Provo • You could tell wide receiver Kody Epps wanted to find an answer.
The question posed to him was simple: In what areas has the offense improved from last week to this week?
And after a pause, he came up with this.
“Keep fighting,” he said. “Every game just keep fighting man.”
His answer summed it up perfectly. Because after a 38-26 win over Utah State, the best thing anyone could point to was the effort. Everything else, well it was more of the same from a BYU team that remains in neutral in all three phases. Despite being No. 19 in the country, the last two weeks have looked overly difficult against Wyoming and Utah State. That’s not to even mention a 41-20 blowout loss to Oregon.
Head coach Kalani Sitake said it himself that he was starting to get repetitive in saying his team needed to play cleaner, it needed to run the ball better, and the defense needed to get off the field.
The issues have popped up in three of the Cougars’ five games. At some point, you have to wonder: is this what this team is? It hasn’t hurt 4-1 BYU yet, but changing that identity will be even more difficult against upcoming opponents Notre Dame and Arkansas.
“We have to figure it out,” Sitake said. “... There are definitely a lot of improvements to be made.”
Slow starts for the defense
One hallmark of BYU’s struggles is the early success opponents have in the ground game. Wyoming had 93 rushing yards in the first 17 minutes of the game. Utah State had 97 by the end of the first quarter.
A common theme, according to Sitake, is that offenses have taken BYU by surprise with their game plans each week. This week, Sitake said Utah State came out with a similar plan to Coastal Carolina on offense that BYU did not expect.
“I didn’t think they would do as much keep away ball, or the type of runs they did,” Sitake said. “... They shifted from being a downhill run team.”
BYU eventually adjusted at halftime, as it has done for the past three weeks, but the question remains: Why does this group seem to be behind the eight ball to start every game? BYU couldn’t work itself out of a hole against Oregon because of the slow start. It managed to survive against worse opponents in Wyoming and Utah State.
It is also true that the defense has routinely compounded rough starts with unnecessary errors.
On the first three series, defensive lineman Tyler Batty jumped offsides and had an unnecessary roughness call where he pushed a player’s head into the ground. Max Tooley later threw a shoe that cost the team 15 yards and allowed the visitors to extend a drive.
The defense couldn’t get off the field: Utah State ran 52 plays by halftime and BYU ran just 19. No matter how good Jaren Hall is, he can’t do much with only 19 snaps.
“It is basic things like wrapping up and tackling,” Tooley said. “We left a lot of plays out on the field today and we aren’t satisfied to be honest.”
BYU has allowed a total of 51 points in the first half during the past three weeks. It is not a recipe to win games against good teams ahead — especially Notre Dame, which has had two weeks to prepare for BYU off its bye week and likely will prepare plenty of different looks for BYU in that first half.
Miles Davis vs. Chris Brooks
At the start of the second half, it looked like redshirt freshman Miles Davis was about to lock up the starting running back role. After his game last week — with 152 all-purpose yards — he started the first two drives after the intermission and ran the ball effectively. He had 39 yards and gave life to BYU’s offense.
But then Davis limped off the field and Chris Brooks came back in. The fifth-year transfer, who has played himself out of the rotation, ended with 90 yards on some big chunk plays.
It appears, once again, that the running back competition is still on. The thing that sticks out about Brooks, though, is that all of his bigger chunk play runs have come later in the second half.
His 50-yard touchdown against USF came in the fourth quarter. His 34-yarder against the Aggies came in the fourth quarter.
It isn’t uncommon for running backs to take advantage of a tired defense, but Davis has been able to break off plays in the middle of games. Brooks has not to this point.
“Not good enough, especially at the beginning,” Sitake said of the run game.
The Utah State game might not have been the best gauge of production from the running backs, since there was a small volume of plays in the first half. Brooks only had two carries until that fourth quarter.
But, when looking at the stat sheet, it looks like Brooks was BYU’s best running back on Thursday night. Davis, though, has a case to be made that he was the Cougars’ best option back there. If he had stayed in for the final plays, he might have been able to seal the starting position.
Missing Puka Nacua
It was clear Thursday night that BYU — Hall excluded — does not have a No. 1 threat on offense.
Every week it has been someone new. Thursday it was Kody Epps. The week before it was Keanu Hill. The week before that it was Chase Roberts.
The identity of this team was supposed to be built around Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney. Nacua did not play Thursday due to injury. That means he has played a total of five full quarters of football this season.
He is undoubtedly BYU’s best receiver when healthy. He has a nose for the ball, and can make plays pretty much when the Cougars need them.
Hall made it work without him. He was 17 of 27 for 247 yards and three touchdowns. But there were stalled drives and whole halves of football where it looked like the offense couldn’t move the ball. Those are the moments where it stands out that an entire element of this offense is missing.
Nacua has the potential to mask a lot of problems. When he is not around, the running game issues become more pronounced.