Midterm exams: Sizing up 4-2 BYU halfway through its last season of independence
Has Big 12-bound BYU lived up to expectations with the 2022 season at its midpoint? The Deseret News weighs in, and hands out a few midterm grades
BYU’s 2022 football season, its final season as a college football independent before jumping into the Big 12, began with a lot of promise. The Cougars picked up a rare win in Florida over a South Florida team that has almost pulled off a couple of upsets since that 50-21 pummeling, and edged defending Big 12 champ Baylor in 26-20 in double overtime at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Since then, however, it has been a bit of a slog for the Cougars, who sit at 4-2 midway through coach Kalani Sitake’s seventh season. If BYU were to get a midterm grade in terms of how it is meeting expectations in 2022, it would be in the C-plus or B-minus range.
“There is obviously something wrong here. I am not going to air it all out here. But there is a percentage, there is a pie chart, that goes through all the blame, and I have a big portion of that. So we have got to figure it out.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
Losses to favored Oregon and Notre Dame, sandwiched around uninspiring home wins over Wyoming and Utah State, have left the Cougars out of the national polls after they climbed to No. 12 in The Associated Press Top 25 a couple days after downing Baylor.
For some perspective, at this juncture last year, after the Cougars dropped to 5-1 with a 26-17 home loss to Boise State, the Deseret News suggested something in the A-minus area was appropriate. Of course, that team had defeated Power Five clubs Arizona, Utah and Arizona State in addition to eventual Mountain West champ Utah State and South Florida by the time mid-October rolled around.
This team has only one impressive win under its belt.
“There is obviously something wrong here,” Sitake acknowledged in his weekly Monday press briefing when asked about the slow starts that have plagued the Cougars in every game but the first. “I am not going to air it all out here. But there is a percentage, there is a pie chart, that goes through all the blame, and I have a big portion of that. So we have got to figure it out.”
The Cougars embark on the second half of the season Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) when they host also-unranked Arkansas (3-3) of the Southeastern Conference at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Expectations were also high for the Razorbacks in 2022, before injuries and a wicked hard schedule derailed a 3-0 start.
But they should have dynamite starting quarterback KJ Jefferson back this week, and the 6-foot-3, 242-pound redshirt junior is a difference-maker if ever there was one.
“Arkansas is really good,” Sitake said.
Coming off that 28-20 loss to Notre Dame, the Cougars have shown they are also good — at times — but can’t seem to put together a complete game. They’ve been outscored 59-34 in second quarters.
To be fair, injuries have taken their toll, as is almost always the case with BYU, for some reason. But other teams deal with injuries as well. Just ask incoming Arkansas about that. And after injuries wrecked BYU at the end of last season, it appears that at the midpoint Sitake’s plan to develop more depth in the offseason appears to be working.
On offense, backup receivers Kody Epps, Keanu Hill, Chase Roberts and Brayden Cosper have contributed mightily, especially Epps, when returning starters Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua haven’t been able to answer the bell.
On defense, a plethora of defensive linemen and backup safeties Micah Harper and Talan Alfrey have filled in when starters such as Malik Moore, Tyler Batty and Earl Tuioti-Mariner have been out.
Sitake acknowledged Monday that there have been issues getting the right players, and the right number of players, on the field at crucial times. For instance, three times in the first half alone against Notre Dame the Cougars didn’t have 11 guys on the field.
“Yeah, the accountability is on the players and the coaches to be at the right place at the right time,” Sitake said. “And I don’t like to blame the players, so it is the coaches’ job to make sure that they are in the right place at the right time. That’s what it comes down to. And if they are not in the right place at the right time, then find a new player to do it.”
Asked for a progress report through six games, and where his team has improved the most, Sitake pointed to the team culture — “there definitely is a strong connection with this group” — and camaraderie and positive attitude.
“So I don’t think I am sitting here happy at the record we are at now,” he said. “But it has nothing to do really with the results. (It has) more to do with I like to see our guys playing the best we can every week. That’s what I want to see, and that’s (not happening).
“After every game, win or lose, (people) are going to hear me complain about things, because that’s is the way I am made. I want to look for things to improve on.”
The losses and unsatisfying wins have dropped BYU’s ranking in ESPN’s College Football Power Index to 46th halfway through the season. Arkansas is at No. 50.
The Cougars are No. 42 in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. Their schedule currently ranks at the 18th most difficult in the land, but that will drop after next week.
“I think right now, for where we are at, I would like to see us keep improving, keep getting better.” Sitake said. “… That is the expectation I have for our coaches and our program.”
What do the players think?
The aforementioned Harper said nobody is happy with the 4-2 start.
“I think our team is very disappointed at the moment, because we expect to go undefeated, and nothing less,” Harper said. “But there is still a lot of season left to go. I think this week if we could bounce back with a win against Arkansas, it would change the momentum of the season.”
