Arkansas flexed some SEC muscle in LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, ending a three-game losing streak by pylon-driving BYU’s defense in an impressive 52-35 win.

In a battle in which both offenses were going to move the ball, Arkansas faced little resistance, and BYU’s offense ended up in this knife fight wielding a stubby screwdriver as Razorback quarterback KJ Jefferson sliced and diced the Cougar defense.

Arkansas scored on eight consecutive offensive possessions to boat race past BYU, which led 21-17 with six minutes left in the second quarter.

Then the mountains tipped over on the Cougars.

This game extended BYU’s own losing streak to two games heading to a trip to Virginia to face 6-1 Liberty, a 21-20 winner over Gardner-Webb on Saturday. The Cougars dropped to 4-3 on the season and need two more victories to become bowl eligible.

“I’m very disappointed in the loss,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. “Scoring only 20 points last week and giving up 52 points this week is not going to win a lot of games. We lost the turnover battle and that hurt.”

The Cougars are 1-3 against four big-time foes on this year’s schedule, with a win over Baylor and losses to Oregon, Notre Dame and Arkansas. A 2-2 split would have been nice.  A 3-1 record would have been remarkable.

Arkansas, known for its elite rushing attack, turned to the air against BYU as Jefferson completed 29 of 40 passes for 367 yards and five touchdowns. Arkansas took advantage of BYU’s Keystone Kops-like third-down defense by converting 12 of 15 third downs this a week after Notre Dame converted 11 times in Las Vegas.

Arkansas amassed 644 total yards to BYU’s 471, had 367 through the air to BYU’s 356 and rushed for 277 to BYU’s 115.

The turning point in this game was the second quarter, a stretch of time that BYU has struggled to compete all season.

In that quarter with a four-point lead, BYU had two possessions that died. The first was on a 4th-and-1 fumble exchange between QB Jaren Hall and center Joe Tukuafu from the Cougars own 35. 

The other possession ended in an under-thrown pass to Puka Nacua that was intercepted.  This was all the daylight Arkansas needed to light up the Cougars, and the Razorbacks never failed to score again until the end of the game with a failed dive at the end zone as time expired.

BYU’s defense was atrocious in this game.

The missed tackling surfaced. Blown coverages were all over the field. This defense lost gap control and gave up the edge. In coverage, BYU’s secondary lost handoff coverage from corners to safety on a consistent basis. 

A failure by at least three BYU defenders to bring down Jefferson on a 3rd and 11 in the second quarter ended up in a 36-yard Arkansas completion to tight end Trey Knox.

Those three plays, two failures by BYU’s offense and a huge failure on third down by the defense, basically ended all BYU’s momentum and fired up Arkansas, which outscored BYU 24-8 in that second quarter — and then went on to score 45 straight points.

The most glaring shortcoming of BYU’s defense was allowing Jefferson to stand like a statue most of the game, survey the field and simply pick out an easy throw.

Jefferson had a picnic. He was comfortable as a straw man in a cornfield. He simply waited for BYU to leave someone uncovered, or a target to clear defenders.  He had enough time to check NIL deals, the Alabama game score and order a Cougar Tail.

This was an embarrassing outing for the defense — a complete failure.

BYU’s offense had the task of scoring and attacking one of the nation’s worst defensive secondaries, and while Hall found a reborn Puka Nacua (8 catches for 141 and 1 TD), and Kody Epps (9 catches for 125) and put up 35 points, it was not enough with the defense serving up nearly 700 yards and 52 points.

Hall’s 356 yards passing was his career best, but kind of wasted.

3 takeaways from BYU’s loss to Arkansas
Highlights, key plays and photos from BYU’s 52-35 loss to Arkansas

BYU’s defense has now given up 23 of 31 third-down conversions to Notre Dame and Arkansas. That is a whopping .741 percent conversion figure. It would be tough for any defense to claim success with that kind of yield on the most crucial down in the game.

“I’m really focused on third downs,” Sitake said. “That is the biggest issue for me.” 

Sitake said 12 third down conversions is unacceptable, and even allowing just half of that may have given the Cougars a chance.

“I have some ideas how to get it done. It is my responsibility to fix it,” he said.

Fortunately for this defense, it won’t face another Power 5 offense until the final game of the season at Stanford, with games against Liberty, East Carolina, Boise State and Utah Tech coming up.

But with BYU’s defense struggling, wins over those Group of 5/FCS programs is not a given.

The primary challenges that surfaced in wins over Utah State and Wyoming and the Notre Dame game were glaring Saturday against the Razorbacks: lack of fundamentals, failure to wrap up on tackles, missed assignments, two players stuck in the same gap and a struggle to get off blocks to make plays.

Sitake may need to be more assertive in the defensive meetings come Monday. A defensive coach, a guy who made his reputation working on defenses for a living that ultimately elevated him to a head coaching job — this should become his pet project to fix.

He can still work on the theme ”love and learn.” Yes, his team has faced some tough opponents, but having to face 155 plays on defense the past two weeks is a ton of exposure and a lot of failures have surfaced — most of the same kind. 

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Basically, his defense is failing. It’s in free fall.

“I have to make some decisions as a head coach,” Sitake told reporters after the loss.

Somebody needs to pull out a parachute for this defense.

Sitake’s got a key to the warehouse and he should go seeking a fix.

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