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Quest for redemption: Does BYU need a win over SEC’s Arkansas to jumpstart a wobbling season?

‘A great measuring stick for us’: Arkansas Razorbacks’ visit Saturday marks another Power Five test for inconsistent BYU before it heads off to Big 12

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BYU quarterback Jaren Hall warms up before taking on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at in Las Vegas, Oct. 8, 2022.

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall warms up before taking on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. A healthier Hall will face another challenging test Saturday when the SEC Arkansas Razorbacks visit Provo.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A case could be made that through the first half of their final season of college football independence, the BYU Cougars have had three significant tests, or measuring sticks, as it were, to test their readiness level for the Big 12 in 2023.

“I think in the past, people have wondered if we belonged on that same stage with these types of teams and this type of talent. I think we proved it right there (in the second half against Notre Dame). But that is not a good consolation prize. We know we can play better. That’s the goal — to play at our best this weekend.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

They passed the Baylor test, edging the Bears 26-20 in double overtime at home; they failed the Oregon test, getting smoked 41-20 by the Ducks in Eugene; and we will give them an incomplete grade for their performance against Notre Dame in Las Vegas last week, a 28-20 loss that was a tale of two halves, an awful one in the first 30 minutes and a much-needed bounce back in the second half.

In short, all will be forgiven for that subpar showing in Sin City when star quarterback Jaren Hall was clearly ailing — hence, the incomplete grade — if the Cougars can knock off a favored SEC opponent on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium with Hall much closer to full strength than he was at Allegiant Stadium.

Wobbling BYU (4-2) hosts 3-3 Arkansas at 1:30 p.m. on ESPN in the first-ever matchup between the Cougars and Razorbacks. The Hogs have dropped three straight, but don’t be fooled, as those setbacks were to three ranked teams — Texas A&M, Alabama and Mississippi State — and they were without star QB KJ Jefferson in the loss in Starkville.

Jefferson, a 6-foot-3, 242-pound wrecking ball, is the engineer behind a ferocious Arkansas running attack, but the dual-threat QB can spin the football as well. Having completed 66% of his passes for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns with one interception, Jefferson is expected to play Saturday, as is Hall, who had a sore shoulder against the Irish.

“I think it is a great measuring stick for us,” said BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.

It is the type of game that could seemingly send the Cougars’ middling season one direction or another. Win this one, and a third-straight 10-win season is still in play; lose, and suddenly only one remaining game on the schedule is a gimme — Nov. 19 against FCS Utah Tech — and bowl eligibility isn’t a given.

Neither team will be at full strength, which is to be expected at this juncture of the season; Arkansas has a much-needed bye next week, while the Cougars have to travel to the East Coast to face 5-1 Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Arkansas’ injury issues are in the secondary; its defensive backfield is such a mess that two freshman wide receivers have been moved there to bolster depth. 

BYU’s defense will be without lineman Josh Larsen and backup linebacker Tavita Gagnier, who are lost for the season. Defensive lineman Blake Mangelson, cornerback Jakob Robinson and starting free safety Malik Moore are doubtful.

Offensively for the Cougars, question marks surround not only the health of Hall, but that of receivers Gunner Romney and Chase Roberts and running back Miles Davis.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said he’s hopeful that Romney, Roberts and Davis can play, but didn’t sound convincing.

So the scene is set on what should be a picture-perfect autumn afternoon under the Wasatch Mountains: A mid-level SEC team that was 3-0 and ranked No. 10 in the country three weeks ago against the Big 12-bound Cougars, who have shown flashes of belonging but also moments of utter ineptitude, such as last week in Vegas when they struggled to contain the Irish’s best player (tight end Michael Mayer) and at times in the first half couldn’t even get the right number of players on the field.

Which Cougars team will show up in front of a sellout crowd Saturday?

“I think in the past, people have wondered if we belonged on that same stage with these types of teams and this type of talent,” head coach Kalani Sitake said Monday. “I think we proved it right there (in the second half against Notre Dame). But that is not a good consolation prize. We know we can play better. That’s the goal — to play at our best this weekend.”

For the Cougars, there’s no time like the present to play their best — and they know it.

BYU players and coaches have marveled all week about the talent, size, athleticism and speed that Arkansas possesses.

“When you watch the film, they capture our attention right away,” Sitake said. “We know it is the same type of athleticism, speed and great talent (that Notre Dame had). So we have to be on top of this.”

Although Arkansas still has its sights set on making some noise in the SEC, and the two-loss Cougars are out of the running for a New Year’s Six bowl game, there’s still a lot at stake.

“I think this week if we could bounce back with a win against Arkansas, it would change the momentum of the season,” said BYU safety Micah Harper. “… I think it is a great opportunity.”

Said Arkansas native Caden Haws, BYU’s starting nose tackle: “I think everybody’s really excited to get another chance to show what we can do as a team this week, especially against a great team like Arkansas. I just think it gives us something to build off of and maybe puts a little bit of a chip on our shoulder going forward.”

Assuming Hall is back to his former self, BYU should be able to move the ball on Arkansas’ depleted secondary and score some points. The key will be giving Hall plenty of opportunities, which won’t happen if BYU’s defense can’t get off the field against a team averaging 233.8 rushing yards a game, 11th-best in the country.

“Arkansas is good. They have a great quarterback, a strong backfield, multiple running backs that are dangerous. For us, we are all hands on deck on D, just (focused on) stopping the run and getting down to business,” said BYU linebacker Ben Bywater. “I am excited. It is going to be a challenge for us, but I think our guys are up for it.”

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said Monday that the Razorbacks will try to rattle Hall, bring constant pressure and not let him get comfortable in the pocket.

“Yeah, their head coach made that statement, but that is kinda what they do to everybody,” Roderick said. “They are dropping out of the sky in parachutes and stuff. This is like a 3-3-5 scheme. It reminds me of playing against Rocky Long, or coach (Bronco) Mendenhall in the old days. You name a coverage or a blitz, they have it.”

Look for the Cougars to push the pace on offense, go up-tempo in an effort to tire the Arkansas defense at altitude. BYU receiver Puka Nacua said Arkansas’ secondary features a “lot of scrappy guys” who play hard but don’t talk a lot.

“Not really too in your face, growling, howling like dogs,” he said. “But they are sporadic, they move around a lot, fly around. Every single one of their football players is going 53 yards every single play, sideline to sideline. It is going to be a fun one.

“They are a good football team, but we are a good football team, too, especially in LaVell,” Nacua concluded.


Cougars on the air

Arkansas (3-3)

at No. 16 BYU (4-2)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

LaVell Edwards Stadium

Provo, Utah

TV: ESPN

Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM