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BYU leaves Big 12 territory searching for answers after second-straight setback derails promising season

BYU turns its attention to Saturday’s game at Washington State, which could be without head coach Nick Rolovich because he refuses to get a COVID-19 vaccination

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake shakes hands with Baylor head coach Dave Aranda
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, left, meets Baylor head coach Dave Aranda on the field following Baylor’s 38-24 win in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Waco, Texas.
Ron Jenkins, Associated Press

After No. 19 BYU fell 38-24 to Baylor on Saturday afternoon in the middle of Big 12 country, the Cougars and their head coach threw out all kinds of reasons why their once-promising season is starting to unravel.

Receiver Puka Nacua, after having just played a spectacular game and contributing 41% of the Cougars’ offensive output, even suggested that the team doesn’t play as well in the afternoon as it does at night, for whatever reason.

Last week’s 26-17 loss to Boise State was played in the afternoon after five straight night games — all wins — and this week’s contest at Washington State will kick off at 1:30 p.m. MDT and be televised by Fox Sports 1.

Kickoff time and broadcast plans for the Oct. 30 visit of Virginia and former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall should be announced Monday morning.

“We have had two day games, which are hard, two back-to-back losses, (which were) a slight, maybe, schedule change for us,” Nacua said after catching five passes for 168 yards and a touchdown. “I don’t think we came out with the energy and juice that we needed to have. As much as our fans help, we needed juice from the sidelines.”

For the first time in seven games, the Cougars didn’t score first, as Baylor booted a 31-yard field goal on its third possession. But BYU (5-2) still seemed OK, answering that 3-0 deficit with an eight-play, 75 yard touchdown drive, keyed by Nacua’s 52-yard reception.

Big passing plays weren’t the problem. The Cougars had eight passing plays of 15 yards or more, and four that were 45 or more. The running game never got going, as Tyler Allgeier was held to 33 yards on 15 carries and the only double-digit gain on the ground was quarterback Jaren Hall’s 56-yard touchdown run.

“Everybody needs to be ready to go, from the first kickoff to the last whistle that is blown in the game, we just gotta be ready to go, to go out there and punch somebody in the face, take the punch that somebody is going to give us and go and make sure we execute our jobs,” Nacua said.

Perhaps another valid theory is that the Cougars are just wearing down after seven-straight physical contests. The Cougars played without offensive linemen Joe Tukuafu and Harris LaChance and defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea, and it showed.

They were pushed around in the trenches, and some young offensive linemen either whiffed on blocks that allowed Hall to get sacked, or didn’t pick up delayed blitzes.

“This was a really good lesson for us to come out here and play a physical Baylor team. I am going to make sure we learn from it,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “I have been in this position before where I felt like we got physically handled. And now we got to see what our response is going to be. That’s the key. I am really anxious to get back to work.”

If there is a common denominator to BYU’s struggles this season — in the losses as well as the five wins — it has been the inability to consistently stop the run, except in the 34-20 win over Utah State.

“It just comes down to everybody doing their job, making sure we are filling the spaces where we need to be, making sure we are not over running things, getting moved out of those running lanes,” said defensive end Tyler Batty, who admitted that Baylor running backs Abram Smith (27 carries, 188 yards) and Trestan Ebner (11 carries, 95 yards) were extremely difficult to tackle and quarterback Gerry Bohanon (231 passing yards) was tough to corral.

The Cougars didn’t have a sack although Bohanon dropped back to pass almost 30 times.

Batty said the Bears’ offensive linemen were cut blocking at times, resulting in a couple Cougars — Earl Tuioti-Mariner and Jacob Palu — leaving the game with lower leg injuries.

“We ended up with a lot of guys on the ground, unfortunately, and some of that did lead to injury,” Batty said.

BYU’s defense can’t get off the field in critical moments. The Cougars are 96th in the country in third-down conversion defense and 102nd in fourth-down conversion defense. That’s not good.

Still, the three players who met with reporters after the disheartening Baylor loss — Hall, Nacua and Batty — insisted the Cougars will respond in a positive way.

“We need to oil the machine up and get it back on track and running,” Batty said. “Guys are hungrier than ever. We have a lot of fierce competitors that want to play, that want to win, that want to perform. As disappointing as this is, our guys will hang their heads for a second, but we are going to pick it up and go to work to get things taken care of.”

Up next is a WSU team that has won three straight games, including Saturday’s 34-31 win over Stanford, and has steadily improved after early season losses to Utah State (26-23), USC (45-14) and Utah (24-13).

Quarterback Jayden de Laura threw for three touchdowns and 289 yards and bruising running back Max Borghi scored a TD with 1 minute, 30 seconds remaining to give the Cougars the win in what was possibly coach Nick Rolovich’s last game.

The former Hawaii coach, who directed the Warriors to a 38-34 win over BYU in the 2019 Hawaii Bowl, has refused to get a COVID-19 vaccination that is required of all Washington state employees. The deadline to get one is Monday; Rolovich has applied for a religious exemption.

“I am going to come to work tomorrow and get ready for BYU,” he told reporters when asked if he will be WSU’s coach next week. “This is not in my hands.”

It will be the first BYU-WSU game since 2012 when BYU handed WSU a 30-6 loss at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Mike Leach’s first game as the red-clad Cougars’ coach.