Looking for silver linings? Well, BYU does have healthy game changer back in action
Fighting through adversity, injuries and a reeling defense, the return of Puka Nacua to full strength gives BYU football a boost to be sure
BYU football might be reeling right now after two straight losses.
And the thing head coach Kalani Sitake needs as he ratchets this and tweaks that is a truckload of player confidence.
There’s a good starting point that’s emerged.
And heading into the back half of BYU’s schedule after a disappointing home loss to Arkansas, this is nirvana for the 4-3 Cougars.
Plug in Nacua and you get a lot of answers, even more if he plays safety on defense. Of course, he won’t, but he could.
So far this season, the 2022 campaign for Nacua has been nothing that anyone expected — fighting an ankle sprain, missing games and watching from the sidelines. Ever since his explosive touchdown run on a jet sweep to open the season and the game at South Florida, he’s been basically absent until Game 7, the Arkansas game.
What Nacua does is create a completely different dynamic for offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick as a play caller. Last Saturday, Nacua had 14 touches and scored three touchdowns. His 33-yard catch, a toe-drag along the sidelines, was a masterful reception, an example of what the offense can do with him on the field.
A tall, physical, explosive and dynamic athlete, Nacua’s effervescent personality is also a factor on the team. Last Saturday, after declaring himself as healthy as he’s been since transferring from Washington, Nacua caught eight passes for 141 yards.
Yes, the team’s leading receiver in 2021 is apparently back, and Roderick will need him to deliver big time on the upcoming trip to Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia.
“He is such a dynamic playmaker. It opens up our play-action game when you have to honor him on a jet sweep, have the ability to then hand it off to a running back or throw it downfield.” — BYU OC Aaron Roderick on Puka Nacua
“He changes everything,” Roderick said on BYUtv’s “Coordinators’ Corner” on Monday.
“That jet sweep play alone, the threat of giving him the ball on the jet sweep opens up the inside run so much more.
“He is such a dynamic playmaker. It opens up our play-action game when you have to honor him on a jet sweep, have the ability to then hand it off to a running back or throw it downfield. He is a great player.”
The Cougars will need Nacua’s best on this upcoming road trip to Virginia because Liberty is looking at this matchup on national TV as its Super Bowl. Hotels in town are sold out, tickets are all gone, head coach Hugh Freeze is cranking his team up to a fever pitch. BYU will get 6-1 Liberty’s best shot on Saturday.
Liberty ranks No. 1 in the nation in gaining turnovers with 18, seven fumbles and 11 interceptions. BYU ranks No. 12 in turnovers lost with five; three of those five in the loss to Arkansas. Liberty is No. 16 in the country in third-down conversion percentage defense, allowing just 30% conversions.
The Cougars are coming out of the toughest, most physically demanding part of the schedule, playing four Power Five teams and going 1-3. Liberty will demand an elevated effort. While Nacua is back, some of his teammates are not, and many are questionable.
“Just talked about it with the team,” said Sitake. “We’re banged up and everybody’s banged up. You have two choices, play through it or cower to it. We’ve just got to fight through this.”
Meanwhile, the travel back east for this road game requires BYU to leave a day earlier than normal. The Thursday departure gives the team all day Friday to reset body clocks to the Eastern time zone. It also cuts out one day of full practice routine with lifts and field work, although the Cougars will have some form of practice before getting on the charter on Thursday.
Sitake needs to inject confidence into his players, presenting a system they can feel comfortable with and ignite leadership to accentuate his message.
The Arkansas loss created a sore spot for the Cougars defense, which struggled to get off the field. Again.
This week Sitake must take his defense 180 degrees from the last two games, make it happen fast and sell it to everyone who owns a part. That’s no easy task. It must begin at Monday’s practice and reinvent itself in three practice days. Making changes is one thing, getting everyone on board with belief and confidence is another.
On Saturday, BYU defenders were shellshocked and embarrassed. It can’t be a bunker mentality come Thursday. It needs to be an operational success fired by the faith necessary to deliver action and execution.
#BYU LB Ben Bywater said to @DavidDJJames & @PKKinahan that there are "changes for the better" coming for the #BYUfootball program & clarified that he's short on specific details, but that head coach Kalani Sitake will be "more involved" with the Cougars on defense this week.— Jake Hatch (Yawk) - Slava Ukraini (@JacobCHatch) October 17, 2022
Offensively, with Nacua back and QB Jaren Hall looking more like his old self, the offense will need to take the lead Saturday, setting the tone by starting fast and scoring often.
“The key is to put points on the board,” said Sitake. “I’ve told (offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake) and the staff, ‘Find a way to get points on the board. I really don’t care how it comes, but don’t force something that’s not there.’
“I think if we execute at a high-level and put guys in the best position to make plays, then we score points. I like the fact we got (wide receiver) Puka Nacua the ball a lot more last week. We ran the ball with him, too. That’s creativity and innovation to find ways to get points on the board.”
Roderick said two BYU 75-yard drives in the third quarter that featured a smooth and effective run attack against an SEC defensive line was one of the more impressive things he came away with in the loss. “We cut their lead down to three points twice with those drives,” he said.
Perhaps BYU can’t find a quick fix defensively in a short week, but the offense absolutely can build on the Arkansas game now that Nacua is his old self.
“It all boils down to execution,” said Nacua.
Cougars on the air
BYU (4-3) at Liberty (6-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM