In many ways, the season-ending loss to Oklahoma State in double overtime served as a microcosm for the BYU Cougars’ entire first season in the Big 12.

A less-than-inspiring start. A promising, even brilliant second quarter. A crash of epic proportions in the third quarter. A spirited comeback late in the fourth quarter, and then a crushing ending in overtime.

“And to respond the way they did, especially the last two weeks with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, obviously we would have liked to win those games. But I can build off guys that want to work hard and want to be here and want to fight.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

From struggling to put away Sam Houston and Southern Utah in September, to stunning Arkansas, losing a fairly close one at Kansas (blamed on turnovers) and then scraping past Cincinnati in their Big 12 home opener at the end of September, the Cougars got off to a 4-1 start and all seemed well in Cougarville.

Then the bottom started to fall out. The 44-11 loss at TCU on Oct. 14 was the beginning of the end, the game when it became apparent that BYU was not ready from a talent and depth standpoint to go toe-to-toe with even the mid-tier teams in the Power Five conference.

Sure, the Cougars rallied to beat Texas Tech 27-14 to get to 5-2 and make it appear that they were on their way to one of their stated goals — six wins and bowl eligibility — but the win was more about the Red Raiders’ ineptitude with a third-string quarterback than it was about BYU’s ability to be even respectable in conference play.

Then came the meltdown, losses to No. 7 Texas, West Virginia and Iowa State (at home, no less) by a combined score of 117-26.

When it appeared the season was going to be a total loss, the Cougars rose up and took No. 14 Oklahoma and No. 20 Oklahoma State to the wire before dropping a 31-24 decision to the Sooners and a 40-34 heartbreaker to the Cowboys. 

Although a 5-7 final record was not unexpected, the Cougars’ 2023 season has to be classified as a disappointment, with an encouraging finish.

Was the finish akin to slapping lipstick on a pig? Not according to coach Kalani Sitake, now 61-41 in eight seasons in Provo, who walked into the interview room after a second-overtime fumble cost the Cougars a chance to upset Big 12 championship game-bound OSU and admitted that he “honestly wasn’t even thinking about this (loss) as a result” of the game.

“We did everything we could,” Sitake said. “… We threw the playbook at them.”

In fairness, it could be argued that this was the most difficult schedule BYU has ever played (although in 2004 BYU played three teams that went undefeated in the regular season and finished in the top 10 nationally).

Jeff Sagarin’s ratings say BYU has played the sixth-toughest schedule in the land, to date. According to Cougarstats.com, BYU’s conference schedule was the hardest in the Big 12, as the cumulative record of the teams BYU went 2-7 against was 48-33 (59.3 winning percentage).

“There is no argument. It is not even close. And the only (schedules) that were even close to it were the last two ones before this,” said offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. “But no one is ducking that. This is what we signed up for, man. … You gotta go through the fire to learn how to stand on your feet in this league. It is tough. We are going though a tough time right now, but we embrace the challenge. You gotta go through it to grow and get better.”

The tough times that Roderick was alluding to were the blowout losses previously mentioned. The Cougars were barely competitive in those contests at TCU, Texas and West Virginia, and seemingly hit rock bottom in the 45-13 loss to Iowa State.

As a result, they are No. 61 in the Sagarin Ratings heading into this week’s conference championship games, behind a team they beat on the road (No. 54 Arkansas) and 11 Group of Five or FCS schools.

The blowout losses put a big stain on the season, and the offense’s ineptitude pushed Roderick a little closer to the hot seat and cost offensive line coach Darrell Funk and tight ends coach Steve Clark their jobs.

The last time BYU finished a football season with at least five straight losses was in 1955, when it dropped its last eight and went 1-9.

“The losing streak is hard. But the guys didn’t quit their fight. I mean, (losses to) West Virginia and Iowa State, those were big losses on the scoreboard, but the guys, they don’t quit,” Sitake said in Stillwater. 

“And to respond the way they did, especially the last two weeks with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, obviously we would have liked to win those games. But I can build off guys that want to work hard and want to be here and want to fight.”

