BYU in review: Cougars in free fall after third straight loss, and here comes Boise State

(Octavio Jones | Tampa Bay Times) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall (3) celebrates after running the ball for a first down against the USF Bulls during the second half of the game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, October 12, 2019.

BYU was poised to collect its first win in the Sunshine State — and snap a two-game losing streak — but South Florida instead mounted a comeback in the second half, scoring 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

With the 27-23 loss on Saturday, BYU dropped its third straight contest. The Cougars haven’t won since beating USC 30-27 in overtime at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Sept. 14; they also have not played at home since hosting Washington on Sept. 21. Since then, BYU has made two trips east, with a bye week between games.

“It was a rough game, a game that we felt we were in position to win and didn’t,” offensive lineman James Empey said. “So, the morale — you’ve got a lot of competitive guys in [the locker room], lots of guys that live for Saturday. Losses hurt, but we’re going to bounce back. Even though everybody’s hurting, we’re going to bounce back and we’re going to be OK.”

Before Saturday’s game, the Cougars had a 37.7% third down conversion rate for the season. At USF, BYU converted 55% of its third downs, showing an improvement. Even with more total yards and more plays than their opponent, however, the Cougars still fell short.

Coach Kalani Sitake will have to figure out how to get the most out of the offense to not lose a game his team led for more than three quarters.

On the other side of the ball, the defense was doing a good job of holding the Bulls’ offense, until it just wasn’t. BYU’s defense didn’t get its first — and only — tackle for loss in the game until the third quarter. And it was just for a yard.

The Cougars also had a costly turnover toward the end of the third quarter that the Bulls converted at the start of the fourth quarter, igniting their comeback. As BYU prepared to punt on a failed drive, the snap went wide, bouncing off Danny Jones’ hands and resulting in a fumble. The Bulls’ Vincent Davis recovered on BYU’s 23-yard line.

Sitake felt that the team played a solid first half but fell apart in the second half.

“Guys not holding their ground and guys getting knocked off the ball — it became a fight,” Sitake said. “They beat us in the second half and … it didn’t help that we made a lot of mistakes, and it was all three phases.”

Three takeaways

• This is the third consecutive year the Cougars have dropped the game after a bye week. Although they simulated high-competition scenarios to get ready for USF, they fell short at the end.

“I don’t feel like the bye week hurt us at all this year around,” Lopini Katoa said. “We got better. I feel like I got better during the bye week. I’m not really sure why that happens.”

• The Bulls seemingly had a good read on BYU starting quarterback Jaren Hall early in the game, sacking the freshman four times in the first quarter, but the Cougar offense adjusted and went on to lead the game 13-0. The Cougars, however, still failed to finish drives the way they would like. Four times, BYU had to settle for field goal attempts and made only three of them. Had BYU scored touchdowns on those four drives, the Cougars would have buffed up their score by 19 points and would have started putting the game away earlier.

• BYU prides itself on being physical, particularly in the trenches. But the Cougars are losing those battles. Sitake doesn’t have an answer as to why but will be looking for one. The fourth-year head coach thought the team had addressed it after the loss to Toledo but will have to reevaluate everything once more.

“There’s a lot of things that we can fix from this game,” Sitake said. “Credit to South Florida, they made some big-time plays and thought they were able to hang their hat on the run game and then be able to create some shots because of that.”

Player of the game

Jordan Cronkrite, senior, USF running back.

Cronkite had his second straight 110-yard rushing game and seventh of his career. The senior finished the game with 158 rushing yards on 26 carries with two touchdowns, without losing any yardage on any play.

Runner-up: Jaren Hall, freshman, BYU quarterback.

In his first career start, Hall threw for 148 yards on 15-of-23 passing. But he really stood out for his running game, rushing for 83 yards on 16 carries. The freshman ran 32 yards on a keeper, followed by a 29-yard run for the Cougars’ final touchdown.

Hall left the game late with concussion symptoms. It’s not yet known if he will have to sit out any period of time.

Play of the game

It probably didn’t seem that exciting, but on a third-and-1 situation in the second quarter, USF’s Cronkrite ran for 5 yards and got a first down — the Bulls’ first of the game. Until then, the BYU defense had done a good job of preventing the USF offense from putting anything together, but that drive sparked the Bulls’ offense.

Up next

BYU will host Boise State on Saturday in the Cougars’ homecoming game at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Last year, BYU’s last-second comeback fell short as the potential game-winning drive was stopped 2 yards short on the final play. The Broncos went on to win 21-16.

The Cougars first started playing against Boise State in 2003, and are 2-7 against their regional rivals, but 2-2 at home.