Eugene, Ore. • Kalani Sitake couldn’t seem to make sense of it as he sat down after Oregon’s drubbing of BYU.
Every question that came his way, the BYU coach came back to some version of the same confusion.
Confused at how his run defense — the same one that stopped No. 9 Baylor in its tracks — could give up 212 yards six days later. Confused at how a defense that was so sound the first two weeks could miss tackle after tackle as the Ducks poured in points. Confused at how a veteran offensive line could go two weeks without opening up any holes for the running game.
Most of all, confused at how his team could fall so far from beating Baylor to getting blown out of Autzen Stadium.
So, Sitake landed at this summation of the game.
“Everything has to be evaluated for us,” he said. “... We have to find a way to have better production on the field, and that is in all three phases. … We will find out a lot about our team in the next week. It is time to basically play like we can. Be consistent. Not really happy with the result.”
Two issues with that. The first is that where do you begin when trying to reevaluate pretty much everything about the way BYU played on Saturday? And the second is, what is the baseline for BYU to go back to in an effort to be consistent? After three weeks of the season, and three very different games, it is tough to pinpoint who this team actually is.
And all of this grappling will happen against the backdrop of the Cougars inevitability tumbling in the rankings and answering questions about what the future of this season looks like. The margin for error this postseason was razor thin. One loss almost ensures that the New Year’s Six is out the door.
“Chin up, chest out,” linebacker Ben Bywater said about dealing with the murky future. “Obviously we have to learn from this loss. Take it on the chin and move forward. I’m not too worried about our guys just moving forward and get back at it next week.”
What happened to the defense?
Of all the places to start, the run defense is probably at the top of the list. It certainly raised the most perplexing questions.
Last week, BYU didn’t buckle after Baylor tried to run the ball 52 times and dared the Cougars to stop them. It held one of the more physical teams in the country to 2.9 yards a carry.
So it figured that this week Oregon was going to have to find a different way to beat BYU. Cornerback Kaleb Hayes expected as much, saying Oregon was going to play a perimeter game.
Yet, not only did the Ducks run the ball 44 times, they largely won the game because of their ability to run all over BYU. Oregon racked up 212 yards, and averaged nearly five yards a carry. The defensive line from BYU was pushed around. The Cougars couldn’t get off blocks.
And when Oregon’s combination of Mar’Keise Irving and Noah Whittingham got into space, BYU couldn’t make tackles either. What happened to the defense of the first two weeks of the season that took advantage of opportunities to stop the ball carrier?
“I honestly don’t think that is our type of play,” Sitake said. “We had a lot of players missing tackles. And it was top to bottom. It wasn’t one person or one position that did it.”
Irving finished with 97 yards and Whttingham added 66. The most glaring stat was that Oregon had four ball carriers with runs of 10 yards or more. The Ducks gashed a BYU defense that couldn’t seem to get off the field.
Oregon’s first six drives resulted in points. Overall, seven of its 10 drives ended in scores. It would be fair to say Oregon blitzed BYU — going up 38-7 as the ground game churned. But it really was a complete showing of Oregon pushing around the defense.
“Oregon has great athletes,” Bywater said. “Everyone knows that. For us, we have to match up well and make those tackles. Something we will work on.”
Can there be caveats to this performance? Sure. BYU was without its top-two defensive edges in Tyler Batty and Earl Tuioti-Mariner. But that wouldn’t entirely make up for the run defense. And it doesn’t add up to the tackling.
“We were down a couple of guys on defense, but that is all right,” Sitake said. “We feel like we had great depth. We just couldn’t settle in. The guys made a lot of mistakes. … It seemed like every time we made a mistake, Bo Nix and offense were ready to capitalize.”
Running an issue again
For everything BYU couldn’t do to stop the run, it also couldn’t run the ball itself.
Chris Brooks was held to 28 yards on 10 carries. Lopini Katoa had 12 yards on five carries. BYU ended with 2.5 yards a carry, just like last week.
Sitake expected that Oregon’s front seven would be an issue. He imagined it would try to do something similar to Baylor. But the fact that BYU’s offensive line couldn’t generate any consistent running lanes for Brooks and Katoa for two-straight weeks is a concern.
The offensive line was supposed to be the strong suit of this team. So far, they have been good in pass protection. But the run blocking hasn’t been there.
“I do not know what the issue is,” Sitake said “We will have to keep watching film. We thought that defensive front from Baylor did a good job, and we thought we could find some spots against Oregon. Obviously, they did a good job shutting down the run, so it made us one dimensional.”
Really, the argument could be made that the run blocking has been inconsistent from the first week of the season. Despite BYU rushing for 312 yards in the opener, much of it was on chunk plays. That day Brooks had a 52-yard touchdown. Puka Nacua had a 75-yard touchdown. Jackson McChesney had a 28-yard run.
About the average run for this team, for the majority of the season, has been under 3 yards carry. It is something that needs to change.
Sitake also mentioned that when the running game isn’t producing, it also leads to other issues. For example, life gets more difficult for the receivers. Today, they struggled to get separation for most of the afternoon.
Talking about momentum?
It was a complete showing from Oregon. But BYU had a small sliver a hope in the second quarter of the game before the avalanche truly took place.
With BYU down 10-0 early, Hall led a 75-yard, 10-play drive that finished with an Isaac Rex 28-yard touchdown. At that point, it felt like the Cougars had settled into the game.
The next time with the ball — down 17-7 — BYU had a six-minute drive and set up a 38-yard field goal for Jake Oldroyd. If he would have made it, BYU could have stayed within striking distance at the end of the half.
Instead, he missed it. Oregon promptly went down and scored before the intermission and made it a three-score game. The train busted off the tracks from that point on.
“We dug ourselves too much in a hole to climb out of. And the momentum, all of that stuff that is on me and the staff,” Sitake said.
Now, Oregon would score on its first six drives and not punt until five minutes left in the third quarter. So, to say that any amount of momentum — or made field goal — would have changed the outcome is probably wrong.
But, in the obituary of this game, it can be said that BYU had a chance to at least keep it competitive. And it did not.