BYU needs to reevaluate defense following frustrating win over South Florida

The Cougars opened the season 4-0 for the second consecutive season — the first time in program history — but still have a lot to work on.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) South Florida quarterback Timmy McClain, left scrambles during Saturday's game against BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Two years ago, after BYU fell to South Florida on the road — the third consecutive loss and second loss in a winnable game — the coaching staff had to reevaluate the team, specifically the defense.

Now, the staff is back in that same mentality, trying to figure out how to fix a defense that allowed a season-high 27 points against the Bulls.

Luckily, unlike the outcome from two years ago, BYU was able to still pull out a win against South Florida, 35-27. That helped the Cougars get bumped up to a No. 13 ranking in the latest AP Top 25 poll.

“They made some plays and we didn’t make enough on defense in the second half, especially,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “… I don’t think we played our best as a complete team, but I think there’s really promising things, considering [we played with] our backup quarterback, some really good things that we saw on the field.”

The BYU defense had allowed only 16.67 points through the first three games. After Saturday, that average went up to 19.25.

The Cougars also closed out the game having allowed 14 unanswered points.

Part of what troubled the BYU defense so much was the Bulls’ quarterback, Timmy McClain. The freshman was shifty and athletic, and was able to still make plays when forced to scramble out of pocket.

McClain threw for 186 yards while completing 70.8% of passes and was sacked just once. The majority of McClain’s passing yards (161) came in the second half. The freshman also added 55 rushing yards on 15 carries.

“I thought USF did some really good things,” Sitake said. “I can’t believe their quarterback is a young freshman. He can escape, he can run. It felt like we couldn’t keep him contained and he was really, really athletic. He escaped a bunch of possible sacks and so I had to give them a lot of credit.”

Barrage of injuries for the Cougars

BYU had already entered Saturday’s game a bit banged up, but suffered even more dings and injuries in Saturday’s game.

Most notably, quarterback Jaren Hall sat out the game, but the Cougars were also without defensive top guns Atunaisa Mahe and Tyler Batty.

Some of the injuries throughout the game included LaChance Harris, who was later seen on crutches after sustaining an ankle injury; Caden Haws, who was already filling in for Mahe; Neil Pau’u, who took a low tackle, but soon after returned to action; and more.

“There’s a bunch of guys that are banged up, [but] nobody gone for the year,” Sitake said.

The sixth-year head coach said he believes Batty, Mahe and Hall should be good to go for the upcoming Utah State game and hopes to get some of the guys who had to leave the South Florida game back in time.

Penalties hurt the Cougars

Although BYU was flagged for only five penalties, for 49 yards, the majority came at crucial times that only helped South Florida in putting together a successful drive.

The first big one was when BYU was called for holding in the second quarter. Most Cougars seemed to slow down after that, presumably thinking the play would come to an end soon, but the whistle didn’t ring. Instead, McClain ran up along the sidelines for 18 yards due to the lax defense. Add in the 10 yards granted to South Florida, and the Bulls were suddenly in scoring position.

Luckily, South Florida wasn’t able to get a touchdown and had to settle for a field goal.

Toward the end of the third quarter, a face mask penalty by BYU on the kickoff return, coupled with pass interference in the end zone a handful of plays later, set up the Culls to score a rushing touchdown.

“The USF offense did a really good job at being patient, especially in the run game and they just waited for soft spots to show up and making it count when they did,” BYU defensive lineman Pepe Tanuvasa said.