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‘I am not panicking at all’: Offensive production will pick up, coordinator Aaron Roderick says as Cougars prep for USF

Cougars aren’t as prolific through three games as they were last year at this juncture, but opponents’ defenses have been much better than in 2020

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall (3) runs with the ball during a game against Arizona State.
BYU quarterback Jaren Hall runs with the ball during a game against Arizona State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

After living at the top of the national charts in almost every statistical category imaginable on offense last year, the BYU Cougars have gotten off to a bit of a slow start this year, by comparison.

For instance, the 3-0 and No. 15-ranked Cougars are 85th in total offense (367.7 yards per game) and tied for 89th in scoring offense, averaging 25.7 points per game.

There is a good reason for that, BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday as the Cougars prepared to take on 1-2 South Florida on Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“We just gotta play better,” Roderick said, “but part of it is the defenses we have played against are good. We didn’t play anybody last year that was even close to the last two teams (Utah and Arizona State) we’ve played, on defense. I mean, no one was even in the same world as those two defenses.”

Roderick said Arizona’s defense was also difficult to navigate because “there were a lot of unknowns as well” due to a new coaching staff and the defensive coordinator’s penchant for coming up with exotic blitzes at his previous stops.

Still, no excuses, the first-year OC said.

“We have been talking about that a lot. We can talk about how good the defenses are, and can make excuses, or we can just be accountable to ourselves and each other and figure out how we can play better,” he said.

In fairness, Roderick’s offense has been incredibly efficient in the red zone. In fact, the Cougars are tied for first in the country in red-zone efficiency, having scored all 10 times they have been inside the 20. They’ve scored eight touchdowns and made two field goals, even while No. 1 placekicker Jake Oldroyd has missed two of three games with tightness and spasms in his back.

“We have improved in every game, and I think you will see continued improvement. The points will come with improved execution. I am not panicking at all. I think we are right on track and considering who we have played, I am proud of how we stand right now.”

Starting quarterback Jaren Hall has been outstanding and has made several clutch throws and runs for first downs when the offense was starting to sputter.

“He is taking good care of the ball,” Roderick said. “He had one bad decision last game (the Tyler Allgeier strip play), but the good news is that was really uncharacteristic of how he has been playing.”

Hall is 50th in the country in total offense, having accounted for 242.3 yards per game.

“He has been really gutsy as far as making some big plays in key moments of big games,” Roderick said. “He finds a way to assert himself when we need it most.”

Rumors have persisted since he left the ASU game late that Hall isn’t totally healthy this week. Asked Wednesday about his status, Roderick said: “Kalani is the only one who will talk about injuries, but yeah, he is out there (at practice).”

BYU’s running backs — Allgeier and Lopini Katoa — have also been solid. Allgeier is averaging 88.3 yards per game, Katoa 31.7 per game. Roderick said that Jackson McChesney has emerged as the third RB and junior college transfer Hinckley Ropati the fourth. Miles Davis, who was so impressive in fall camp, has been sidelined by a foot injury.

“The situation hasn’t called for it yet, but it is a long season and there is a good chance we will need one of those guys to be ready at some point, and they will be,” Roderick said. “No hesitation at all to play those guys.”

Starting receivers Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u have combined for 23 catches for 298 yards and five touchdowns. Tight end Isaac Rex has two TD catches after a mildly slow start.

If there’s a reason for concern, it is that the Nacua brothers — Puka and Samson — have not made much of an impact yet.

“I think the wide receiver play has been good, but not good enough to this point,” Gunner Romney said. “We have left a lot of points on the board.”

Romney said the offense is “right on the edge” of breaking out and just needs a breakout game to get rolling.

“It hasn’t really hurt us yet, because our defense has been phenomenal,” he said.

He’s right.

Clearly, through three games the defense — which was supposed to be the more inexperienced unit — has carried the Cougars. BYU is tied for 29th in scoring defense (16.77 ppg) and 87th in total defense (397.0 ypg).

Ilaisa Tuiaki’s bend-but-don’t-break defense is playing well, despite having been hit with more injuries than the offense. Cornerback Keenan Ellis went down in the opener and has yet to return, while leading tackler Keenan Pili left in the third quarter of the 27-17 win over No. 19 ASU last week and is out for the season with an ACL tear.

“Really love the energy and the passion they are playing with, buying into the culture that Kalani (Sitake) has,” Tuiaki said. “We are banged up right now. We got a lot of guys who are nicked up, but we’ve got a lot of guys who can step up and bring that same passion and energy to keep things moving.”