After that woeful and uninspired performance in last week’s 52-35 loss to Arkansas, BYU’s defense has been scrutinized, criticized and, perhaps, reimagined this week as the Cougars prepare to face fellow independent Liberty on Saturday.
And rightfully so. It was arguably the worst defensive performance in head coach Kalani Sitake’s seven-year tenure.
Meanwhile, BYU’s offense has been healing up, getting healthier and searching for ways to do what it can to get the 4-3 Cougars back on the winning track.
“I thought (Jaren Hall) played great on Saturday. It is right up there with the best games he has played in his career. He played very well, and it showed that he practiced last week.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
Kickoff at 25,000-seat, sold-out Williams Stadium, the smallest venue the Cougars will play in this season, is set for 1:30 p.m. MDT and the rematch of BYU’s 31-24 win in 2019 will be televised by ESPNU.
As was expected when the season began, BYU’s offense is clearly the strength of the team.
“I was proud of how our offense played (against Arkansas),” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Tuesday. “I thought we played well and gave ourselves a chance to be in the game late in the game.”
Roderick said BYU’s back-to-back 75-yard touchdown drives in the third quarter “showed our character, I thought, on offense. And we made some great adjustments, too.”
After rushing for just 29 yards and throwing for 250 in the first half, the Cougars adjusted to Arkansas’ defensive changes at halftime and unleashed starter Chris Brooks and fifth-stringer Mason Fakahua and their rushing attack in those two drives.
“They changed their defense, so we started running it,” Roderick said. “Those were answer drives to cut the score to three twice. I was proud of our team and the way we competed.”
Missing starting receiver Gunner Romney and co-starting running backs Lopini Katoa and Miles Davis, the Cougars had a three-and-out on their first possession, then reeled off three straight touchdown drives, at times creatively using receiver Puka Nacua in the backfield.
Roderick said Katoa and Davis are both expected to play against Liberty, while not addressing Romney’s status. However, starting quarterback Jaren Hall, who took a hard hit against Arkansas — Sitake called it a “late hit” that wasn’t flagged — that temporarily dazed him is OK and has practiced all week.
“I thought (Hall) played great on Saturday,” Roderick said. “It is right up there with the best games he has played in his career. He played very well, and it showed that he practiced last week. The practice reps showed up in the game. He made some plays in that game that were directly related to the things we practiced, looks he had seen, and it showed in the game.”
Roderick said Arkansas was one of the best teams in the country at getting sacks, and BYU held the Hogs to none.
Which brings us to Liberty’s defense. The Flames are No. 2 in the nation in sacks per game (4.0) and tackles for loss per game (9.1). They are also No. 1 nationally in takeaways, with 18, albeit against a weaker schedule than the one BYU has faced.
“Yeah, very good defense,” Roderick said. “They are top 20 in just about every category that really matters, and top 10 in a lot of them. … They are great on third down. Their average on third-down distance is 9.13 yards, which tells me they are stopping people on first and second down, getting them to third-and-long, and then getting off the field. They represent a big challenge.”
Conversely, BYU is No. 12 in the nation in fewest giveaways, with three interceptions and two fumbles. Those two fumbles came on fourth down against Arkansas when the Cougars would have turned the ball over on downs anyway.
Still, Roderick said the Cougars’ offense has worked on two specific things this week: ball security and playing with better pad level.
He said the RBs can run with better pad level, and in discussing the returns of Davis and Katoa he noted that fourth-string RB Jackson McChesney sustained another injury and is out for the year.
Receiver Chase Roberts has been nursing a hip flexor injury and played against Arkansas but did not record a catch.
“You will see Chase take a bigger step forward this week with more practice reps and another week of conditioning,” Roderick said. “I expect him to play a big part in our offense the rest of the season.”
BYU’s offense through seven games has been slightly better than middle of the pack.
The Cougars are 53rd in the nation in scoring (32.4 ppg.), 55th in total offense (426.0) and 35th in passing offense (277.4).
“We are actually scoring almost a touchdown more per game than we were at this point last year,” Roderick said. “It has kinda got lost in the expectations. People had high hopes. There is still a lot of football left, and we are excited about this game, this week.
“Let’s go 1-0 this week and go get a win. That one win can make a lot of things feel better,” he continued.
Regarding the mental makeup of the offense, and the team in general, after the 17-point loss to the Razorbacks, receiver Kody Epps said last Saturday that the Cougars are still unified and hungry to improve.
“I see a bunch of dudes that are still Christlike, that are still ready to go to class on Monday, still ready to go to church tomorrow, still ready to be great human beings on and off the field, still dudes ready to play some football next Saturday,” he said. “Dudes ready to … keep grinding. That’s what I see completely.
“I don’t see anybody feathering off and focusing on other stuff, or picking each other apart. We are still ready to go. We are a group of guys that love the game and we want to approach life like Christ. So that’s my viewpoint.”
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