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Has BYU lost its knack for playing physical football?

After back-to-back losses in which the Cougars were outplayed in the trenches, BYU looks to regain its mojo this week at Washington State

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BYU defensive linemen prepare for a snap during game against Baylor on Oct. 16, 2021, at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas.

BYU defensive linemen prepare for a snap during game against Baylor on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas.

BYU Photo

Physicality. It’s a thing.

For weeks we’ve heard from opposing coaches that Kalani Sitake’s BYU team plays physical. 

byu/wsu TV

Cougars on the air


BYU (5-2)

at Washington State (4-3)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

At Martin Stadium, Spokane, Washington

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM


In football jargon, being physical means possessing size and using it aggressively to accentuate the laws of physics to move opposing players around, leaning on them, tiring them and knocking them on their butts.

Last week at Baylor and the week before against Boise State, both losses for the Cougars, that was not the case. In fact, that trait belonged to the opponent.

“We need to be more physical,” Sitake said immediately after Saturday’s loss in Waco, Texas.

Two days later, he said a lack of physical play at Baylor was the most disappointing thing for him in that loss. He said his team may have been down a few players but that’s no excuse.

“Those who go in have to play physically and tough,” he said.

He said Baylor was a great team and might have been destined to win that game but the most disappointing thing to him is BYU did not play tough, physical football, which he hopes is a hallmark of his team.

“That has to change,” he said. “We did play physical a few weeks ago.”

Sitake said Baylor did what BYU knew they’d do — ram the ball down BYU’s collective throats. “They took it to us and we didn’t respond the right way.” He said he expects far more physical play from both the offense and defense. Anything else is not acceptable.

Indeed, it was a real positive thing in BYU’s wins over Arizona State and Utah. It was noticeable and measurable and was proven in the way both games began and ended. You saw it clearly when Tyler Allgeier ran for chunk yardage and his running lanes were wide.

Did the Cougars lose their ability to play physical football? Is it an unsustainable resource among football players over the course of a season? After all, that was a pretty brutal September with three straight Pac-12 teams and there’s little doubt that Sitake had his players geared up emotionally to take on that challenge.

Did it just sputter out after reaching 5-0? Is it a matter of depth? Is this team too banged-up to dictate the power of fighting in the trenches? Is it mental? Is it now an inability to power on and power back?

Game tapes show that part of that may be just the case — other teams are dictating and controlling the line of scrimmage.

On most teams, this is an issue that many face as the ebb and flow of health and energy goes up and down during a season.

But on Saturday against a very talented and quality Baylor team, BYU did not give a good physical look most of the game.

BYU’s offensive line is not moving defenders out of gaps. The defensive line is not getting a big pocket push and penetrating and pressuring QBs. Not like we saw in early September. No, not at all.

So, the big question is, can Sitake get that physical playback heading into a game at 4-3 Washington State, which just beat Cal, Oregon State and Stanford, but on Monday lost its head coach?

Not without moving bodies around in the trenches.

BYU center and team captain James Empey shared his thoughts Monday on 1280 The Zone. Are injuries or not having a bye week to rest the reason for BYU’s less physical play.

Empey refused to use any of that as an excuse.

Good for him.

“To be honest,” said Empey, “I didn’t notice that much. Your schedule is your schedule and you control what you control. You just prepare for the next week. There hasn’t been a lot of focus on that (a week off) because we have an awesome schedule. It’s our culture, it’s all about love and learning. There is no time to feel sorry for ourselves. You have to love the game, respect the game and getting to play it and respect the opponent.”

So, Sitake does preach a lot about love and learning. Maybe more than ranting and yelling, although he can be emotional and verbally convincing in using his voice volume. His plan is clear, to just work harder, teach more effectively and get better.

Is it working?

Against Baylor, it was not. Allgeier’s big gains were absent. So were his running lanes. He gained just 33 yards on 15 carries. Without a run game, BYU cannot get to favorable short-yardage plays.

On defense, BYU’s front could not contain the edges or the middle and could not mount a pass rush — no sacks, few hurries of the QB.

BYU coordinators on BYUtv on Monday had differing takes on the issue of being pushed around.

Aaron Roderick, using his fifth different combination of offensive linemen this season at Baylor, said late in the week he got word that starting guard Joe Tukuafu and right tackle Harris LaChance would not play. That forced some continuity issues as he was changing operational signals because former BYU offensive coordinator (Jeff Grimes) and O line coach Eric Mateos— both now at Baylor — knew those signals.

He said having continuity in blockers on the line is a big deal and a key, although only one missed team signal in the game took place, a costly sack of Jaren Hall when his receiver did not make the anticipated move.

OK. Seems like an honest assessment. 

“We did find out some things about ourselves in that game that we can use in the future,” said Roderick. He was speaking primarily about the big performance by receiver Puka Nacua (career-best five catches for 168 yards and a TD).

LaChance is expected to return to the starting lineup after missing five games. So is Tukuafu, who with Empey, has the most experience and versatility on the offensive line.

“Having Harris in there is a big thing. He has really developed into a very good tackle,” said Roderick.

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said his assessment during the game and with the earphones (assessing changes) was different than his perception after he reviewed the tape of the game. He said he saw missed tackles, missed assignments and players trying to do the jobs of others. Some problems were technique issues, like reaching instead of moving into position.

“It was a tough game film to watch,” said Tuiaki.

“We missed some opportunities to make some takeaways and that would have helped.”

Tuiaki, who has been criticized for his defensive schemes and philosophy and failure to disguise some blitzes, took full responsibility for fixing those issues.

“We need to coach better and execute our game plan better and that is my job. We need to tighten up our techniques and fundamentals — and not do other people’s jobs but do their own 1/11. That falls on our shoulders as defensive coaches to make that happen.

“We have to be better inspire-ers of our game plan.”

Last week in McClane Stadium, we saw three defensive linemen go down and get up slowly, including Earl Tuioti-Mariner, Jacob Palu and Gabe Summers.

The chance to put any corrections to the test comes quickly for Roderick and Tuiaki.

Washington State in Pullman will be a big challenge, although the Cougars to the north have some issues of their own in running the ball and stopping the run.

WSU gave up 222 yards rushing to Utah State in a loss (BYU limited the Aggies to under 30 yards rushing). Portland State gained 102, USC just 48, Utah had 212, Cal gained 121 on the ground, Oregon State went for 309 and Stanford rushed for 76.

Opponents who had big pass games against WSU were USC’s 399 and Portland State with 318.

The physical play, or lack of it?

Stay tuned. We shall see.