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Analysis: BYU again shows it isn’t ready for Power Five football, gets embarrassed at home by Iowa State

Cougars’ brand as a solid, competitive football program is being damaged by blowout after blowout in the Big 12

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BYU Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) and defensive end Aisea Moa (58) embrace after the Cougars lost to the Iowa State Cyclones 45-13 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

BYU Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) and defensive end Aisea Moa (58) embrace after the Cougars lost to the Iowa State Cyclones 45-13 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The BYU football brand, painstakingly built by LaVell Edwards and nurtured with varying degrees of success by Gary Crowton, Bronco Mendenhall and Kalani Sitake, is taking a major hit in the Cougars’ first season in the Big 12.

Whether it can recover from the second massive blow to its reputation as a solid program at any level — remember 2017? — in seven seasons remains to be seen. Early reports are not favorable.

“Not a good outcome. … There are not a lot of things going right for us right now. We are definitely disappointed in the performance.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

Saturday night’s thoroughly humiliating 45-13 loss to Iowa State in front of 60,754 fans who deserve far more from this once-proud program is the latest indication that BYU simply is not ready to compete in a Power Five conference. The Cougars were beyond awful on defense, mistake-prone on special teams and soft as a pillow on offense, resulting in one of the most embarrassing home losses in program history.

“Not a good outcome,” said a somber, almost defeated-sounding Sitake, in the understatement of the night. “There are not a lot of things going right for us right now. We are definitely disappointed in the performance.”

It begs the question: What have these guys been doing the past two years? 

Having received an invitation to play with the big boys of college football in September of 2021, the program has seemingly moved backward, rather than ahead.

That 26-17 win over rival Utah a day after the announcement came feels like it was forever ago. Have the Cougars regressed that much?

From this observer’s view, Sitake’s squad lacks talent, depth and skill, which the visiting Cyclones and their 103rd-in-the-country offense were happy to exploit in 40 degree temperatures in Provo. Iowa State put up 443 yards.

On the other side, Iowa State’s stingy defense was as good as advertised, holding BYU backup QB Jake Retzlaff and the Cougars’ punchless offense to 318 total yards, including a woeful 4 in the second quarter when the game really got away from the Cougars.

“We gotta get back to work and get some things resolved and find some momentum, especially after coming off a three-game losing streak right now,” Sitake said.

The coach saved his biggest criticism for the defense, which has turned into a shell of its former self as the season has progressed, and the competition level heightened. Asked what has happened, Sitake said he will have more answers on Monday after viewing the film, “but my first response to that is probably guys not believing in the system and not believing in what we are doing.”

Later, when linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (eight tackles) was on the podium, he was asked if the defense had lost belief and he responded in the negative.

“At the end of the day I do believe the guys believe and I don’t believe that is an issue at all,” he said.

Things are just not connecting in Provo. That much is obvious.

Sitake revived BYU’s brand in 2018 after the disaster that was 2017, but the road ahead is far more difficult. Novembers are going to be 10 times harder.

Prospects for an immediate recovery don’t look good, with nationally ranked Oklahoma coming to town next week (10 a.m. MST kickoff) and a trip to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State two days after Thanksgiving.

Believe it or not, the forgettable 2023 season could get a lot uglier.

That BYU’s current roster has been overmatched has been apparent since the 44-11 shellacking at TCU a month ago. It was masked somewhat by the 27-14 win over Texas Tech, which was playing with a third-string quarterback who gift-wrapped BYU a couple touchdowns.

Since then, BYU has been outscored 117–26 and been exposed as easily the worst 5-5 team in America. Sure, bowl eligibility is a possibility, but even the most diehard BYU fans don’t believe that, do they?

Speaking of damaging the brand, BYU’s offense was so ineffective that coordinator Aaron Roderick was forced to dial up a gadget play — BYU calls them specials — at least three times before the middle of the third quarter, including on fourth-and-2.

Their only second-half touchdown came when Parker Kingston threw a 26-yard pass to Isaac Rex on one of those specials. It was the 23rd TD catch of Rex’s career — he said after the game this is his final season at BYU — giving him the school record for most TD grabs by a tight end.

