Although they won their final four games, including a 24-23 upset of SMU in the New Mexico Bowl with a fourth-string quarterback, several BYU football players said after spring camp ended last Friday that the 2022 season left a sour taste in their mouths.

One even believes that some of his teammates might have quit midseason.

“I mean, you saw it, right? After the Oregon game we just kinda crumbled. We didn’t really believe in ourselves, which is sad.” — BYU linebacker Ben Bywater on the 2022 season

It was the Cougars’ final season as a college football independent, but it fell short in delivering a lot of momentum for a program that needs some heading into the Big 12 and facing perhaps the most difficult schedule in years, maybe ever.

The Cougars finished 8-5, recovering nicely with wins over Boise State, Utah Tech, Stanford and SMU after going 0-4 in October with losses to Notre Dame, Arkansas, Liberty and East Carolina.

“I think we just didn’t believe in ourselves, and that is the biggest (takeaway),” said linebacker Ben Bywater, who missed spring camp after having had his second shoulder surgery two days after his pick-six helped BYU win in Albuquerque. “We had all the talent in the world. We had all the pieces to go make something great happen. If you don’t have that swagger, that confidence, that aura that you can go beat a team, then you won’t.”

The Cougars pounded South Florida 50-21 and then edged No. 9 Baylor 26-20 in double overtime to open the season, but Bywater believes the year started to spiral downward when they fell 41-20 to No. 24 Oregon at Autzen Stadium in front of national television (Fox) cameras and a hostile crowd of 54,463.

Oregon and BYU fans watch as Cougar players huddle during a timeout of game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.
Oregon and BYU fans watch as BYU players huddled during a timeout of a college football game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I mean, you saw it, right? After the Oregon game we just kinda crumbled,” Bywater said. “We didn’t really believe in ourselves, which is sad. 

“You want to do hard things in the offseason to build that mental fortitude, that toughness that is like, ‘Hey, when things get hard in the season, we are going to group together, arm in arm, and we are going to push through,’” he continued. “I hope that happens this year.”

Already, Bywater said, new defensive coordinator Jay Hill has brought that swagger, that confidence, that motivation, that seemed to be lacking from defensive coaches last year, particularly in October. 

The Cougars recovered from the beatdown in Eugene to beat Wyoming and Utah State at LaVell Edwards Stadium, but that invincible feeling just wasn’t there, said the product of Salt Lake City’s Olympus High.

“I think it was the Arkansas game,” Bywater said, when asked when he realized the defense’s confidence was shot. “That was kind of where we just had to look in the mirror after that game. That (performance) wasn’t it. That wasn’t who we are, and that wasn’t who we are going to be. And that is unacceptable.”

That 52-35 loss to the Razorbacks in which the Cougars gave up 34 first downs and 644 yards to a mediocre SEC offense produced a helpless feeling that carried over the next week when BYU was embarrassed 41-14 at Liberty.

Starting safety Malik Moore, a vocal leader who fractured a finger against Wyoming on Sept. 24 and was sidelined the rest of the season, said he isn’t sure when it started to go downhill, but acknowledges the Oregon loss took something out of the Cougars’ sails.

“I think just this last year, everyone expected us to do so good, and we also had high expectations for ourselves, and when it seemed like everything was out of reach, I just think some things just kinda got out of whack,” Moore said. “It wasn’t the coaches’ fault. It was the (fault of) players who were on the field.”

As Moore was wrapping up his answer to the question about what went wrong last year, fellow defensive back Jakob Robinson chipped in: “It started with us players, though.”

Robinson, who made the game-saving tackle on SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai’s two-point conversion attempt in the final minute, said the Cougars have turned the page and aren’t really dwelling on last year’s disappointments.

“Probably after the Oregon (loss), the team was basically down,” Robinson said. “I feel like there is not much the coaches can do. We are the ones on the field, so at the end of the day it should be us trying to build each other back up.”

After the Oregon loss, several players said, they knew they were probably heading to another lower-tier bowl game and that realization dampened spirits. That won’t be the case moving forward, as one loss as a Big 12 member won’t destroy postseason hopes.

“I am super grateful to be in the Big 12. It is such a great opportunity. We are playing such good competition, and week after week you are going to have to be balling. And if you are not, you will get exposed,” Bywater said. “It is going to be great. That Big 12 championship, that is a goal of ours, and so by any means necessary, you gotta get there.”

Even though BYU’s major issues last year were on defense — evidenced when head coach Kalani Sitake demoted defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki after the Arkansas game and started calling the defensive plays — the offense was not without blame, either.

Offensive lineman Connor Pay even went so far as to say that some guys mailed it in in October.

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After talking about how difficult missionary work was for him in Washington, D.C., and mentioning that on the football field he doesn’t want to play with guys who quit, Pay was asked if he felt like “anybody quit last year, on the team.”

His reply: “Yeah, yeah. I am not going to name names. I am not about that. But I think so.”

Pay was one of the most outspoken players on the team last year. He personally shouldered the blame for playing poorly against the Irish and getting benched the following week. But he said the coaching staff sent too many mixed messages last year.

“I think the biggest challenge we faced is, you know, the personal accountability all of a sudden got magically removed a little bit when things started hitting the fan, and it was like, pointing fingers, blaming, all that stuff,” Pay said. “When you see that, it is like, ‘Omigosh, we need to reset mentally, because that is not what it is about.’

“You take accountability for your mistakes, look out for the guy next to you, that type of thing. That is kinda what makes our team great, and we got away from that and it cost us.”

It could be argued that the defense played well enough against Notre Dame to deliver a win, but the offense faltered — particularly in short-yardage situations. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick has said starting quarterback Jaren Hall didn’t practice all week before that game in Las Vegas due to a bum shoulder, but coaches didn’t feel like the backups gave them a better chance to win than a less-than-healthy Hall.

Was there some locker room unrest brought on by some guys having better NIL deals than others? 

“I think there was a little bit of entitlement last year as well, like, ‘Well, I have been here, I have done this, I deserve to play. I deserve this, I deserve that.’ To me, it is like, ‘Well, nobody does,’” Pay said.

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“It took us failing for people to realize that on the team, and we kinda pulled out of it and got back to who we were, earning it every day, and that kinda stuff. I think NIL definitely plays a role,” he continued. 

The 6-foot-5, 312-pound junior said NIL deals aren’t discussed within the team as much as some people might think.

“For the most part, the team is happy for everybody else,” he said. “When I see somebody get a killer NIL deal, I (usually) know what is going on in that person’s life. I (know) that is a big deal for them. I am really excited for them. There is no animosity.”

But there is apparently some regret — and a newfound resolve to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself in 2023.

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater (2) and defensive back Malik Moore (12) tackle Oregon running back Jordan James at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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