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What has to change to avoid a repeat in 2024?

“Obviously we got to be innovative and create some ways to get these guys (more) football IQ and the install and everything we have going on in all three phases and be ready,” Sitake said. “Obviously we are going to be bringing in some new guys and (there are) some guys we have to say goodbye to. We really appreciated the opportunity we had to represent our fans and BYU and Cougar Nation with this football team. They will keep fighting and keep working and we will get better.”

That’s all well and good, but the program seemed to regress in 2023, particularly on offense. USC and Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis went 5-3 as a starter before getting injured in the 35-6 loss at Texas, and junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff was too sloppy with the football to win the starting job in 2024 despite four starts in 2023.

The Cougars are No. 73 in ESPN’s College Football Power Index, after finishing last year at No. 65. They were No. 41 in ESPN’s FPI in 2021, when they went 10-3 and lost to UAB in the Independence Bowl.

To most, it has been a disappointing slide.

But receiver Kody Epps offered a different perspective after the double-overtime loss, saying the season wasn’t a total loss.

“Our team is a lot different than the rest of college football, just because of who our head coach is. A lot of teams, when they don’t make a bowl game, the season is a waste,” Epps said. “But our team specifically we don’t view it as that. … The friendships that we make, the bonds we have with each other, the bonds we have with our coaches and the university (will last).

“It is frustrating not to be able to play another football game just because we love this game so much. But the unity and love that we have created, I think the record doesn’t exemplify what the season means to us as a unit, as a team.”

Here’s a closer look at the three phases of BYU’s 2023 team — offense, defense and special teams — and how they performed in the Big 12:

How did BYU’s offense perform in 2023?

After finishing 44th in scoring offense (31.3) and 36th in total offense (426.3 yards per game) last year, there’s no question that BYU’s offense did some serious backsliding this year, thanks in part to the more difficult schedule and the inability to replace standouts such as Chris Brooks, Jaren Hall, Puka Nacua and Blake Freeland, who are all in the NFL right now.

Starting with that lackluster 14-0 win in the opener over a Sam Houston team that went on to finish 3-9, Roderick’s offense could never find its way. Supposed bell cow running back Aidan Robbins suffered an early injury, freshman RB LJ Martin was thrown into the fire much sooner than expected, and what was going to be BYU’s best group of receivers in the Sitake era never really materialized.

That group was never at full strength until the final game, leaving Slovis and Retzlaff with precious few weapons, and nobody who could really take the top off defenses.

For all the work Sitake and his support staff did to cut down on injuries, the Cougars sure seem to get more than their fair share of them.

The offensive line turned out to be a major disappointment, perhaps the most disappointing position group on the team, along with the defensive line.

“Guys need to get bigger, stronger. We have seen it already. We have been through it. It is hard to tell the guys to get bigger and stronger, when they haven’t been through the fight,” Sitake said. “Now that they have been through it, it is going to be a lot easier (when) we tell our guys to get more meat on their bones to tackle these big backs.”

How bad was BYU’s offense in 2023? As of the end of November, the national numbers told part of the story:

• 97th in points per game (23.1).

• 121st in total offense (309.8 yards per game).

• 120th in rushing offense (104.3 yards per game).

• 90th in passing offense (205.4 yards per game).

BYU’s offense hasn’t ranked this low since the 2017 season, when the Cougars went 4-9 and Sitake dumped his entire offensive coaching staff.

BYU Cougars wide receivers Darius Lassiter (5) and Chase Roberts (2) celebrate a TD.
Left to right, BYU receivers Darius Lassiter (5) and Chase Roberts (2) celebrate Roberts’ touchdown with lineman Weylin Lapuaho during game against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Offensive MVP: After Tyler Allgeier got the nod from us for this honor in 2021 and Hall picked it up last year, there was simply no clearcut choice in 2023. Nobody was outstanding, really. 

