Six weeks after BYU’s crowd stormed the field to celebrate a hard-fought win over Baylor, and three weeks after the Cougars reached their fourth win by defeating Utah State, bowl eligibility is suddenly the only realistic goal left for coach Kalani Sitake’s shaken team.

The Cougars, who dropped to 4-4 with Saturday’s disheartening 41-14 loss at Liberty (which also featured a crowd-storming), need to win two of their final four regular-season games to become eligible for a bowl. But that is far from an easy task for a team that has lost three straight games and has looked progressively worse in each of them.

Reeling BYU plays host to 5-3 East Carolina, which has won two straight games and three of its last four and is coming off a 34-13 thrashing of Big 12-bound UCF, on Friday at 6 p.m. MDT at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“I look forward to seeing who wants to come out of this mess. It is an easy filter for me, (to) see who wants to join the fight and who wants to not be a part of it. We will get through it.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

After hosting the hot Pirates, BYU plays at 5-2 Boise State, hosts FCS Utah Tech (1-6) and then plays at 3-4 Stanford, which defeated Notre Dame and Arizona State in its last two games.

The Cougars opened as a 3-point favorite over ECU, perhaps the last time this season BYU will be favored against a fellow FBS opponent. In other words, a case could be made that BYU’s bowl eligibility is on the line Friday in Provo.

However, bowl eligibility right now is the least of head coach Kalani Sitake’s immediate concerns. The Cougars are in a tailspin, a free-fall they haven’t experienced since the 2019 season when they dropped three straight games to Washington, Toledo and South Florida.

The reasons for the backslide are many and various, and have been thoroughly discussed here and elsewhere for nearly a month. Remember that 26-20 win over Baylor in double-overtime when the Cougars missed two field goals and kicking woes appeared to be BYU’s biggest problem? 

Sitake would trade what he has on his hands now for that in a heartbeat.

“I look forward to seeing who wants to come out of this mess,” he said Saturday in Lynchburg, Virginia, after confirming that he is calling the defensive plays now and saying he will hold everyone accountable to improve, and ask players to hold each other accountable.

“It is an easy filter for me, (to) see who wants to join the fight and who wants to not be a part of it. We will get through it,” he said, defiantly.

With BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe viewing Sitake’s postgame news conference outside the Cougars’ somber locker room, Sitake acknowledged “a lot needs fixing.” A leaky defense was added to the list of problems weeks ago, and on Saturday afternoon the offense joined in after the Cougars were shut out in the second half and mustered just 258 yards — on just 50 plays — against the Flames.

Where does he go from here?

“I have been through stuff before, so I want to lean (into) the difficulties and I know that people have concerns and everything,” he said. “But I know one thing I can do is fight. I am all about fighting through stuff. So back me in a corner and find out. That’s where we are at right now. So things are going to get really tough in our program. That’s how it is going to have to be. I look forward to seeing the team that will emerge from all of this.”

Quarterback Jaren Hall, who struggled in the second half to hit open receivers, often throwing passes high or late, said receiver Puka Nacua gave an impassioned speech in the locker room after the loss and urged his teammates to look within themselves for answers.

“We have been in this situation for a couple of weeks,” Hall said. “Things have not gotten better, so it is a matter of staying together. We can’t fall apart now. This is the time we need each other the most.”

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Sitake said he liked what he saw in the locker room a lot better than what he saw on the field.

“Players speaking up and leading and calling each other out and holding each other accountable … is going to be really good (for us),” Sitake said. “We need that moving forward from here on out. We need our players to step up and take ownership of everything and for coaches to do it, too.”

Sitake acknowledged that receiver Kody Epps got banged up again and wasn’t able to finish the game. 

“Towards the end, we had to make some decisions. We put in our backups the last couple drives,” Sitake said. “We wanted to keep guys ready for next week.”

Because next week might decide if the Cougars go bowling or not.

Cougars on the air

East Carolina (5-3) at BYU (4-4)

Friday, 6 p.m. MDT

LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo

TV: ESPN2

Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM