PROVO — For the first time since 2008, which just happened to be then-coach Bronco Mendenhall’s fourth year at the helm, BYU concluded a football season with back-to-back losses when it followed an uninspiring 13-3 loss to San Diego State on Nov. 30 with a frustrating 38-34 setback to Hawaii on Tuesday in the SoFi Hawaii Bowl at Aloha Stadium.
Somehow, the Cougars dropping their final two games was an emblematic way to wrap up coach Kalani Sitake’s fourth season, because failing to finish was the common denominator in four of BYU’s six losses in 2019 — four games it was favored to win, coincidentally.
The Cougars, who posted a 7-6 record for the second straight year, could never quite nail the ending. As a result, their ninth season as a college football independent was more disappointing than exhilarating, despite those upsets of Tennessee, USC, Boise State and Utah State.
Losses to Toledo, South Florida, San Diego State and Hawaii were head-scratchers — especially the first two, considering the Rockets and Bulls will likely end up south of the top 100 teams in the country in the Sagarin Ratings.
Another symptom of not finishing well: BYU was one of the worst red zone offenses in the country, leaving dozens of points on the field, points that could have won them two or three more games.
Perhaps the Cougars let their guard down a little bit after they beat Idaho State to get bowl eligible and Sitake signed a contract extension, or lost their edge when they played a string of cupcakes in mid-November after knocking off rivals BSU and USU to go 2-1 in their self-described rivalry games.
After taking a 49-0 lead at halftime at woeful UMass, the Cougars weren’t as crisp on either side of the ball and were outscored 75-44 the rest of the way.
When it all ended more than 2,000 miles from Provo, also appropriate for a team that made four trips to the Eastern time zone, BYU had started 50 different players, more than any team in the country. That after BYU played 26 freshmen, including 17 true freshmen, in 2018.
With turnover like that, is there any question why this team isn’t more consistent?
“I am really proud of these players,” Sitake said when asked if BYU needed to win the bowl game to call it a successful season. “Win or lose, they have represented their families and the names on their backs. That is really impressive to me.”
So the third winning season in Sitake’s four years becomes another of those “what if?” seasons, but nothing fans are going to be excited about heading into a long offseason with the prospects of the losing streak reaching 2017 proportions, what with Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State and Minnesota coming up in September.
Personnel-wise, what if fifth-year graduate transfer running back Ty’Son Williams — star of the wins over Tennessee and USC, who declared for the NFL draft on Thursday — hadn’t suffered a season-ending ACL injury four games in? What if promising freshman running back Sione Finau — who finished with a team-high 359 rushing yards — hadn’t torn his ACL in practice four games later?
What if starting quarterback Zach Wilson hadn’t sustained a fractured thumb against Toledo? What if backup QBs Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney hadn’t also got hurt? What if key defenders Zayne Anderson, Chris Wilcox and Troy Warner and offensive linemen Tristen Hoge and Kieffer Longson hadn’t missed all or most of the season with injuries?
On special teams, what if the Cougars, supposedly stockpiled at the kicker position, hadn’t missed 10 field goals?
In the bowl game, where a victory could have meant the difference between a mildly successful season with tangible progress to a not-so-encouraging one, what if BYU had converted on third-and-2 late, rather than produce the second-to-worst case scenario, an incomplete pass?
Here’s a closer look at how the 2019 Cougars performed in the three phases of the game, and what the future holds for each unit in 2020:
Offense: The unit’s most glaring weakness, and perhaps the biggest reason why the season wasn’t a highly successful one, was its inefficiency in scoring territory. The Cougars developed a case of the red zone blues.
Look no further than these statistics to illustrate that point: With only 18 bowl games left to be played, BYU ranks 31st in total offense, having averaged 443.8 yards per game. But the Cougars are just 68th in scoring offense, having averaged 25.8 points per game. That’s a significant gap.
Through Friday, BYU ranked 120th (of 130 teams) in red zone offense, with 44 scores on 60 red zone attempts — 31 touchdowns and 13 field goals. The Cougars are 118th nationally in points per red zone possession, 4.27.
If there was a knock on the aforementioned Wilson, who was 4-5 as a starter, it was his propensity to commit costly turnovers and inability to produce touchdowns in the red zone. That portends a possible quarterback derby in 2020 fall camp, as Hall (151.3) and Romney (159.8) had higher passer efficiency ratings than Wilson (130.8) and delivered wins over Boise State, Utah State and Liberty.
Finau edged Lopini Katoa by a yard for team-high rushing honors and will have ACL surgery in January but says he plans to be ready for fall camp. Finau’s 359 yards is the lowest total for a BYU team rushing leader since Scott Phillips had 325 in 1977, according to Greg Wrubell of BYU Broadcasting. Tyler Allgeier, the bowl’s leading rusher with 77 yards, and freshman Jackson McChesney, who had 228 yards in the UMass rout, also return.
The Cougars got some good news Friday when star tight end Matt Bushman announced he will return for his senior season in 2020. That’s huge, because productive senior receivers Aleva Hifo, Micah Simon and Talon Shumway depart having posted 494 or more receiving yards apiece in 2019. depart. BYU will need Gunner Romney, who didn’t record a catch in the bowl game, to step up along with Dax Milne and Keanu Hill.
Every offensive lineman in the late-season rotation is eligible to return.
Defense: BYU struggled to stop the run in early losses to Utah and Washington — the only games in which it looked overmatched — and then couldn’t stop the pass in the Christmas Eve heartbreaker in Honolulu. Its inability to develop a pass rush became a glaring deficiency, although the tactic of dropping eight defenders made getting sacks extra difficult.
Surprisingly, the Cougars had five sacks against Hawaii after making the Warriors one-dimensional to boost their season total to 17, meaning 29% of their sacks came in one game.
Ilaisa Tuiaki’s defense will finish in the middle of most categories in the national rankings, including 53rd in scoring defense (25.5 points allowed per game) and 69th in total defense (393.5 yards per game). After some midseason tinkering, they improved their defense against the run considerably, and finished 77th (167.5 ypg.) after residing in the 100s the first half.
Hawaii QB Cole McDonald riddled them for 493 yards and four TDs in the bowl game, but BYU’s secondary was mostly stout in 2019 and will lose playmakers Dayan Ghanwoloku, Austin Lee and Austin Kafentzis, who was invited to play in the Hula Bowl on Friday.
Converted offensive lineman JJ Nwigwe also graduates, after emerging as one of the better defensive linemen late in the year. Nose tackle Khyiris Tonga is also likely on his way out, having maintained most of his junior season that it would be his last at BYU before he enters the NFL draft.
Special teams: Having been mostly a strength of the team in Sitake’s first three seasons, this unit took some significant steps backward in 2019, and could be fingered for costing the Cougars a couple of wins.
Part of the reason for the aforementioned red zone struggles were missed field goals, as sophomore Jake Oldroyd was 16 of 24 and Skyler Southam was 1 of 3. Southam entered the transfer portal immediately after the bowl, likely leaving Oldroyd to battle with incoming freshman returned missionary Ryan Rehkow for kicking and punting duties in 2020.
Special teams coach Ed Lamb will have to replace valuable long snapper Mitch Harris, a departing senior who made few, if any, errors in a multi-season career.