We will go with receiver Chase Roberts, if only because he battled through various ailments and never missed a game, leading the team with 42 catches for 573 yards and five touchdowns. Without his one-handed grab in the end zone against Arkansas, BYU probably doesn’t beat the Razorbacks.

How did BYU’s defense perform in 2023?

BYU’s defense was a mess in 2022, causing Sitake to dismiss every defensive coach except cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford. Weber State coach Jay Hill was brought in with a yearly price tag in the $1 million range, and the move looked promising early when the Cougars shut out Sam Houston.

But injuries, some suffered in fall camp by safeties Micah Harper and Talan Alfrey, and a devastating season-ending one to two-time leading tackler Ben Bywater in the 38-27 loss to Kansas, gradually took their toll.

The defense’s downward spiral reached a head after the 45-13 loss to Iowa State when Sitake wondered aloud whether the defensive players had lost belief in the system and their coaches.

Even though BYU caught some breaks when starting QBs for TCU, Texas Tech and Texas were unable to play, and Oklahoma lost starter Dillon Gabriel the entire second half, the Cougars were never really able to get stops when they needed them.

There was some marked improvement — better tackling, for instance — there were also some glaring deficiencies, like on third down. And BYU finished almost dead last, tied for 132nd in the country with Virginia, for fewest sacks in the country, with 12 in 12 games.

“Things can always get better. I firmly believe that this team can hang with the best of them in the Big 12. Unfortunately we weren’t able to display that week in and week out,” said defensive end Tyler Batty, who was undecided regarding his future as of Nov. 28. “I definitely think there were sparks and flashes of it.”

There was plenty of ballhawking the first half of the season, but even that dried up and BYU finished tied for 52nd in turnover margin — having gained 20 and given away 19.

At season’s end, BYU was 110th in total defense (417.7 yards per game), 99th in scoring defense (29.8 points per game) and tied for 112th in rushing defense (177.6 yards per game).

They were in the 90s nationally in those categories last year.

BYU cornerback Eddie Heckard (5) celebrates his fumble recovery touchdown during a game against Texas Tech on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Provo, Utah. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Defensive MVP: Weber State transfer Eddie Heckard was every bit the player Jay Hill promised he would be when he brought him in from Ogden, and Heckard is easily BYU’s defensive MVP in 2023. Heck, he was probably BYU’s best player, all things considered.

The Las Vegas native had five interceptions, six pass breakups, and forced three fumbles.

After his pick-six against Oklahoma State, he said the defense will improve as more guys get used to Hill’s system, then delivered a touching farewell about his time at BYU.

“I can’t see no BYU team quitting. We go to a religious school and we put our faith in God. There is never any quit. That’s all I have to say to that. I don’t think any BYU team will ever quit, like the soccer team last night,” he said, referring to BYU’s 4-3 come-from-behind soccer win over North Carolina.

How did BYU’s special teams perform in 2023?

Special teams weren’t all that special for BYU, as the Cougars gave up punt returns for touchdowns to Arkansas and Texas. And when they finally got a kickoff return for a touchdown, Keelan Marion’s jaunt against West Virginia, a holding penalty brought it back.

Perhaps the special teams highlight of the year was a fake punt play in which Ryan Rehkow found Batty for a 36-yard gain. But generally special teams did nothing to slow a dismal season.

Special teams MVP: This is the hardest call of the three, as kicker Will Ferrin and Rehkow were good the entire season. Rehkow was No. 2 in the nation in punting average, at 48.37 yards per boot.

But we will go with Ferrin, if only because Rehkow shanked some punts when the Cougars really, really needed him to flip the field. A transfer from Boise State who hadn’t kicked a field goal in college until arriving in Provo, Ferrin was 11 of 14 on his field goal tries and 32 of 33 on his PATs.

Two of his three misses were from beyond 50 yards.

And of course, he made the 48-yarder as time expired that sent the BYU-Oklahoma State game into overtime.

BYU place kicker Will Ferrin (44) celebrates hitting a 49-yard field goal with teammates as BYU and Oklahoma play at LaVell Edwards stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News