Provo • Given its difficult early schedule and subpar offensive numbers, it is sort of amazing that BYU’s football team is 3-1 this season.
But here the Cougars are, nationally ranked and looking at another opportunity to make a national splash against a highly ranked team, No. 11 Washington, on Saturday at Husky Stadium.
The bulk of the credit for that turnaround — last year, BYU was 1-3 through four games and had scored a grand total of 39 points — has to go to the defense, which was so-so in 2017 but has seemingly improved in 2018 despite missing some key starters the past two games due to injury.
BYU’s offense, led by offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick, also has improved but at a much lesser rate. The Cougars couldn’t even muster 300 yards in Saturday’s 30-3 win over Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) foe McNeese.
They had just 137 at halftime and finished with 291, just 4 yards more than against Cal two weeks ago.
Then again, the bar was pretty low after BYU statistically had one of the worst offenses in all of college football last year. It took nine games for BYU to reach 100 points in 2017.
“Yeah, it needs to improve,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “We need to throw better and be more efficient as an offense if this is going to work.”
BYU is averaging just 320 yards per game and ranks 118th in total offense, 114th in passing yards (163.8) and 92nd in rushing yards (156.5). The Cougars are 98th in scoring at 25 points per game.
“It is tough to pick one thing,” quarterback Tanner Mangum said. “It is the little things, here and there. It requires 11 guys doing their jobs to be successful, and we weren’t doing that [in the first quarter]. We had to just dial it in and focus up and just focus on being deliberate in our execution. I thought we did a good job of pushing through it and not letting it ruin the whole game.”
Defensively, the Cougars held the Cowboys to just 57 yards in the second half, after giving up 97 in the first quarter alone. Once again, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s defense got better as the game progressed.
“I felt like we controlled the game after that one drive and missed field goal,” Sitake said. “That’s how we need to play from the get-go, right from the first play.”
The Cougars are 29th in total defense, giving up just 328 yards per game. They are tied for 23rd in scoring defense, allowing 17 points per game.
But perhaps their biggest improvement from last year is in takeaways. They are 21st in that category, with eight. They are tied for 12th in turnover margin.
Now if they can only get a pass rush going. They have just six through four games.
• BYU’s passing attack still needs work. The Cougars passed for just 130 yards on their home field against an FCS team. That’s not good. Worse, they averaged just 4.8 yards per passing attempt. Those kinds of numbers might get it done against a lower-division foe, but not against the high-scoring Washington Huskies or Utah State Aggies in the next two weeks.
The good news is that Mangum didn’t throw any interceptions for the second straight week.
“I really don’t worry too much about the numbers, unless it is interceptions. That really bothers me in the passing game,” Sitake said.
• The Cougars seem to play better on the road than they do at home. BYU had lost five of its past six home games before Saturday’s win, which “wasn’t pretty,” in Mangum’s words. They’ve won four straight road games, including wins over Arizona and Wisconsin, but that streak is in jeopardy Saturday against Washington.
Sitake suggested last week that the team is too tight at home and doesn’t seem able to play as loose and free as it does on the road. He was right again, at least in the first quarter.
• BYU’s depth has improved to combat the usual rash of injuries. The Cougars avoided the injury bug for most of preseason camp and the first game, but they got beat up a bit against Cal and Wisconsin. Fullback Brayden El-Bakri missed his second straight game, while linebackers Zayne Anderson and Butch Pau’u, cornerback Isaiah Herron and safety Dayan Ghanwoloku also sat out vs. McNeese.
The Cougars were fortunate they played a lesser opponent in Game 4, and not Washington, Boise State, Utah or some of the other remaining heavyweights on the schedule.
Sitake said Anderson should be back next week and Pau’u almost could have played Saturday.
“We are hoping to get Dayan back, too, if he is healthy and ready to go, but he has to compete with the other guys to get the starting nod,” Sitake said.
Player of the game
Corbin Kaufusi, defensive end. The 6-foot-9 senior showed he can be an NFL prospect by making some spectacular plays on special teams and defense. He blocked a field goal, his fourth career blocked kick, that turned the momentum to BYU’s favor. He also recorded a sack and five tackles.
Runner-up: Running back Lopini Katoa had a career day with 10 carries for 64 yards and two touchdowns.
Play of the game
Mangum’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Talon Shumway. Facing third-and-goal midway through the second quarter, BYU’s quarterback lofted a perfect pass to the corner of the end zone, and Shumway, a former Lone Peak High basketball star, snared the ball over the outstretched arms of a McNeese defender to give the Cougars a 14-3 lead.
“He made an athletic play on it,” Mangum said. “Makes my job easy. That was a great way for us to just finish that drive.”
BYU debuts and firsts
Freshman Katoa and junior Shumway recorded their first career touchdowns and freshman kicker Skyler Southam kicked a career-long 47-yard field goal, BYU’s longest field goal since Mitch Payne kicked a 48-yarder in 2010 against UNLV.
Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson entered the game with 11 minutes remaining and completed his first pass, a 12-yarder to fellow freshman Gunner Romney.
Seniors Tanner Jacobson and Rhett Sandlin made their first career interceptions, and senior Sawyer Powell had his first career fumble recovery. Sophomore Danny Jones’ first career punt went for 39 yards.
The Cougars will get the chance to record their second win over a highly ranked team in three weeks as they travel to Seattle to face the Huskies. Kickoff is at 5:30 p.m. MDT Saturday and the game will be televised by Ch. 13. Washington improved to 3-1 with a 27-20 home win over Arizona State late Saturday night.