BYU’s experienced offensive line was supposed to be stellar in 2023. What’s gone wrong?
Among other things, coach Kalani Sitake says there have been ‘too many whiffs’ by the offensive linemen this season
Head coach Kalani Sitake has been angered and embarrassed.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick has been surprised and distressed.
Offensive lineman and team captain Connor Pay has been frustrated and apoplectic.
“It is a lack of consistency, is what it is. We are great sometimes and we are terrible other times. I think inconsistency has been our biggest issue this season, just off the top of my head.” — BYU center Connor Pay
The topic du jour around the BYU offense the last few weeks has been the quarterback situation, obviously, with eight-game starter Kedon Slovis sidelined by elbow and shoulder injuries and junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff moving into the starting role for the second-straight game on Saturday against Iowa State (8:15 p.m. MST, ESPN).
But for most of the season, the discussion as far as the offense is concerned has centered around the offensive line, which has seriously underachieved after supposedly being the strength of perhaps the entire team when the year began.
“Too many whiffs,” Sitake said after the 37-7 loss to West Virginia when the situation seemed to have hit rock bottom. “By that, I mean unblocked guys. Whether it is the run game or the pass (protection), it wasn’t good enough.”
Not even close. It has bordered on disastrous, to be frank, and simply infuriating to BYU fans who are accustomed to having at least serviceable offensive lines in what traditionally has been one of the positions BYU recruits well in.
“We are not blocking right. We are whiffing on blocks. We are not tackling well. We are not using the right proper technique and playing missed assignment football, and that is something we gotta fix,” Sitake said. “That’s what I gotta get done this next week.”
The numbers bear it all out. BYU is 129th in rushing offense, averaging just 2.90 yards per carry and 79.67 yards per game. The Cougars are 115th in first downs, getting just 16.8 per game. The offensive line did a nice job protecting Slovis the first half of the season, but as teams have been able to pin their ears back and apply pressure because the rushing attack has been virtually nonexistent, sack totals have risen.
BYU is now 43rd in sacks allowed — 1.67 per game.
“Oh man, you name it,” Pay said Wednesday when asked why the group hasn’t performed up to expectations. “I think different issues have kinda surfaced in different weeks. We have gotten close, but just haven’t been able to put a complete game together.”
It bottomed out against West Virginia, as Retzlaff was sacked three times and the Cougars netted just 67 rushing yards, on 21 attempts, having been forced to pass when they fell way behind.
“It is a lack of consistency, is what it is. We are great sometimes and we are terrible other times,” Pay said. “I think inconsistency has been our biggest issue this season, just off the top of my head.”
There have been a few injuries, but not a ton more than in previous seasons. For instance, left guard Paul Maile missed the WVU game with an undisclosed injury. Right guard Weylin Lapuaho missed a few games.
“We missed (Maile) dearly,” Roderick said. “Paul is a good player.”
Maile started the season at center, but switched places a few weeks ago with Pay, taking over Pay’s left guard spot. Redshirt junior Brayden Keim replaced a struggling Caleb Etienne at right tackle. Etienne, the Oklahoma State transfer, moved inside to play some guard.
“Yes, I have been,” Roderick said when he was asked if he’s been surprised that the unit hasn’t clicked yet. “That’s an issue we gotta fix. I think sometimes when you are not clicking as a unit, it might look like a guy is not playing hard. But really there is not trust in the scheme, or not trust in the team, or not trust in the guy next to you, or not trust in the cohesion of the unit. There is a little bit of both there right now.”
How are they trying to get better?
“We are rotating guys in practice, trying to figure out who can do the job this week,” Roderick said. “It has been a physical week in practice, yeah.”
Even when Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall were carving up defenses in the past four years, the Cougars still had an identity of a tough, run-first offense powered by the likes of Tyler Allgeier and Chris Brooks.
“We have not been as physical as we have been in the past,” Roderick acknowledged. “The last three years, we hung our hat on a physical run game and play-action pass and throwing the ball down the field off our run game.
Cougars on the air
Iowa State (4-2, 5-4)
at BYU (2-4, 5-4)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MST
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM
“It has not been as good as it should be, and we are still trying to fix it,” he continued. “All you can do is keep working at it. That’s what we have been doing.”
Pay, who has not decided yet whether he will return next year or enter April’s NFL draft, said the shuffling of positions on the line is just a small part of the problem.
“The expectation is that anyone in the O-line room, theoretically, could go in and play,” he said. “And so you have to be prepared that way. I don’t think that has been up there in terms of the biggest issues.”
Never one to mince words, Pay said the “effort needs to increase, for sure,” and noted that frustration reigned in the second half against WVU.
“Guys were getting frustrated that things weren’t going our way. It was just kinda boiling up and we needed to push through that a little better than we did, especially once you realized it was out of hand a little bit,” Pay said. “We gotta be better, I gotta be better, about pushing through that.”