Six weeks ago, expectations for the 2021 season were fairly low for the BYU football team.
After all, the Cougars had lost a dozen or so key contributors from the 2020 team that went 11-1, including No. 2 NFL draft pick Zach Wilson and fellow offensive stars and pro football draftees Brady Christensen and Dax Milne.
The losses defensively were arguably even greater, especially in the middle, as run-clogging nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, tacking machine Isaiah Kaufusi and playmaking safeties Troy Warner and Zayne Anderson moved on.
Throw in an early schedule that included three Power Five opponents and geographical rivals Boise State and Utah State, and not many folks in Provo were calling for much better than a 3-3 start.
Yet, here the Cougars are at the halfway mark of the 2021 campaign — No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings and proud owners of a 5-1 record, including wins over Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, South Florida and Utah State.
Their only loss was that four-turnover debacle last Saturday at home against a Boise State team that proved to be much better than its 2-3 record indicated.
By almost any measure, the Cougars had a successful first half of their 12-game schedule. It could have been called wildly successful, if not for that 26-17 loss to the fired up Broncos.
As strange as it sounds, the second half could prove to be more difficult, beginning Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at 5-1 Baylor, which might just be the best opponent the Cougars face this season when all is said and done.
From this standpoint, the Cougars deserve something in the A-minus range on their midterm exams, a grade that will be broken down by unit (offense, defense, special teams) later in this article.
How does head coach Kalani Sitake see it?
“I am really pleased with the talent that we have on our team and development of our players,” he said. “We have been really tested with our depth because of injuries — it happens. … From that point of view (excessive injuries, including top two quarterbacks Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney and top defender Keenan Pili for the season), I am happy with the way our guys have performed and how they have prepared.”
The Cougars have clearly exceeded expectations. In the preseason, the ESPN Football Power Index gave BYU a 35% chance of having a 5-1 record through six weeks.
“I think we have been able to take advantage of not only winning games, but learning from them and getting better and improving the next week,” Sitake said. “I am really proud of how our guys come to work every day and have had the mindset of looking forward and improving from the last week.”
Having dropped the Cougars from No. 10 to No. 19 after the BSU loss, the pollsters have still been more impressed than the computers. Despite the three wins over P5 teams, BYU is No. 48 in ESPN’s FPI and No. 37 in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings.
The Cougars’ strength of schedule is 46th, with four P5 foes still on the schedule — Baylor, Washington State, Virginia and USC. Never in their history have the Cougars defeated four P5 teams in a single season.
What do the players think now that the first half of the season is in the books? Would they have taken a 5-1 start at the start?
Nobody is satisfied, but several said the start has confirmed their preseason beliefs that this team had a chance to come close to duplicating last year’s special season.
“Obviously everybody wants to be undefeated. Everybody wants to be the best team in the country. But I think this team is in a really good spot,” said receiver Gunner Romney. “We have been playing really good football and I think if we use this (first loss) as sort of a wakeup call, and bring everything back into perspective and start doing what we know we can do, we can finish out a great season. … We are in a good position right now.”
Defensive end Tyler Batty said he would give the Cougars a ‘B’ grade because “we definitely haven’t played to our potential” but could see them moving to the head of the class before the season is finished.
“We are definitely still learning, still putting things together, and I only see us getting better and getting to that ‘A-plus’ status as the season goes on,” he said.
Offensive lineman James Empey declined to hand out a specific grade, but likes the way the Cougars are trending.
“We have done a lot of good things, but we have a long ways to go,” he said. “We need to put a whole game together. We need to find ways to overcome adversity a little bit better and just continue to play as a team.”
Clearly, the Cougars are starting better than they are finishing, at least when scoring is the name of the game. They have scored 51 points in first quarters, 62 points in second quarters, and just 50 in the third and fourth quarters combined.
Given those numbers, a 5-1 record is pretty remarkable; the underlying story the first five games was that the Cougars built double-digit leads, saw their opponents make comebacks and cut their deficits to one-score games, then were able to close out games with strong finishes.
Would Empey have taken five wins before the Baylor trip if promised that beforehand?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really look at it that way. I look at it one week at a time. So if you said you will be 5-1, I would have said, ‘OK, we will see.’ Because the next week is the most important week. I am happy with where we are right now. I think we are in a good spot.
“I think we have a chance to bounce back and do what we do and I am excited for the guys to get back to work this week and attack this week because you are only promised the next one and you just gotta take it one at a time and prepare your best for that one. So, on to Baylor.”
Complementary football the key
BYU coaches and players like to talk about playing “complementary football,” which means that they combine all three phases of the game — offense, defense, special teams — into one unit that helps and supports the other. No question, they have done that in building their 5-1 record. In the wins, all three phases have taken their turns having the other’s back, so to speak.
