “It goes all around. They had a long return on a kickoff (35 yards). We just need to improve and get better. That falls on me as the head coach and I have to get our guys ready.”

About the only good news for the Cougars was that they came out of the game relatively healthy.

Quarterback Jaren Hall and center James Empey returned, while starters Lorenzo Fauatea, Harris LaChance and Masen Wake missed the game but should be available soon.

Receiver Gunner Romney took a hard hit but returned and led the Cougars in receiving with four catches for 102 yards.

Speaking of Baylor, the Bears rebounded from a 24-14 loss to No. 18 Oklahoma State in Stillwater with a resounding 45-20 win over West Virginia in Waco, Texas, on Saturday and could have the best offense the Cougars will face this season, with former BYU OC Jeff Grimes directing it.

“We will be back at it on Monday, go out to Texas, and we will watch the film, clean up where we need to,” Nacua said. “We had a good game plan going in. We didn’t execute the way we wanted to. We just have to let this one go. It always sucks to lose. We love and learn here, so we are going to learn from it and be ready to go back next week.”

Starting middle linebacker Ben Bywater, who had a career-high 14 tackles in the loss, said there was “a great, positive vibe” in the locker room despite the loss because the Cougars know they weren’t outclassed.

“There was no overlooking Boise,” Bywater said. “They are a great team and they played hard. It was just about weathering situations that put us in tough spots. They were able to capitalize and we weren’t.”

Sitake said the Cougars will just have to learn from one of the most difficult losses to swallow in his six seasons as head coach and move forward.

“It is part of football,” he said. “I believe in these coaches. I believe in these young men. We are all going to rally and group together and try to get better. That’s the goal.

“I really believe we can play better football as a team,” he said. “That is what we are going to try to accomplish the next week. We have a tough game going out to Texas. We will be ready for Baylor if we can learn and take advantage of some of the things that we can learn from this game and some of the failures that we had.”

And hang on to that dang football.