BYU passing game coordinator and receivers coach Fesi Sitake didn’t want to hear about how his pass-catchers are having trouble adjusting to the way Big 12 football games are officiated, particularly when it comes to allowing defensive backs more freedom to grab, clutch, hold and disrupt routes.

That theory as a reason why the offense is struggling was thrown at Sitake after Tuesday’s practice as the 5-3 Cougars prepared to face West Virginia (5-3) in Morgantown on Saturday (7 p.m. MDT, Fox Sports) at 67,215-seat Milan Puskar Stadium.

“Yeah, I have noticed that some refs are a little more forgiving than others on that. But the message to my (receivers) room is, ‘Who cares?’ You can’t leave it in the hands of the refs. Play strong and get open.” — BYU receivers coach Fesi Sitake

“Yeah, I have noticed that some refs are a little more forgiving than others on that,” Sitake said. “But the message to my (receivers) room is, ‘Who cares?’ You can’t leave it in the hands of the refs. Play strong and get open.”

Sitake then used the example of former BYU receiving great Puka Nacua, who is taking the NFL by storm in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Rams.

“There are tons of receivers out there who are fluid, who are fast, who are nifty,” Sitake said. “But when hands get on them, it is done. I think the great receivers (overcome that). Look no further than Puka — he was hard to hold and latch onto.”

BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick mentioned the different way Big 12 referees officiate defensive back play in his “Coordinators’ Corner” program Monday, but not in the way of making excuses for the offense. As Sitake said, it is up to BYU’s receivers and tight ends to figure it out.

“One thing we’ve learned about the Big 12 is they let you play. They don’t call ticky tack fouls in this league,” Roderick said. “It is a very physical conference. There is a lot of grabbing and holding that goes on that they are not going to call. So we got to get better at adjusting to that.”

Redshirt sophomore Chase Roberts is BYU’s leading receiver in terms of receptions (33), yards (459) and average receiving yards per game (57.4). 

“I mean, there is no specific one thing we need to do to flip everything around,” Roberts said. “Everyone has got things to work on. Right now, it is just about simplifying things, going back to the basics and making plays, and getting confidence in every aspect of the offense. And that’s what we are doing.”

One of those basics, for receivers, is getting off the line of scrimmage, and getting separation to make life easier for quarterback Kedon Slovis, who is completing just 57.4% of his passes, a career-low. Slovis is 87th in the country in passing efficiency (122.08) with 12 touchdown passes and six interceptions, and there have been rumblings that perhaps a change is needed, especially now that backup Jake Retzlaff can play in all four remaining games, and a possible bowl game, without having to give up his redshirt year.

“Kedon is a great example of staying level-headed,” Roberts said of his close friend. “He’s been a great example to me. He’s a great player. The struggles we have had on offense aren’t just Kedon. It is every position. So we need to figure things out and just get that confidence at every position. I love Kedon and am thankful for what he has meant to our team and our offense.”

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There have been times when the receivers have made spectacular catches, such as the one Roberts made against Arkansas for a touchdown and the ones Darius Lassiter pulled in against Texas Tech and Texas. But too many times BYU receivers simply haven’t defeated man pressure at the line of scrimmage, haven’t gotten separation downfield, and Slovis has been forced to throw the ball away.

“Instead of giving guys opportunities to find excuses, I love preaching the message that it is just going to require us to be stronger route runners,” said Sitake, who admits he “has noticed” that Big 12 officials allow more contact downfield.

One issue is that the Cougars don’t have a burner, a big-play threat who can take the top off defenses. UConn transfer Keelan Marion has the best average, 14.2 yards on 10 catches.

“I brought up the other day in meetings (that) Keelan was on an in-and-out route on a corner route that he caught,” Sitake said. “He was getting draped pretty good. I told him, ‘There are guys in college football and the NFL who couldn’t get out of that and would call for a flag.’ But he was a perfect example of playing physical and strong in the way you run a route.”

One of BYU’s more physical receivers, fifth-year junior Keanu Hill, has appeared in only five games due to an injury suffered in fall camp and then another injury he aggravated before the TCU game. Expected to have a breakout year in BYU’s first year in the Big 12, Hill has just 10 catches for 118 yards. 

Cougars on the air

BYU (2-3, 5-3)
at West Virginia (3-2, 5-3)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT
Milan Puskar Stadium
(Capacity: 67,215)
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

Kody Epps has also struggled to get going, mostly due to injuries. He has just six catches for 67 yards.

“We have executed before. We have put up a lot of points in games. That’s not a problem. It is just executing, and doing our assignments and making our quarterback confident that we are going to be there and we are going to make a play,” Roberts said. “It is coming up with those plays and scoring points. That’s how you win. We are going to go do that.”

Sitake said Hill, who hasn’t played in a full game since Sept. 29 against Cincinnati, worked out Tuesday and is day-to-day for the West Virginia game.

Kansas safety Kenny Logan Jr. (1) reaches for but is unable to grab a pass meant for BYU receiver Keanu on Sept. 23, 2023 in Lawrence, Kan. Expected to have a breakout year in BYU’s first year in the Big 12, Hill has just 10 catches for 118 yards.  | Colin E. Braley, Associated Press