In the loss, for example, the defense wasn’t able to respond when the offense fumbled the ball away three times against BSU, allowing two short-field touchdowns that proved to the difference in the game.
Here’s a look at the three phases, and how they’ve performed in 2021 so far:
Offense — B
Perhaps the best way to describe the BYU offense this season is this: Slightly above average and inconsistent — yet opportunistic. Having to play three different quarterbacks has obviously slowed the Cougars, particularly in the second half against Utah State when Jacob Conover replaced an apparently concussed Baylor Romney, and against Boise State when starter Jaren Hall’s running ability was clearly hampered by bruised ribs.
They are only 79th in scoring offense (27.2 points per game), after living in the top 10 last year with a much easier schedule.
The Cougars are 65th in the country in total offense (404.2 yards per game) and 61st in both passing offense (237.5 ypg.) and rushing offense (166.7 ypg.). So they are nicely balanced, if nothing else.
What has carried them has been big plays — Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua have hauled in long passes and running back Tyler Allgeier has busted off some long runs — and efficiency in the red zone, until the sixth game.
“In a team game, everybody is responsible for their own job. If one of our boys make a mistake, then it is our job to step up and help cover that mistake. It really just falls on everybody,” Gunner Romney said. “We win as a team, we lose as a team. So we are not pointing any fingers at anybody.
“We all can do a better job in our own individual positions to cover up for some mistakes that we have had. … It is not on one person. It is not on one player. It is on the entire organization.”
BYU is 25th in red-zone offense (91.3% scoring rate), with 16 touchdowns and five field goals in 23 red-zone attempts.
For the most part, the play-calling has been solid, and so has the protection. The Cougars have allowed just .83 sacks per game, the same as run-oriented Air Force, and rank tied for ninth in that category.
Only two offensive linemen have started every game — left tackle Blake Freeland and left guard Clark Barrington — so the depth on that unit has been impressive.
Until last Saturday, ball security was a strength. The Cougars are tied for 17th in turnover margin — 11 gained, five lost — but those giveaways against Boise will sting for a long time.
“Humility is a good thing. It is the best teacher. And that is for all of us. There are a lot of things we can learn from it. I can, too, as a head coach. So none of us are immune from mistakes,” Sitake said. “Things have been going really smoothly for us, and we were able to win the first five games, even with some situational issues and mistakes. We just made too many against a really good team that was driven to beat us.”
Defense — B-plus
The unit that was supposed to be the biggest weakness has been better than expected. The Cougars kept high-flying offenses at Utah, Arizona State, Utah State and Boise State mostly in check, despite seasonlong struggles to get off the field on third and fourth down.
Bottom line is the Cougars are 33rd in scoring defense, allowing just 20.0 points per game. That prowess will surely be tested Saturday at Baylor, which just put 45 points on West Virginia.
The Cougars are a middling 62nd in total defense (367.7 yards per game) and slightly better on rushing defense — 52nd in the country — than passing defense, where they are 82nd.
The defense has been decent in the red zone, having given up nine touchdowns and seven field goals in 20 opponent attempts to tie for 48th nationally in that category.
Their 2.17 sacks per game ranks 66th in the country.
The issue has been third-down conversion defense: BYU is 91st in that stat, letting opponents convert 41.8% of the time. The result has been a deficit in time of possession for the offense — the Cougars are 85th in ToP, averaging fewer than 28 minutes a game with the ball.
“Our guys, I mean, we are continually improving,” Batty said. “That is something that is never going to change, whether it is beginning of the season, middle of the season or end of the season. But where we are sitting right now, I think we have just found out that we have a great team.
“We have got a lot of dudes that are ready and willing to play,” Batty continued. “We have got a great coaching staff, and that was known. Sitting here in the middle of the season with just one loss, we know what we have to do. Our work is cut out for us.”
Special teams — C
The Cougars have been just OK on special teams; unlike in 2019, the unit hasn’t cost them any wins.
Punter Ryan Rehkow has been phenomenal, both at producing prodigious punts — like the school-record 83-yarder against Arizona State — and pinning opponents deep in their own territory.
Kickers Jake Oldroyd and Justen Smith have been solid, especially Smith in the way he has filled in for the oft-injured Oldroyd.
Kickoff and punt coverage units have mostly been solid, although the kick coverage group gave up a 35-yard return to Boise’s Kahlil Shakir that gave the Broncos good field position and eventually resulted in a field goal that gave the visitors a 23-10 lead.
An injury to kick returner Caleb Christensen was also felt vs. BSU when fill-in Lopini Katoa fumbled the ball away on a return.
Special teams coach Ed Lamb said Monday that Chris Jackson, Morgan Pyper, Drew Jensen, Jacob Boren and Kaleb Hayes have stood out on special teams coverage, but also acknowledged more work is needed in areas outside of placekicking and punting.