Provo • Kalani Sitake wanted to find an identity. He hoped his team would take a step forward. And as the BYU football coach looked at a schedule that featured Notre Dame and Arkansas in the coming weeks, he knew Thursday was the prime opportunity to do it.
Instead — as a struggling Utah State team limped into Provo and then limped out with a 1-4 record — Sitake walked off the field with many of the same questions he’s had most of the season.
Even in a 38-26 win over an in-state rival, Sitake was searching for answers to those tired questions.
“Tough game,” he said after his team had improved to 4-1. “I’m excited we got the win. ... We definitely can play better ourselves. A lot of mistakes and undisciplined play. Little things that we can fix. I think last week I talked about us not playing clean. The same thing happened again.”
Coming into the night, the chance BYU had to recalibrate ahead of the heart of its schedule could not have been clearer. The Aggies had lost to Weber State, an FCS opponent, 35-7. Their offense had turned the ball over 12 times in four games. To make matters worse, USU coach Blake Anderson’s group was relegated to starting backup quarterback Cooper Legas for the first time in his career after usual starter Logan Bonner broke his foot.
Yet, a wounded Utah State program came in and ran the ball like Oregon had two weeks ago, and Wyoming had last week. If anything, the Aggies ran the ball better. By the end of the first quarter, BYU had allowed 97 yards on the ground.
It continued through the half as the Aggies ran 52 plays, gained 147 rushing yards, and bullied the Cougars into a 17-17 tie. It was a re-run of last week, where it took until the second half for the defense to regather and finally give BYU enough separation to win a very winnable game.
When wide receiver Kody Epps scampered into the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown that gave BYU a 31-20 lead late in the third quarter, the Cougars finally had the breathing room they’d expected all along.
“I think we are improving, but we are nowhere near where we should be,” Linebacker Max Tooley said. “... Obviously we want to be further along in our overall team. I don’t know. I think it is a matter of just trusting it.”
The offense had its struggles too. Between another lackluster rushing attack, and three three-and-outs, the fans showed their disproval by raining down boos.
Even with a two-score win, Utah State nearly matched BYU’s offensive output with 392 yards compared with the Cougars’ 397. The visitors also picked up 24 first downs to BYU’s 20.
If Sitake wanted to see his regular playmakers emerge, he was treated to another week of his main players either sidelined or largely mitigated. Wide receivers Puka Nacua and Chase Roberts did not play. Keanu Hill was limited to just two catches.
Instead, it was again a trio of backups that ended up bailing out the offense. Epps led the team with 86 yards and a touchdown. Freshman tight end Ethan Erickson caught his first career catch for a touchdown. And Miles Davis, for the second straight week, breathed life into the offense early in the second half with 39 rushing yards on eight carries. Not exactly what BYU had drawn up.
“Every week,” Epps said when asked if he felt the team was improving. “We keep fighting man. Sometimes we don’t start as fast as we want to, but we keep grinding.”
Sitake spoke after the game of a general feeling of sloppiness — beyond the struggles of the running game or defense.
It extended to penalties, of which BYU racked up 10 for 82 yards. For every positive play, BYU seemed to take a step back. It could not have been illustrated better when Tooley had an interception returned for a touchdown and the following series threw a shoe to extend a drive that ended in an Aggie touchdown.
“We have to teach our guys not to throw the stupid shoe,” Sitake said, shaking his head.
There was an opening drive touchdown in the second half, then failing on a puzzling onside kick that gave Utah State great field position. There was kicker Jake Oldroyd missing two more field goals within 40 yards that could have comfortably put the game away.
“We kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” Sitake said. “Some really good things happened with competition and some guys played really well ... [but] we have to find a way to stop making bone-headed mistakes.”
BYU is now 4-1. It is ranked inside the top 20. But is it a team that’s growing as a big matchup with Notre Dame awaits?
At least tonight, a win was also a missed opportunity.