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No rest for 4-5 BYU now preparing for streaking Boise State

After losing by a FG to East Carolina Friday, the Cougars will work on ending the four-game losing streak in familiar territory in Boise

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake walks on the field during a timeout while playing East Carolina Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Provo.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake walks on the field during a timeout while playing East Carolina Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Provo, Utah. The Pirates won 27-24.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

You gotta hand it to BYU fans who bundled up for a cold Friday night game to support a team that has not won a game since the month of September.

The stadium was not full, but there were more bodies in the stands than could be mustered at any football venue in Utah you would see on a sunny fall day. That’s support.

But the energy was for naught.

What these die-hards witnessed was an opportunity by their team on a gut-check call simply to have victory slip out of reach when East Carolina kicker Andrew Conrad booted a 33-yard game-winning field goal on the last play of the game.

Kalani Sitake now has his work cut out for him. If he thought maneuvering through a four-game losing streak was tough, he now has the challenge of digging down deep with his Cougar team heading to Boise State after Friday’s 27-24 loss to East Carolina in LaVell Edwards Stadium.

The ability to post a winning record and attend a bowl game is at stake.

The Cougars are 4-5, with their last taste of victory a win over Wyoming. It seems so long ago but that is the last BYU postseason locker celebration. BYU will finish the season with road games at Boise State and Stanford, with a home game against Utah Tech sandwiched in between.   

Sitake was philosophical after the loss. A promising season and a lot of excitement after beating Baylor in Week 2 has been replaced with adversity, injuries, criticism, ineptitude and a breakdown of fundamentals.

“Now is a time when our culture comes in and we need to rely on it. I want to get back to where we are executing at a higher level in all three phases,” said Sitake. “I look forward to getting it done and I’m going to work on it as soon as I leave this press conference.”

BYU tried to play smash-mouth football with East Carolina on its home field, at altitude, with temperatures in the high 30s. It worked. Until it didn’t. And that cost BYU the game.

BYU’s offensive line was supposed to be the strength of the team coming into this season and it looked the part through three quarters of the ECU game, blasting holes for Lopini Katoa, Miles Davis and Jaren Hall. 

But on two fourth-and-short situations in the fourth quarter, one just 13 yards from pay dirt, Davis could not get a yard. Earlier, with the Cougars driving in the fourth quarter near midfield in what looked like an opportunity to take the lead, quarterback Jaren Hall was unable to gain a long two yards with a QB sneak.

BYU has only converted on 2 of 16 fourth downs since the Oregon game, yet tried it twice and failed both times Friday night.

The Cougars now travel to Boise to play a Broncos team that is on a roll with its run game.  BSU features two running backs George Holani (549 yards) and Ashton Jeaanty (363 yards), both of whom average five yards per carry. Holani averages 91 yards a game.

On Friday night, BYU’s beleaguered defense made enough stops late for BYU to win this game on huge tackles for losses by Tyler Batty, Keenan Pili and Pepe Tanuvasa to stop ECU drives. 

This, after yielding 227 yards rushing and 6.3 yards per rush. ECU star running back Keaton Mitchell had 176 of those yards and averaged 8.4 yards per carry. On ECU’s first scoring drive of the second half he averaged 12 yards per carry.

“We just have to keep believing. We have to shut out the outside noise and love each other. We are improving,” Pili said afterward to BYUtv. “Each person on the field has to do their job. We have the job, it’s not the scheme. We just need to patient and be disciplined. 

“I come in the team on Mondays and some of the guys heads are down but we have love for one another. As a captain, I feel there is a lot of responsibility on my shoulder to lead out and get things done. We need to work hard and have each other’s back.”

Without the services of Cal transfer Chris Brooks, Katoa had an impressive game against the Pirates with 116 yards rushing on 20 carries and one touchdown. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry.  

With linebacker Max Tooley, BYU’s best defender out with Payton Wilgar due to injuries, flash linebacker Chaz Ah You left the game early in his attempt to come back from a back injury that has kept him out most of the season.  

If one were to single out the biggest difference in the game, it was BYU’s inability to win a lot of one-on-one matchups outside of Puka Nacua, Hall and Katoa. 

It was frustrating to see BYU try and beat ECU on fourth down tries that did not involve Nacua and Katoa, or have Hall come off play action or a bootleg play onto the edge because when it really counted, the Cougar offensive line could not get the tough one or two yards when the play call was to pound the ball with superior size and weight.

It’s kind of been the story all season in the post-Tyler Allgeier era.

But Nacua shook the notion his number wasn’t called on the fourth-down plays.

“They did a good job locating me and it’s my job to draw their attention so somebody else can get open,” he said.

He did say he was disappointed he didn’t haul in some deep balls other than the TD he had, which was blown coverage. “I’m a playmaker and I need to do a better job catching those deep balls.”

Batty declared BYU’s defense played much better than it did against Liberty — that progress was made during the week. “We need to build on that.”

It might be a moral victory in the face of a loss, but BYU’s defense did hold 300-yard passer Holton Ahlers to 197 yards passing and no touchdown passes. But then you can counter that his running backs carried ECU’s offense in a game where the run was the horse it rode.

Boise State leads the Mountain West Mountain Division at 4-0 heading into a Saturday night game with Colorado State at home. The Broncos are 5-2 on the season and riding a three-game win streak — soon to be four. BSU’s losses are to Oregon State in Corvallis 34-17 and at UTEP on Sept. 23 27-10.

The Cougars will have a bye week for the first time this season after the trip to Boise.

They could use the rest.

East Carolina Pirates Keaton Mitchell runs the ball while avoiding BYU’s Micah Harper during a game on Oct. 28, 2022, in Provo.

East Carolina’s Keaton Mitchell looks for yardage while BYU’s Micah Harper gives chase Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Provo, Utah. The Pirates won 27-24.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News