No. 25 BYU looks to shore up kickoff coverage, long pass defense as they turn attention to No. 10 Baylor’s visit
BYU coaches are reevaluating their kickoff strategy after USF returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Cougars’ 50-21 win over the Bulls Saturday in Tampa, Fla.
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake didn’t have much to nitpick about — at least on offense and defense — after the No. 25 and rising Cougars thumped South Florida 51-20 Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.
The defense gave up a 50-yard pass on third-and-6 in the second quarter that led to a Bulls TD and the offense turned the ball over once — which is once too many, in Sitake’s eyes. So there was that — just enough to catch the coaches’ attention.
The kickoff coverage team’s performance? That’s a whole different story.
“We thought we could hang (kickoffs). For the first part (of the game) we were doing pretty good, getting the ball inside the 25, and …. I will take the loss on that one. I will take the blame on that.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake.
Suffice it to say the topic will be broached Monday when the Cougars get back together to watch film of the otherwise impressive, but rare, win in Florida before turning their attention to No. 10 Baylor’s visit Saturday.
For those who didn’t bother to watch the second half after the Cougars took a 38-7 lead at the break, South Florida’s Jimmy Horn Jr. took the opening kickoff of the second half 89 yards for a touchdown.
Then, after Chris Brooks’ 52-yard touchdown run gave the Cougars a 47-14 lead, Jake Oldroyd’s kickoff was fielded by Brian Battie at the 4 and the sophomore from Sarasota, Fla., returned the kick 38 yards. A late hit by BYU’s George Udo added 15 yards, and the Bulls scored seven plays later, overcoming a holding penalty.
“They had a great return team and we tried to test it probably way too many times, and I think they were No. 1 in the country last year and are probably No. 1 right now after what we gave up,” Sitake said. “That is on the coaches. We gotta figure out a way to improve our kickoff team.”
South Florida now ranks No. 12 in kickoff return average (29.88 yards), while the Cougars are 119th. Of course, all that BYU scoring meant the Bulls got plenty of opportunities — eight in all.
Not kicking the ball into the end zone is actually a strategy that Sitake and BYU special teams coach Ed Lamb have employed many times the past few years, utilizing Oldroyd’s ability to kick high, directional kickoffs. Sitake said they might have to rethink that strategy.
“Yeah, we will give it a shot,” he said when a reporter asked him why they don’t kick the ball into the end zone, as South Florida did three out of four times.
“We thought we could hang (kickoffs),” Sitake said, noting that Oldroyd was only doing what was asked of him. “For the first part we were doing pretty good, getting the ball inside the 25, and …. I will take the loss on that one. I will take the blame on that.”
Sitake said he might have let his ego get the best of him, and also explained that he wanted to enforce the notion to the kickoff coverage team that he believes in them.
“Maybe that is an error on my side,” he said. “… I can learn from that, too. I just want the guys to know that I believe in them, and with the game, the way it was (it was worth the teaching moment). … I will get better.”
Oldroyd seemed to lack the usual pop in his leg, while kicking at sea level. Neither of his successful field goals of 37 and 39 yards were hammered through the uprights.
Will star receivers be ready for Baylor showdown?
Another big topic in the postgame interviews was the status of star receivers Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua. Romney, who is battling an undisclosed injury sustained early in fall camp, didn’t make the trip to Tampa. Nacua suffered an ankle sprain on the third play of BYU’s third possession and spent the rest of the game in a walking boot on the sidelines.
He asked backup quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters to piggyback him to the locker room at halftime, and was on crutches leaving the field when the game was over.
Will they play against Baylor?
Sitake said Nacua was held out for “precautionary” reasons and “could have kept going.” There is no bone damage, x-rays showed.
“We made the decision to hold him out and get him in a boot and try to get him recovering quickly for next week,” Sitake said. “He is sore. He asked one of our players to piggyback him (to the locker room). I think he would have done that even if he wasn’t sore (as a joke).”
As for Romney, Sitake said not having him Saturday “was rough,” but backups such as Brayden Cosper, Kody Epps and Chase Roberts filled in well. When Nacua went down after a pair of touchdown runs, Keanu Hill was WR1 and caught a 21-yard touchdown pass.
“If you ask me, I would say (Romney) was really close (to playing),” Sitake said. “But that’s not my speciality, medicine. So we will see what happens when we get it evaluated tomorrow, and then we will have more for you.”
Here come the Bears
The Cougars have had Sept. 10 circled on their calendars since that 38-24 thrashing at the hands of Baylor last October in Waco. Not because they want revenge — that’s really not BYU’s style. It is more of a measuring stick for the Cougars, especially in the trenches, where Baylor dominated last year.
The No. 10 Bears routed FCS Albany 69-10 Saturday in Waco, as expected. Blake Shapen, who beat out Gerry Bohanon for the starting job last spring, prompting Bohanon to transfer to South Florida, completed 17 of 20 passes for 214 yards.
The defending Big 12 champions are on a six-game winning streak.
BYU opened as a slight favorite, around a field goal, in the 8:15 p.m. kickoff at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The game will be televised by ESPN.
“We were able to grind the clock (in the second half) and end the game against South Florida,” Sitake said. “We are looking forward to getting on the film and looking for ways to improve for our home opener next week.”
Particularly on kickoff coverage.