Well into the early hours of Sunday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, seven crew members were stomping around the field, replacing divots and making other repairs to the grass.
The work started soon after BYU’s 19-13 loss to Utah, in an effort to restore a pristine playing surface for No. 10 Wisconsin’s visit Saturday. Kalani Sitake, Ty Detmer and BYU’s other coaches can only wish that giving their product its designed appearance were so easy.
Sitake described himself as “really frustrated,” and he’s not the only one in Provo who’s feeling that way.
BYU’s season is crumbling in mid-September, as the Cougars face the reality of another front-loaded schedule that everybody knew would offer risks — and, maybe, rewards. The reward part is missing. The Cougars are in serious danger of failing to beat a Power Five opponent this year for the first time since 2005, Bronco Mendenhall’s first season.
What’s ahead for the Cougars?
BYU’s chances of winning in its next four games, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index:
vs.Wisconsin: 12.0 percent
at Utah State: 69.8percent
vs. Boise State: 42.1 percent
at Mississippi State: 7.8 percent
That’s not shocking, by itself. My published, game-by-game forecast had BYU losing to LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi State in a 9-4 season. In that sense, the Cougars are right on schedule. But as is becoming clear, some big problems are associated with that potential record:
• Will BYU ever beat Utah? The Utes’ run in the rivalry is now seven games, bringing a record 10th win into view in 2020. Somehow, seven seems like a much bigger number than six. The rivalry game means so much to BYU in its independent state that Saturday’s outcome equates to about three defeats in 2017.
• What is going on with the offense? BYU’s lack of production makes the losses to LSU and Utah and the win over Portland State more disturbing. Even with an FCS opponent mixed in, BYU is in the bottom 10 in the country in total offense (231.7 yards) and scoring (11.0 points). This was supposed to be the season when Detmer’s traditional BYU passing offense took hold with quarterback Tanner Mangum, and that’s not happening.
The losses might be more forgivable if the Cougars were giving fans any degree of entertainment or enjoyment along the way.
“We know we can do it. It just hasn’t happened yet,” said freshman tight end Matt Bushman, whose 13 catches in three games have made him BYU’s closest thing to an offensive star.
• What’s the fun of beating a bunch of Mountain West teams? If the Cougars lose their four Power Five games, counting Wisconsin and Mississippi State, and win the others, they might be the mythical MW champions (6-0). That would mean beating Utah State and Boise State, and there’s value in those wins. But then come lower-tier opponents such as San Jose State, UNLV and UMass in late October and November.
Actually, 9-4 might be giving the Cougars too much credit. ESPN’s Football Power Index now projects 6.7 wins in 13 games for BYU, insufficient for bowl eligibility (the FPI gives Utah 5.6 wins in 12 games, which is another story).
Sitake needs a signature win, like beating No. 10 Wisconsin. That’s asking a lot of an offense that is making every first down feel like an achievement. And the defense is not blameless. Those guys deserve credit for giving up only 5 touchdowns on opponents’ 15 trips inside the 20-yard line, but they allowed LSU and Utah to complete 78 percent of their passes and sustain drives. Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley accounted for 389 yards in his first start against an FBS opponent.
Detmer showed more creativity against Utah, but his offense mounted only two long drives, one resulting in a fourth-quarter touchdown. Mangum looked good on that possession, and he got the last chance he had wanted two years ago vs. the Utes. But the Cougars couldn’t even get a first down on their final opportunity from their 9-yard line, thanks partly to two dropped passes.
Did we all expect too much from Mangum this season? Detmer said so last week, citing the offense’s inexperience. The scrutiny will continue, though, and so will questions about an offensive staff that seemingly was created by fan balloting.
The offense undoubtedly will improve and the Cougars will start winning. The issues are exactly when that will happen, and how much people will care at that point.