BYU still searching for continuity on its injury and illness-plagued offensive line
Cougars got Tristen Hoge back from an illness Saturday night against Texas State, but starting center James Empey is sidelined again by an ankle injury
PROVO — Asked this week to give BYU’s offensive line a grade midway through the season, OL coach Eric Mateos said it would probably be “a solid B.”
But that has to come with an asterisk, because for the last three games, the unit has not been at full strength. Once again on Saturday night against Texas State, the Cougars were without a starter there, as junior center James Empey was out with an ankle injury.
While Empey was out, BYU did get back a couple of the other linemen who have started games in the past, most notably senior guard/center Tristen Hoge and junior guard Keanu Saleapaga. Hoge hadn’t played since the Navy game because he contracted COVID-19 and then pneumonia, while Saleapaga has been out since last season with an undisclosed injury.
“We certainly have excelled in a lot of areas,” said Mateos, who previously coached at Texas State. “I have been very pleased with our pass protection. I think we have done a really good job there. I think we are doing pretty well in protecting the quarterback.”
Until recently, Mateos said he was pleased with the way the offensive line was avoiding penalties, but last week at Houston, his guys picked up a couple.
“I am really pleased with our knowledge of the game,” Mateos said. “We have kept missed assignments way down from last year and have guys doing the jobs that they are assigned to do.”
“We certainly have excelled in a lot of areas. I have been very pleased with our pass protection. I think we have done a really good job there. I think we are doing pretty well in protecting the quarterback.” — BYU offensive line coach Eric Mateos
Mateos, who introduced the concept of “avoid the poison” to the unit last year, an idea that has spread to the entire team, said the Cougars for the most part have done a good job of not listening to the hype surrounding them.
He would like to see the experienced offensive line play a little harder and with a little more of an edge, however.
“You get more knockdowns and finishes by straining through the whistle,” he said. “So I think that is an area we need to improve on the second half of the season if we want to be able to look back on this season and say ‘Hey, we were one of the best O lines in the country.’ We got to do a better job of … finishing plays.”
Receiver Gunner Romney also did not play against the Bobcats after leaving the Houston game last week with hamstring tightness. Romney was BYU’s second-leading receiver with 21 catches for 456 yards and two touchdowns entering Saturday. He had been targeted 32 times through five games, second only to Dax Milne, who had been targeted 39 times and caught 34 passes.
Brayden Cosper and Keanu Hill saw more action than usual in Romney’s absence.
The Cougars were also without three key defenders who could be considered part-time starters because of the impacts they have made this season, defensive end Tyler Batty (lower leg), cornerback Shamon Willis (back) and linebacker Keenan Pili. Sophomore linebacker Ben Bywater had surgery Thursday for a torn labrum (shoulder) and is out for the season.
Senior nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, who missed the Houston game with strep throat, was back Saturday, and running back Sione Finau was expected to make his season debut after sustaining a season-ending knee injury last November.