Greenville, N.C. • Just when it seemed like BYU’s 2017 football season couldn’t sink lower than a ship plundered by a band of angry Pirates, it did.
Lowly East Carolina, which had won just one game and possessed the country’s worst defense, pillaged the Cougars offensively and made just enough stops against BYU’s second-to-worst offense to sail off with a 33-17 win Saturday night in front of 38,835 fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I am getting too good at this, [describing] the disappointment of a loss,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, whose career record at BYU fell to 10-11. “I thought [ECU coach] Scottie Montgomery had his guys ready, and did a better job than I did getting his team ready.”
Later, Sitake said to put the blame for BYU’s seventh-straight loss, its longest losing skid since 1968, squarely on the coaching staff. Once again, BYU’s offense looked lost against a team that was giving up 600 yards a game and its defense was stout early, then crumbled in the second half.
“Between myself and the coaches, it is on us,” Sitake said. “The players are giving us all the effort they have. It has been like that all year. This one is on us coaches. We have to find a way to keep working and get it consistent so we can score points and win.”
It’s too late for a bowl invitation, seeing as how BYU is 1-7 with five games remaining. Getting a win for the seniors now becomes the Cougars’ rallying cry, believe it or not.
“We are going to play the rest of the season for the seniors,” said sophomore receiver Micah Simon, who caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Mangum to give the Cougars an early 7-0 lead. It was just the third time in eight games BYU has scored first, but the lead didn’t last.
East Carolina scored the next 10 points, then broke from a 10-10 halftime lead with 23 unanswered points to improve to 2-6 and keep its flickering bowl hopes alive.
The Cougars mustered just 153 yards of offense in the first half, and had just 215 at the end of the third quarter, having completed just one pass — for 46 yards to Aleva Hifo — the entire third quarter. BYU finished with a season-high 421 yards thanks to some long drives in the fourth, and Mangum finished with a decent stat line: 26 of 41 passing for two touchdowns and an interception.
But that doesn’t tell the story. The Cougars simply couldn’t move the ball and score touchdowns when they had to to remain in the game.
Why this BYU offense is so punchless and inconsistent “is the million dollar question right now,” Sitake acknowledged. “And that’s my job to figure it out. It looked like we had a little bit of a roll towards the end with the passing game.”
Trailing 26-10, the Cougars marched from their 16 to the ECU 4 early in the fourth quarter. But passes on third and fourth down fell incomplete, the fourth-down try a puzzling slant pass to Jonah Trinnaman before he even reached the end zone.
The next time Mangum touched the ball, he was intercepted by Cannon Gibbs and the Pirates punched it in a few plays later to go ahead 33-10. Mangum threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Matt Bushman with 3:48 left for the Cougars’ final points.
Sitake said every position will be evaluated this week as the Cougars prepare to face San Jose State, and declined to say whether he considered a quarterback change when the offense was sputtering again.
“We are always assessing what is better for us,” Sitake said. “All the positions are open and what we have to focus on for the future. … We have to give ourselves a better chance to win, and I can’t blame it all on the quarterback and blame it on one position, but a lot of it has to do with us coaches.
Whether it is personnel or scheme, we have to figure out what is the best for us in all three phases.”
Sitake defended his decision to kick a field goal and tie the score 10-10 the final play of the first half, saying he didn’t like the idea of trailing going to the locker room again. As for the decision to go for a field goal on fourth-and-6 from the 24 in the third quarter and his team trailing 16-10, a 41-yarder that Rhett Almond missed, Sitake said he was just desperate for points at that juncture.
“If I looked at the stat sheet, it was pretty even,” Sitake said. “The difference was we didn’t get points on the scoreboard, and they made field goals.”