In August, I happily accepted traveling assignments to help cover three college football games this season: BYU vs. Mississippi State, Utah vs. Oregon and Utah vs. Washington.
Those looked like three competitive games in good campus atmospheres, between the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12. Part of that theory remained true last weekend, when BYU lost 35-10 to Mississippi State amid the cowbells of Starkville, Miss.
The result was quite predictable at this stage of BYU’s season — unlike Saturday’s visit to East Carolina. If I could do it over, I would have asked to skip last week’s trip and apply the money to this week’s game. The Cougars’ game in Greenville, N.C., is as interesting to me in its own way as any contest they’ve played in recent years.
I know that sounds funny to say about a game between two 1-6 teams, but that’s just the point. The conversation about BYU’s football program might be entirely different six weeks from now, after the Cougars and their beleaguered offense have faced the likes of ECU, San Jose State and other beatable opponents with poor defenses.
But what if nothing changes? That’s why Saturday’s game is so important to Kalani Sitake, Ty Detmer and the rest of BYU’s coaching staff.
Can the Cougars score a bunch of points against a horrible defense? We’ll find out. BYU has totaled 60 points during its historic six-game losing streak, including a defensive touchdown. The Cougars scored 55 points in a win over Toledo last year that altered the trajectory of their season. That was with Jamaal Williams rushing for a school-record 286 yards and five touchdowns, and the current Cougars don’t have anybody like him.
The 2016 Cougars had failed to score 20 points against Power Five opponents Arizona, Utah and UCLA before breaking out against Toledo, so that example offers some hope. Even so, it is difficult to picture Tanner Mangum’s offense suddenly sustaining drives, scoring touchdowns and dominating an opposing defense.
Counting backup quarterback Beau Hoge’s start against Wisconsin, the Cougars have endured three games of running fewer than 50 plays and gaining fewer than 200 yards. In 2013, I witnessed Taysom Hill’s BYU offense run 115 plays in a 47-46 win at Houston, while racking up 275 yards and 18 first downs in the first quarter. Those numbers usually reflect a great half; these days, they would cover a good game for BYU’s offense.
Things could change Saturday. They had better change, or not much will be left to salvage from BYU’s season.