Of all the stats produced by BYU and Southern Utah during Saturday’s annual paycheck game at LaVell Edwards Stadium, one in particular should trouble Cougar fans as the schedule turns decidedly more difficult from here on out.

Southern Utah of the Football Championship Subdivision held newly minted Power Five member BYU to 46 rushing yards, while picking up 84 itself.

The Thunderbirds clearly weren’t content to pocket the $425,000 check for making the three-hour trip up Interstate 15. They made BYU earn the victory.

“We are 2-0, but it wasn’t our best game. Obviously, I would like to play better in all three phases. … We will try to get better from now until next week when we go on the road. For the most part, happy we got the win.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.

For the Cougars, that kind of rushing effort was good enough against this type of competition to walk their way to a 41-16 victory in front of 60,834 fans on what started out to be a hot, sunny early fall afternoon in Provo but got cloudier and windier as the day wore on.

However, will that kind of rushing attack be enough against Arkansas next week, or against those nine Big 12 opponents who surely will have much better run defenses than what the Thunderbirds brought to the Wasatch Front in Week 2?

“We are 2-0, but it wasn’t our best game,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, a bit more subdued than he usually is after wins, but seemingly happier than he was a week ago after the opener.

“Obviously, I would like to play better in all three phases. … We will try to get better from now until next week when we go on the road. For the most part, happy we got the win.”

It was BYU’s sixth straight win, dating back to last year, but plenty of questions remain — on both sides of the ball, but particularly on offense, for the second straight week.

This time, however, it isn’t the Cougars’ passing attack that looked lackluster and out of sorts against an opponent it should have been able to pummel into oblivion on the ground, if this BYU offensive line is as good as its preseason billing.

The running game is suddenly a huge concern.

The Cougars averaged just 2.0 yards per carry, with supposed workhorse running back Aidan Robbins getting only three carries for 6 yards — all in the first quarter.

Through two games, Robbins has only 29 yards on 10 carries and BYU has rushed for just 158 yards on 57 carries (2.6 yards per carry), against the two weakest teams on its 2023 schedule.

That’s incredibly distressing.

“We should be getting more (rushing) yards,” Sitake acknowledged. “What we got is not good enough. It doesn’t matter who the defense is. I think we are better than that, so we gotta figure it out.”

Freshman LJ Martin led the Cougars with 27 yards on six carries, a week after picking up 91 rushing yards in the second half in the 14-0 win over Sam Houston. He’s the feel-good story of the first two weeks, offensively, for the Cougars.

On the flip side, what has happened to Robbins is simply perplexing. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year for UNLV, which had nowhere near the talent on its offensive line that BYU’s has on its.

“We expect to have an advantage up front,” Sitake said. 

Asked why Robbins only got three carries, Sitake said he wasn’t sure and would have to watch the film.

While it was a good thing the Cougars had Martin last week, it was just as favorable Saturday that they had Pitt transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis, who bounced back nicely after a shaky performance last week.

After another slow start in which the Cougars’ first possession was ruined by an ineligible receiver downfield penalty and the second possession resulted in the first and only turnover of the season — Slovis was hit while throwing and the fluttering football was picked off by SUU’s Quadir Lockett-Smith — BYU scored touchdowns on four of its next five possessions to dampen the visitors’ upset hopes.

Slovis finished 22 of 32 for 348 yards and four touchdowns, and also rushed for a TD for the third time this season.

“I do like him throwing the ball,” Sitake said after praising the decision to pull the ball and run with it for a 6-yard TD in the third quarter.

“He is really clean, and we need to find ways to compliment what he can do on offense so that we aren’t predictable and aren’t just relying on his arm.”

3 takeaways from BYU’s 41-16 victory over Southern Utah
BYU football: Cougars are paying SUU $425K to play in Provo, but there’s a catch to the deal

There was some hope that BYU’s defense could turn in its second straight shutout, but those hopes were dashed early.

After Southern Utah forced a punt, it went 52 yards in nine plays the first time it touched the ball and got a 29-yard field goal from Tyler Graham.

Two of BYU’s best defenders, safety Malik Moore and cornerback Eddie Heckard, did not play in that first series.

Both played most of the rest of the way, until the Thunderbirds got a final TD drive against BYU’s reserves with 5:15 remaining.

Sitake said BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill “had a reason for it,” when he was asked why Heckard and Moore didn’t start. “… it isn’t anything that anybody should worry about other than we have a standard here and nobody is immune to it. It doesn’t matter if you are a starter or a walk-on.”

BYU’s defense was not nearly as sharp as it was in the opener — albeit against a better quarterback and receivers.

Southern Utah QB Justin Miller completed 16 of 30 passes for 235 yards and the visitors racked up 346 yards — only 48 fewer than BYU.

Granted, about 100 of those yards came late against a mixture of reserves.

If Hill wants to nit-pick, it should be that Miller had way too much time to throw, including the time he threw a beautiful strike to Isaiah Wooden, who had gotten past Jakob Robinson and Moore.

After talking at length about improving their pass rush all offseason, and bringing in a few guys to get that done, the Cougars have just one sack in two games — by Tyler Batty last week on Sam Houston’s first possession.

“We trust our scheme. We trust our defense,” said BYU linebacker Max Tooley. “It’s going to take trusting each other to (get more sacks). We saw tonight that the quarterback wanted to get rid of that ball quick.”

Bottom line is that BYU has now won six straight games dating back to last year, so the Cougars aren’t panicking. They are winning ugly.

If they can do that again next week in SEC territory, these two uneven performances in early September will be forgiven.