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BYU football: With bye week in the books, Cougars turn attention to Georgia Southern’s triple-option

BYU was idle last week after putting up 66 points on Virginia and 59 on Idaho State, has to avoid a letdown vs. GSU with USC showdown looming on Nov. 27

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Samson Nacua (45) and Virginia Cavaliers cornerback Darrius Bratton (8) battle for the ball in the end zone as BYU and Virginia play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. BYU won 66-49.
Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Samson Nacua (45) and Virginia Cavaliers cornerback Darrius Bratton (8) battle for the ball in the end zone as BYU and Virginia play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. BYU won 66-49.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU’s nationally ranked football team planned to use its much-needed bye week after playing 10 consecutive weeks to heal up, focus on fundamentals such as blocking and tackling and prepare for Georgia Southern’s triple-option attack, coach Kalani Sitake said last Monday in his only media appearance of the week.

The No. 14 Cougars travel to Statesboro, Georgia, to meet the 3-7 Eagles on Saturday (2 p.m. MST) at 25,000-seat Paulson Stadium, which was close to being sold out a few days ago.

“That’s a good idea,” Sitake said last week, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, when a reporter suggested the Cougars could use the extra time to prepare for GSU’s option, which is similar to what Army, Navy and Air Force run, but with a bit more passing.

“We might as well get an early start on it,” Sitake said.

The last time BYU faced an option attack, it shut down Navy to the tune of 55-3 on Labor Day in 2020, but Georgia Southern is more diverse offensively, especially lately.

And the Eagles got a shot of confidence last Saturday, snapping a four-game losing skid with a 38-30 win over Texas State, which fell to 3-7.

It appears to be a trap game for the 8-2 Cougars, what with the regular-season finale at USC looming on Nov. 27, but fifth-year senior Uriah Leiataua said after the Cougars crushed Idaho State 59-14 on Nov. 6 that this team is too mature and focused to get derailed by looking too far ahead.

“Yeah, I don’t think it will be that difficult at all (to get up after Senior Day),” Leiataua said. “I don’t feel like we will skip a beat.

“We need to be sure when we are practicing next week and the week after to just go hard and have fun with it.”

BYU is hoping to get back receiver Gunner Romney after he missed the ISU and Virginia games with a knee injury.

However, the Cougars will almost certainly be without receiver Neil Pau’u, who sustained a lower leg injury fighting for a touchdown against ISU.

“It doesn’t look good for Georgia Southern,” Sitake said of Pau’u’s condition.

The Eagles’ starting quarterback situation is unclear after true freshman Cam Ransom sustained a shoulder injury in the third quarter against Texas State.

A lefty, Ransom had completed 7 of 12 passes for 125 yards, including a 48-yard TD toss to fellow freshman Derwin Burgess Jr. when he left the game.

Junior Justin Tomlin relieved Ransom and was 7 of 13 for 108 yards. Tomlin had started the previous seven games before interim head coach Kevin Whitley made the switch.

Running back Gerald Green, who was averaging 5.6 yards per carry, was taken off the field via stretcher after absorbing a blow that was flagged for targeting.

“He’s a tough kid and I am sure he will battle through whatever is going on,” Whitley told the Georgia Southern Sports Network after the game.

GSU’s top ball-carrier is Logan Wright, who has rushed for 740 yards on 122 carries (5.9 per carry) and six TDs.

Top receiver Khaleb Hood has 38 receptions for 464 yards, but on Saturday Burgess had the big day with five catches for a career-high 134 yards.

“Our defense played extremely well,” Whitley told the network, lamenting a blocked punt, a blocked field goal and two missed field goals.

“If we made those points right there, it’s not even a ball game. We have to clean that up. We will definitely start working on that tomorrow and get ready for BYU.”

This home-and-home series was announced on Nov. 30, 2017, with the Eagles slated to visit Provo on Oct. 12, 2024.

However, that return game is up in the air with BYU scheduled to join the Big 12 in 2023.

When Saturday’s game was scheduled, BYU was coming off a disastrous 4-9 season and the Eagles had just hired coach Chad Lunsford midway through their season.

Lunsford was fired after a 1-3 start this season despite having guided GSU to 10 wins in 2018 and three straight bowl appearances.

Georgia State was a national power at the FCS level, having won six FCS/Division I-AA national championships and having produced two Walter Payton Award winners.

The Eagles transitioned to the FBS level in 2014 and joined the Sun Belt Conference.

On Nov. 2, former USC coach Clay Helton, 49, was hired less than two months after he was fired in Los Angeles.

Georgia Southern opened the season with a 30-25 win over Gardner-Webb, then lost to Florida Atlantic (38-6), No. 20 Arkansas (45-10) and Louisiana (28-20), and Lunsford was released.

The Eagles defeated Arkansas State 59-33 in Statesboro with Whitley in charge and have generally played better the second half of the season.

They gave 5-5 Georgia State a test before falling 21-14 on Oct. 30 and lost just 28-8 to then-No. 21 Coastal Carolina the following week.

The Eagles are No. 103 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 31.6 points per game, and 110th in scoring offense, putting up 22.3 points per game.

They are No. 20 in rushing offense at 208.9 yards on the ground per game.

By way of comparison, BYU is No. 34 in scoring offense (33.3 ppg.) and No. 57 in scoring defense (24.3 ppg.).

The Cougars are No. 63 in the country at stopping the run, yielding 146.0 yards per game on the ground.