Provo • Exactly a year after knocking off Mississippi State 28-21 in double overtime at LaVell Edwards Stadium, BYU will head east on Saturday for a rematch with the Bulldogs in Starkville, Miss.
Believe it or not, it was just a year ago that the Cougars defeated an SEC team. But that victory, and wins in 2016 over the likes of Michigan State and Arizona, seems like an eternity ago given how coach Kalani Sitake’s team has plummeted in 2017. Sure, the Cougars lost two of the most prolific offensive players in school history in Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams and an underrated ballhawking defender in Kai Nacua, but the descent has been inexplicable in the coach’s second year.
“The goal is to try to turn this thing around,” Sitake said Friday after the Cougars lost 24-7 to Boise State to drop to 1-5, their worst start since 1973. “It requires hard work and some really good and wise decisions. … I am [eager] to get to work on it right now, and try to get this fixed. This is not what we thought it would be, definitely this season, and definitely [now]. So, we will work on everything. That’s the easiest way to [respond].”
Obviously, traveling some 1,700 miles to face a revenge-minded SEC team that is 3-2 and coming off a bye week is not the easiest route to get it turned around, but that’s the bad break the Cougars face in a season full of them. The Bulldogs are also looking to reverse course. After opening with wins against Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech and BYU-killer LSU, former Utah assistant Dan Mullen’s team lost 31-3 at Georgia and 49-10 at Auburn. Georgia is 6-0 and Auburn is 5-1, by the way.
Sitake said “everything” will be evaluated his week, including the performances of the coaches. He said the Cougars need rapid improvement in all three phases — offense, defense and special teams — but was especially discouraged by the play of the offense on Friday.
“This is not good,” he said. “You mention the [lack of] points, and we really don’t have a chance to play if we are that unproductive on offense. It doesn’t help us out.”
Tight end Matt Bushman concurred, after setting modest career-highs in receptions (seven) and yards (65) against BSU.
“The defense does a great job every time,” Bushman said. “When we don’t finish a drive, they go out there and play their tails off to try to keep [opponents] from scoring. It is hard to rely on the defense so much. We have to put points on the board.”
It would also help if the offense could sustain a few drives. BYU is 124th in the country in time of possession, keeping the ball an average of 25 minutes a game, 10 fewer than its opponents. Sitake said the defense, already shorthanded with injuries to linebackers Butch Pau’u and Matt Hadley, is wearing down, especially against the run late in games.
“There is definitely a lot of room for improvement in all three phases of the [game], but the focus right now is primarily on the offense,” he said.
Even with the injuries, the defense has played well enough to deliver a couple more wins. Given its schedule, which USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin ranks the 25th-most difficult in the country, BYU is a respectable 53rd in total defense, allowing 368 yards per game. The Cougars are 64th in scoring defense (26 ppg.) but would be in the top 50 if not for the pick-sixes and safety the offense gave up.
Offensively, the numbers are nightmarish: 127th in points per game (11.7) and total offense (253.5 yards) and 116th in passing offense (155.8).
Is it coaching, or lack of execution? Quarterback Tanner Mangum said it is the latter.
“I don’t question the coaches at all,” Mangum said. “I believe in what they are doing. It comes down to us executing. It is not the coaches’ fault that I am throwing picks. It is not the coaches’ fault that we are fumbling the ball, or missing blocks, missing assignments. That’s on us, and we know that. We know we can improve, get better. Regardless of what the coaches put us in, we believe in them and now it is up to us to execute.”
Saturday amidst the cowbells at Davis Wade Stadium would be a good time to start.
BYU at Mississippi State, 10 a.m. MDT
TV: SEC Network