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Cougars say they still believe in coaches after another embarrassing loss to a mid-level Big 12 team

BYU’s skid will probably get worse this week as No. 14 Oklahoma rolls into Provo for a 10 a.m. kickoff

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BYU Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake and Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell talk after the Cyclines beat the Cougars 45-13 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Three mid-level Big 12 teams with a combined record of 16-14 have embarrassed the BYU Cougars in the last month, the latest being the 6-4 Iowa State Cyclones, a team that was rocked by a sports betting scandal before the season began and lost 10-7 to Ohio in Week 3.

Iowa State’s 45-13 pummeling of BYU was more humiliating for the 5-5 Cougars than the 44-11 loss at now 4-6 TCU and the 37-7 loss at now 6-4 West Virginia because it came at home in front of 60,754 fans, a despondent Isaac Rex said after the latest beatdown.

“Yeah, it is tough, but this team is tougher. We did it at Arkansas, and we came out with a win. And so I don’t think there (was) any lack of belief on our sidelines that we (could) do that again today. Obviously we didn’t. But we had that belief on the sideline.” — BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff

“It sucks worse at home because we have a lot of great fans that care about us and came out to support us, and to get blown out like that is embarrassing,” Rex said.

It appears that the beatings will continue the rest of the season, whether morale improves or not, as No. 14 Oklahoma (8-2) rolls into LaVell Edwards Stadium for the first time ever, fresh off its 59-20 drubbing of that same West Virginia team that crushed the Cougars a week ago in Morgantown.

With two presumably better teams than the Horned Frogs, Cyclones and Mountaineers standing between BYU and bowl eligibility, the Cougars need a wakeup call, in more ways than one.

Kickoff for the Sooners’ visit is at 10 a.m. MST — which isn’t good news for a BYU team that struggles mightily in day games and after opening- and second-half kickoffs. BYU has been outscored 90-62 in the first quarter this season, 72-49 in the third quarter.

“I know they are a top 25 team (with) super good athletes,” Rex said of the Sooners, who are in a four-way tie for second place in the Big 12. “This conference is different, man. I haven’t been a part of just consistently playing against really good teams over a stretch of a whole season. Yeah, Oklahoma is going to be great. They are going to be all over the field. … So we gotta be ready to play.”

Obviously, kickoff times and Oklahoma’s prowess are the least of the Cougars’ concerns right now, after they have lost four of their last five games and been overwhelmed from a talent perspective in all four.

A new, even more troubling issue may have emerged late Saturday in the postgame news conference, with head coach Kalani Sitake responding to a question about what has happened to a defense that played reasonably well in a 35-6 loss to No. 7 Texas (9-1) on Oct. 28 by saying “my first response to that is probably guys not believing in the system and not believing in what we are doing.”

Sitake then defended the scheme that defensive coordinator Jay Hill has installed, and came as close as he’s come all season to suggesting that the problem lies with the players themselves. In fairness, many of those guys have been thrust into playing time earlier than expected, as season-ending injuries suffered by Ben Bywater, Micah Harper and, possibly, defensive linemen John Nelson and Caden Haws, have taken their toll.

“I have been around this scheme for a long time — most of my career. And the way it works is everybody has got to do their 1/11th,” Sitake said. “So when the opportunity comes you gotta find a way to make plays.

“But we are responsible for that. Me as a head coach. All the coaches on defense — Jay Hill and the rest of them. We have to find ways to get guys to do their part. And everybody has to do their part. Starting with me.”

Sitake said other teams are running the same type of scheme and system, with “great success” with it, a veiled hint that he and Hill just don’t have the horses to make it work at BYU in its first season in the Big 12.

“We have had great success with it early in the season,” Sitake said. “So we gotta find guys that can get it done, coach it the way it is supposed to be done, and then find ways to be effective.” 

Asked about Sitake’s statement that defensive players are not believing in the system and what coaches are doing, linebacker AJ Vongphachanh disagreed.

“I know the guys come every day and practice hard. We put in the time and the work and effort. It is frustrating. You come out and you don’t get that (result) we want,” he said. “But at the end of the day I do believe the guys believe and I don’t believe that is an issue at all.”

What about the offensive players? Have they lost belief? 

Rex and backup quarterback Jake Retzlaff, who is a combined 34 of 69 (49.3%) for 314 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions, in two starts, said they certainly have not.

“We believe in the offensive system,” Rex said. Aaron Roderick “has been a great offensive coordinator for so long for BYU and we have had really great offenses in the past. It is just such a bummer how these past three games have been going, barely scoring any points.

“But I mean, we had 18 first downs and we ran the ball a lot better today than before (188 yards on 38 carries) and we are moving the ball. It is that we can’t finish. We believe in A Rod and his system. He is a great offensive coordinator.”

Retzlaff, who ran for 85 yards, but gave 21 back in the form of three sacks, said a backup QB running 17 times was part of the game plan and he had no problem with it.

“That is just another part of my game,” he said, adding later that the Cougars never lost belief, and won’t, even as the disconcerting blowout losses pile up.

“Yeah, it is tough (to start slowly, but this team is tougher,” Retzlaff said. “We did it at Arkansas, and we came out with a win. And so I don’t think there is any lack of belief on our sidelines that we can do that again today. Obviously we didn’t. But we had that belief on the sideline.”

Will that belief wane after a third-straight blowout loss, and quite likely a fourth — Oklahoma is an early 24-point favorite — next Saturday?

“No, I don’t think so. I think our guys are mentally tougher than that. I don’t feel our team falling apart in any way,” Retzlaff said. “I feel like we are still in that grind mindset of, ‘all right, that was really disappointing. Let’s learn from that as best we can, and let’s get on and put ourselves in a better situation next week.’”

That was pretty much Sitake’s message as well, even as the skid threatens to grow to five. BYU is at No. 24 Oklahoma State (7-3) to end the regular season two days after Thanksgiving.

“The culture is going to keep thriving. We have to build on the culture. We can handle tough times and adversity. That’s part of life,” Sitake said. “No one is going to feel sorry for you. So, stop feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t expect a lot of pity from everybody else.

“So we gotta find ways to toughen up and find ways to get better. That is just what it comes down to. I am excited about learning from the adversity and let’s see if we can get this done by next week.”

Cougars on the air

Oklahoma (5-2, 8-2) at BYU (2-5, 5-5)

Saturday, 10 a.m. MST

LaVell Edwards Stadium

Provo, Utah


Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM