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BYU football: October could be frightful for now No. 13 Cougars if they don’t get their defensive problems figured out

Having struggled in the second half of Saturday’s 35-27 win over South Florida, No. 13 BYU turns its attention to Friday’s rivalry game against 3-1 Utah State

BYU coach Kalani Sitake, walks off the field after a timeout as BYU and USF play in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake, walks off the field after a timeout as BYU and USF play a college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. BYU won 35-27.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Fourth games of the season are turning out to be quite frightful for the BYU football team.

However, coach Kalani Sitake hopes that in the long run, Saturday’s 35-27 win over plucky South Florida at LaVell Edwards Stadium in which the Cougars were 23-point favorites is as fortuitous as last year, when BYU moved to 4-0 with a 27-20 win over a UTSA team they were favored to beat by more than 30 points.

Of course, the Cougars rebounded nicely in 2020 when folks were beginning to wonder if they were as good as advertised, or as strong as their lofty ranking suggested, moving from that one-score victory over the Roadrunners to blast Houston 43-26 on a Friday night deep in the heart of Texas.

This year, BYU will take its 4-0 record — it is the first time in program history the Cougars have started 4-0 in consecutive seasons — on the road again for another Friday night showdown. Utah State (3-1) hosts BYU, which jumped two spots in the Associated Press Top 25 poll to No. 13 despite the lackluster showing against the Bulls, on Friday at Maverik Stadium (7 p.m., CBSSN) in Logan.

Are they licking their chops in Logan?

Probably not, considering the Ags lost 27-3 to Boise State at home Saturday morning. But watching USF true freshman quarterback Timmy McClain slice and dice the Cougars’ soft and porous defense in the second half has to give Utah State hope that it can reclaim the Old Wagon Wheel, the cool trophy that goes to the winner of the instate rivalry game.

BYU opened as a nine-point favorite over USU, which it dumped 42-14 in 2019; The longtime foes didn’t play last year, due to COVID. Like BYU, the Aggies have two capable starters at quarterback, Arkansas State transfer Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley.

“We couldn’t contain him,” Sitake said of McClain, who ran for 55 yards and threw for 186. “So we have to do a better job at that, because we are going against two really athletic quarterbacks this next week. ... Utah State has a couple of them.”

The win in which BYU took a 28-6 halftime lead and then held on for dear life in the final minutes of the fourth quarter was the 250th win for the Cougars at LaVell Edwards Stadium since it was built in 1964, and the Cougars’ 13th-straight home win.

But Sitake found himself telling his guys it was “OK to celebrate,” telling reporters he saw a lot of “long faces” in the locker room, especially from the defensive players.

Even the coach was a little more subdued than he usually is after a victory.

“Things can be fixed, but I am a little bit impatient because I want to be better right now,” he said.

Every coach also wants his team to be healthier heading into October, but for Sitake that is a huge concern because the Cougars were seemingly losing players on every series on defense Saturday night against the Bulls, who dominated time of possession.

“There are a bunch of guys who are banged up, but nobody gone for the year, that we know of right now,” Sitake said. “Guys are not 100%, but I think they will be OK. There may be some questionable guys for this game next Friday.”

Starting quarterback Jaren Hall didn’t play, although Sitake said he wanted to and will probably be cleared to play against USU. Defensively, the Cougars were without starters Tyler Batty, Atunaisa Mahe and Isaiah Herron.

“It felt like they could have (played), but we are not going to play guys if they couldn’t practice,” he said. “Yeah, that would have been helpful to have those two guys on the D line.”

During the game, right tackle Harris LaChance, tight end Masen Wake and kick returner Caleb Christensen were among those that hobbled off and didn’t return.

Other defenders, such as Gabe Summers, Caden Haws and Uriah Leiataua, also left the game early.

“It was a good opportunity for some new guys to learn and other guys to get more reps, but we almost gave it away,” Sitake said.

Replacing middle linebacker Keenan Pili, the team’s leading tackler who sustained a season-ending ACL tear in the 27-17 win over Arizona State, was more difficult than most expected. South Florida ran for 181 yards and was 10 for 20 in combined third/fourth down situations.

BYU moved safety Chaz Ah You into the box at linebacker on some plays, and had starters Payton Wilgar and Max Tooley rotate with first-year starter Ben Bywater.

“Hard to replace Keenan, and all the experience he has there,” Sitake said. “I really feel like some of the issues we had stemmed from just not getting them out of drives and allowing McClain to just extend plays.”

Replacing Hall proved to be easier.

Backup QB Baylor Romney threw for a career-high 305 yards, becoming the 31st QB in BYU history to throw for more than 300 yards in a game. He’s 3-0 as a starter.

He was asked if he showed enough to merit consideration to start against the Aggies, even if Hall is healthy.

“I mean, that’s a coach’s decision, and I don’t think anyone should ever lose a job due to injury,” Romney said. “But again, that’s in the coaches’ hands.”

Really, that’s the least of BYU’s worries. On the other side of the ball, they have “a lot of figuring out to do,” Sitake said