“Totally sucks, and that is how every loss feels,” Rex said, when asked to describe the mood in the locker room. “It is especially bad losing this way at home, in front of our great fans.”

The final numbers weren’t as bad as the game was for the Cougars, if that is possible. Iowa State’s previous high point total was 34 against Oklahoma State, a total the Cyclones almost had by halftime. Iowa State was averaging 337.2 yards per game; The Cyclones finished with 234 on the ground and 209 through the air, and were 8 of 14 on third down.

The 2023 season will be remembered as the year the Cougars got off to awful starts, time and time again.

Saturday night was no different, as Retzlaff’s first pass in LES was picked off by ISU’s Will McLaughlin, setting the Cyclones up at the BYU 28.

It took the visitors just three plays to score, as Jaylin Noel took in a 4-yard TD pass from Rocco Becht.

The Cougars weren’t done playing giveaway, fumbling the ensuing kickoff. At least the BYU defense stiffened a bit this time, forcing the Cyclones to take a 31-yard field goal that gave them a quick 10-0 lead less than four minutes into the game.

“We gotta stop spotting teams all these early points,” Sitake said.

When Iowa State’s next kickoff was allowed to sail into the end zone for a touchback, the crowd gave a Bronx cheer.

A few minutes later, the cheers would be genuine as BYU marched 75 yards for a touchdown, Retzlaff throwing a 5-yarder to freshman JoJo Phillips for his first TD pass and the receiver’s first TD catch as a Cougar.

Retzlaff was 10 of 27 for 104 yards with two picks and a TD pass, for a passer rating of 66.8. He ran 17 times for 64 yards.

“He turned the ball over. I think he ran hard. I don’t know. I have to watch it. It wasn’t good enough to score points. You can’t win games scoring only 13 points, and you can’t win games giving up 45,” Sitake said. “And you can’t win games giving the ball up and turning it over that many times without getting turnovers yourselves.”

After a trade of punts, the Cyclones continued to run the football effectively, often beating BYU defenders to the edge for big gains. They went 72 yards for another first-quarter TD, as Eli Sanders tacked on a 4-yard TD run.

The Cougars’ next drive had some promise, but on third-and-9 Retzlaff was able to pick up only 2 when he probably should have pitched the ball to Robbins, and the Cougars had to punt. Replays showed that Retzlaff’s facemask was grabbed on the run, but nothing was called.

On the next play from scrimmage, Tyler Batty was flagged for a late hit — the call was legitimate — and Iowa State once again went on a long march to the end zone. Converting on a third-and-9 and a third-and-10, the Cyclones punched it in with 8:02 left to take a 24-7 lead.

The Cougars answered with a three-and-out; To add insult to injury, Noel fumbled Ryan Rehkow’s punt into the end zone, picked it up, found nobody within 10 yards of him, and returned it to the 35.

What happened next? You guessed it.

Iowa State went 66 yards in nine plays, getting very little resistance from a tired and shorthanded BYU defense, and scored with 1:28 left in the half to take a 31-7 lead into the break.

As he always does, Sitake credited the opponent for outplaying the Cougars, before he launched into everything that went wrong. It was a long list.

“They attacked us in all three phases,” Sitake said.

At halftime, when the game was essentially over, ISU had 235 yards and BYU had 97. The Cyclones were 6 off 8 on third down in the first 30 minutes, while BYU was 1 of 5.

The Cougars had just 6 passing yards in the first half, as Retzlaff was 2 of 7, with a TD and an interception for a passer rating of 54.3.

“It was bullcrap,” Sitake told the BYU Sports Radio Network as he left the field at halftime. “Not happy with what we are doing. Embarrassing football right now in all three phases.”

BYU was again shorthanded, but that should be no excuse for this kind of ineptitude.

Receiver Darius Lassiter was out on offense and defensive linemen John Nelson, Caden Haws and John Henry Daley were out on defense, which is so thin that OL Tyler Little has moved over to defensive line.

Kedon Slovis warmed up and did some light throwing, but Retzlaff went the whole way.

“Straight up, we gotta do a lot of things better,” Retzlaff said.

Because the BYU brand has taken enough hits for a dozen seasons, let alone one.