Defensive lineman Caden Haws, who is from Arkansas, said the second half against Notre Dame, when the Cougars outscored the Irish 14-10, “gives us something to build off of and maybe puts a little bit of a chip on our shoulder going forward.”
And offensive lineman Harris LaChance said the offensive line has worked hard to improve the run game, which has been missing in the first halves of the last four games.
“We have played some pretty talented teams up front, but overall I think we have been moving in the upward direction with our run game,” LaChance said.
Here’s the Deseret News’ annual midseason report card for the Cougars in all three phases, and how they have performed in 2022 so far:
Offense — C-plus
Again, it is very much a tale of two halves when it comes to the Cougars’ offensive production. In the last four games, they have gained 573 combined yards in the first halves, then 995 yards in the second halves. Obviously, that’s unsustainable, and direct product of the slow starts on both sides of the ball. For instance, against Utah State the Cougars ran only 20 plays in the first half because the defense couldn’t get off the field. BYU simply isn’t playing complementary football, after that was a strength last year.
Quarterback Jaren Hall deserves an A-minus or B-plus for how he’s played, while the offense as a whole hasn’t been as consistent — particularly the offensive line.
Since the Baylor game, BYU has rushed for only 110 yards in first halves against Oregon, Wyoming, USU and ND; in the second halves, the Cougars have rushed for 416 yards. It should also be noted that redshirt sophomore Miles Davis has been a pleasant surprise; his absence in the Notre Dame game due to a lower leg injury was significant for the Cougars, although Cal transfer Chris Brooks has responded well to Davis’ emergence with back-to-back solid games.
And credit the offense for taking care of the football — BYU has committed only two turnovers through six games, both interceptions from Hall’s hands. That’s outstanding ball security.
At the midpoint, the Cougars are 52nd in scoring offense (32.0 ppg.) nationally, after being 79th last year after the Boise State loss. They are 59th in total offense (417.8 ypg.), after being 65th through six games in 2021.
They are a mediocre 54th in third-down conversion percentage, converting at a 42.1% clip.
Defense — B-minus
Like BYU’s offense, BYU’s defense has started slowly in most games, most notably the Utah State game when the Aggies drove the length of the field on their opening possession with a backup quarterback, Cooper Legas.
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In a lot of ways, the Notre Dame loss was a microcosm of the defense’s first half of the season. The Irish moved the ball almost at will in the first half, with tight end Michael Mayer unstoppable, but the Cougars’ defense figured it out in the second half and gave up only 10 points after the break.
Stopping the Irish twice inside the 10 was a huge confidence-builder, Haws said.
“Yeah, that’s a huge positive, getting off the field in the red zone,” Haws said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we do it a little bit earlier, to try to stay out of the red zone on defense.”
In the last four games, the defense has allowed 918 yards in first halves, 687 in second halves. Teams have outscored the Cougars by 25 points in those four first halves.
“Losing to Notre Dame, that was a big loss for our team,” Harper said. “Right now, we are just more motivated than ever. Arkansas is a great opponent. They have a great quarterback. They have great receivers from the transfer portal who are balling this year. I think this week is going to be a good test to bounce back at LaVell Edwards.”
The Cougars are 73rd in scoring defense (26.6 ppg.) after being 33rd at this juncture last year. They are 58th in total defense (364.5 ypg.) after being 62nd last year in the middle of October.
A glaring problem has been third-down conversion defense, a product of losing on first down more often that not. BYU is 92nd in third-down conversion defense, allowing opponents to convert at a 41.9% rate.
BYU’s defense against the run is again suspect, as it is 100th in the country in that category. The Cougars are good against the pass, though, ranking 25th in the country and allowing just 190.0 yards per game through the air.
Special teams — C
Special teams haven’t cost the Cougars a game in several years, perhaps since 2019, but they haven’t exactly been difference-makers, either, in 2022.
First, the positive: BYU has outperformed opponents in the kickoff and punt return games, on both sides. Punt and kickoff returner Hobbs Nyberg has been solid, and was almost spectacular against the Irish when he had a 42-yard punt return to set up BYU’s first touchdown.
Punter Ryan Rehkow was slowed by injury and got off to a slow start, but has been his usual outstanding self the last few games. He is averaging 43.2 yards on 19 punts.
Second, the negative: You know what it is. Jake Oldroyd is just 5 of 10 on field goal attempts, and has missed five of his last six. His chip-shot misses at the end of regulation and the first overtime almost cost the Cougars against Baylor. Jaren Hall and the defense bailed him out.
Justen Smith is 1 of 1 on FG attempts, having made one against Wyoming, but he missed a PAT against Notre Dame (thanks in part to being backed up by a delay of game penalty).
“Through competition (in practice) we will figure it out,” Sitake said.
Cougars on the air
at No. 16 BYU (4-2)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM