Who are these guys? No. 19 Cougars’ next two games should tell the tale, and it may not have happy ending
After three-straight uneven performances, 4-1 Cougars are still searching for an identity as they turn attention to next week’s showdown with Notre Dame in Las Vegas
Former BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall used to say that it wasn’t until five or six games into a season that he figured out the true identity of that year’s team.
After the No. 19 Cougars’ less-than-satisfying 38-26 win over Utah State on Thursday night, current BYU coach Kalani Sitake can certainly relate. Through five games this season, the Cougars (4-1) have yet to show us who they really are.
Are they the squad that jumped out to a 38-0 lead on South Florida and coasted to a 50-21 win, then knocked off No. 9 Baylor 26-20 in double overtime? Or are they the jittery, discombobulated outfit that got exposed 41-20 by Oregon at Autzen Stadium the following week?
“Yeah I am sure he is sore. But I think he will be fine. Luckily we have some extra days to rest. We will take advantage of that. We will get back together with everybody. But he is in good spirits and seems fine.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake on Jaren Hall’s condition after win over Utah State
The last two games — uncomfortable (in the first halves) and uneven wins over Wyoming and Utah State at LaVell Edwards Stadium — didn’t really show that much, other than the Cougars have problems playing disciplined football, still can’t run the football effectively for an entire game and have a penchant for slow starts on defense.
Then there’s that field goal kicking situation; feels like former Lou Groza Award finalist Jake Oldroyd’s inaccuracy issues — he’s made just one of his last six field goal attempts — are going to catch up to the Cougars sooner than later.
Perhaps that will be next week, when No. 19 BYU gets its long-awaited showdown with Notre Dame in Las Vegas. That matchup with the 2-2 Fighting Irish, who are idle this weekend after pounding North Carolina 45-32 last Saturday, should tell the tale as much as anything else on this 2022 BYU team.
If not, the Oct. 15 clash with No. 20 Arkansas, 3-1 after falling 23-21 to Texas A&M last week, at LES will certainly add more data points. The Razorbacks host No. 2 Alabama on Saturday and will play at Mississippi State the same day BYU and Notre Dame are facing off at Allegiant Stadium.
Are the Cougars contenders or pretenders? The jury convenes in Sin City in eight days. It’s safe to say that the 2-0 start, including a revenge win over the defending Big 12 champion Bears, probably pushed expectations too high.
“We have to play better football as a team,” Sitake said after BYU outgained a 1-4 USU team playing without its starting quarterback by just 5 yards, 397-392. “At the same time, we won the game, so I don’t want to sit here and say we made all these mistakes (and that was it). Utah State played really well. I thought they played a great game. They did some good things, especially after not having their quarterback. They adjusted really well. So give them a lot of credit.”
Sitake admitted he has a “low-hanging fruit problem,” which is to say the Cougars continue to be plagued by mental mistakes and discipline issues, things that he believes can be fixed easily and quickly.
“So if we can get that done I feel better about our team,” he said.
Some of those discipline errors included the defense jumping offsides three times, a couple of costly personal fouls that extended USU drives, and some false starts from an offensive line that was supposed to be one of the best in the Sitake era.
Linebacker Max Tooley, who got his second pick-six of the season Thursday, said the Cougars are improving, but “are nowhere near where we should be” for reasons he struggled to put a finger on.
“We have gone up and down,” Tooley acknowledged. “We had a couple hot games at the beginning. I think we are going to pick it up next week. I think things are finally going to start clicking. I think good things are going to happen.”
However, some of the issues could be talent-related, which aren’t easily fixable. Tackling and being in the right positions defensively are fundamentals, but they also involve a certain level of skill and athleticism. Heart and culture can only take a team so far in big-boy college football.
“Coach Kalani always talks about love and learning. So that’s our mantra, and that is what we lead by, and that is what we follow,” said receiver Kody Epps, who led BYU with five catches for 86 yards and a touchdown against the Aggies and has been a godsend this season as other receivers higher up the depth chart such as Puka Nacua, Gunner Romney and Chase Roberts have been sidelined with injuries.
“So every week we are trying to love better, we are trying to learn better, we are trying to progress in that aspect in life, and on the football field, of course,” Epps continued. “So our growth is going to be continuous.”
It just feels like it has been stunted the past few weeks, like the Cougars are playing down to their competition. Maybe being an underdog next week will help them rediscover their focus.
“There definitely is a different mentality when you are the underdog going into games,” Romney told “BYU Sports Nation” Friday, while also revealing that he spent eight days in the hospital after suffering a lacerated kidney during the second practice of fall camp.
Saturday night, Romney said after catching four passes for 51 yards that “maybe” the Cougars were guilty of overlooking the Aggies. That should not — cannot — be the case next week against the Irish.
“It can never happen if you want to be a consistent, great program,” Romney said. “You always have to come out more motivated than the other team and bring more energy than they do.”
Quarterback Jaren Hall stayed down briefly after taking a late, low hit from Byron Vaughns toward the end of the third quarter, and completed only one pass in the fourth quarter — to Isaac Rex on fourth down. He seemed to be favoring a shoulder or arm late in the game.
Asked about that after the game, Sitake didn’t seem too concerned.
“Yeah I am sure he is sore. But I think he will be fine. Luckily we have some extra days to rest. We will take advantage of that. We will get back together with everybody. But he is in good spirits and seems fine. He is just sore,” Sitake said. “… We have got to figure it out, and I feel really excited that we got the win. But there are definitely a lot of improvements to be made.”
Hopefully soon, before that becomes the identity of the 2022 BYU Cougars.