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BYU football: Is the struggling Cougars’ leaky defense fixable, or is the talent just not there?

Head coach Kalani Sitake faces intense pressure this week to shore up his defense after Arkansas rolled up 52 points and 644 yards on the Cougars

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KJ Jefferson Jr. (1), the quarterback for the Arkansas Razorbacks, throws the ball while playing the BYU Cougars in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

KJ Jefferson Jr. (1), the quarterback for the Arkansas Razorbacks, throws the ball while playing the BYU Cougars in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Puka Nacua had just scored his third touchdown to cut Arkansas’ lead to 38-35, and BYU had the Razorbacks in a third-and-10 situation after quarterback KJ Jefferson threw two incomplete passes.

The sellout crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium, which included about 1,000 Arkansas fans, was at full throat, so much so that Arkansas coach Sam Pittman needed a timeout to beat the play clock and quiet the crowd.

What happened next is emblematic of how the day turned out for the Cougars, who up to that point had matched the SEC team yard-for-yard — Arkansas with 418 and BYU with 416.

“They put up 52 points. That’s just not good enough defense. So Monday we will be looking at the film. It is going to be a tough few days with some honest conversations with ourselves and the coaches and everybody. We gotta step up. We didn’t do the job today.” — BYU linebacker Ben Bywater

Jefferson found Ketron Jackson deep over the middle for a 30-yard gain. After the Hogs went back 10 yards due to a holding penalty, they converted on a third-and-8 with an 8-yard pass to Matt Landers to keep the drive alive. Six plays later, Landers caught his third TD of the day on third-and-goal from the 5.

On the BYU sidelines, head coach Kalani Sitake hung his head in disgust.

“Even in (that) moment in the second half, when the crowd as into it, making a lot of noise, they had to take a timeout, it was third and long, but we just didn’t get off the field,” Sitake said.

After a three-and-out by BYU in which Isaac Rex caught a 3-yard dump-off pass from Jaren Hall on third-and-12, Arkansas needed just two plays to go 68 yards and put the game on ice.

In a 10-minute news conference after the game, Sitake said the lack of defensive execution on third down — Arkansas finished 12 of 15 — mostly falls on the coaches, “but there is some responsibility on the players, too.”

As was reported by the Deseret News Saturday, Sitake said he is not ruling any “options” for the defense moving forward, including the possibility of him taking over the defensive play-calling. He’s done that before in his seven-year tenure as the Cougars’ head coach, he said, in a somewhat surprising revelation.

Clearly, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, who came with Sitake from Oregon State’s staff, is facing the heat as the Cougars turn their attention to Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. MDT game against 6-1 Liberty at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia.

As he has said many times the past seven years and especially this season, Sitake said the issues are fixable. But are they?

What if the players just aren’t good enough? Star linebacker Payton Wilgar missed the second half with a lower leg injury, some backup defensive linemen didn’t play due to injury, and senior free safety Malik Moore was held out with a fractured hand.

But the Cougars were as close to full strength on defense as they have been in a while, and they not only missed tackles, they looked a step slow and took bad angles at other times. It appeared to this observer that Arkansas simply had better, bigger and faster players.

“They put up 52 points. That’s just not good enough defense,” said BYU linebacker Ben Bywater. “So Monday we will be looking at the film. It is going to be a tough few days with some honest conversations with ourselves and the coaches and everybody. We gotta step up. We didn’t do the job today.”

Quality teams with four- and five-star athletes, Notre Dame and Arkansas, are 23 of 31 on third down the past two weeks against the Cougars. That’s gotta be a record.

“There were times when we were playing pretty good defense. We just got to get off the field. I mean, we all saw it,” Bywater said. “Right before the half, we had a chance to sack (Jefferson), and they turned it into a (36-yard) play. So, for us, the schemes (are OK), say anything you want, but at the end of the day we gotta get off blocks, we gotta make tackles. I put the blame on myself, and the players. We gotta be better.”

Bywater, who was the only defensive player selected to speak to the media after the game, said “everyone was looking inward” at themselves in the postgame locker room.

“I know everybody on our (defense) left some plays out on the field, a lot of opportunities that were missed,” he said. “Fortunately, football is week to week, and we get to go out again next week at Liberty and prove ourselves.”

Sitake said the players gave “great effort,” but also noted they have to “execute better with (their) assignments and the fundamentals of the game.”

Can that be taught, or is it a matter of talent and physical attributes? A case could be made that in BYU’s three losses to Power Five foes, it has been overmatched on defense in the personnel department.

“I am the head coach. I gotta figure this out,” Sitake said. “When you have some of the stuff that we have, I feel good about what we can get done in between now and next week. I am going to go back and assess and review and then make decisions as the head coach.”

What kind of decisions? He didn’t elaborate. Whereas the offense could say that they would start hitting on all cylinders once they got back the injured receivers or a healthier Jaren Hall, there is no secret weapon in hiding for the defense. 

Neither Kyle Van Noy, nor Fred Warner, nor Sione Takitaki is walking through that door. Linebacker Max Tooley is a candidate, sure, but there is no surefire playmaker in sight, no certain NFL-bound player on this defense.

That’s a reflection of subpar recruiting, as much as anything else. The Cougars seem especially lacking on the defensive line.

“We didn’t do it today. There are lot of question marks on the defensive side of the ball. I made a lot of mistakes myself, so I am excited for another week, for us to get down to business and make more opportunities happen next week,” Bywater said.

Whether it will be with different players, or a different defensive play-caller, remains to be seen. 

Cougars on the air

BYU (4-3) at Liberty (6-1)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

Williams Stadium

Lynchburg, Virginia

TV: ESPN2 or ESPNU

Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM