Las Vegas • They didn’t second-guess the call that would ultimately decide the game. Not in the moment at least. Only after BYU fell 28-20 to Notre Dame would the doubt set in.
But as BYU called a timeout with 3:37 left on the clock — staring at a fourth down and 1 at the Notre Dame 27-yard line with a chance to tie the game — the was no hesitation on the play call. They would run the ball with second-string back Lopini Katoa to the right, as they had done time and time before.
“Same play, we love that play,” quarterback Jaren Hall said. “We wrote that down for short yardage in that situation. We have run that play before this year and it’s worked.”
But this time, Notre Dame’s Jayson Ademilola and NaNa Osafo-Mensah met Katoa at the line of scrimmage and pushed him back. And as Katoa fell to the ground short of the marker, so too did BYU’s chance to steal a game at Allegiant Stadium and knock off the Fighting Irish.
Less than four minutes of game clock later, Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne raised the ball over his head in a sign of celebration and relief.
“The coaches have to critique themselves and see what the best play for us,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said, noting now the evaluation process needs to start. “We even took a timeout so we had time to think about it. Disheartening that we weren’t able to get that.”
And now the what-ifs begin. What if BYU had left the ball in quarterback Jaren Hall’s hands and let him try to get a yard? What if power runner Chris Brooks, who had 90 yards and a touchdown Saturday night, were in the backfield instead of Katoa? And the biggest what if of them all, what if BYU never put itself in that position in the first place?
Because in order to the game to rest on Katoa being pulled down at Notre Dame’s 27-yard line as the mostly Irish crowd erupted, it took plenty of little decisions by the coaching staff that will be examined for weeks to come — little decisions that ultimately led to a missed opportunity on one of the biggest stages.
Those decisions started even before the game when Hall was called upon to play with a shoulder that wasn’t “100%” by Sitake’s estimation. On the first play of the game, Hall severely underthrew a ball that was intercepted. His second pass landed about 10 yards away from the nearest receiver and the offense sputtered to a slow start.
Hall has been BYU’s best weapon all season. But his first half resulted in 11 yards on 3-8 passing. By halftime, BYU was out gained 259-63 because of it and the Irish built an 18-6 lead.
“I don’t think he was 100%,” Sitake said. “We have to evaluate all the decisions we are making. Make sure our guys are in the right spot.”
Hall would later say his shoulder was fine “contrary to popular belief.”
There were other coaching miscues too that led to points and and trouble getting off the field on defense. In the first quarter alone, BYU had 10 men on the field three times and had to burn two timeouts.
For the fourth straight week, the defense couldn’t get off the field on third down as Notre Dame converted six of nine in the first half. Twice on third down, the Irish threw for touchdowns against a confused defense.
Nobody hurt BYU more on third down than tight end Michael Mayer, who finished with 118 yards and two touchdowns. Notre Dame ended 11 of 16 on third down.
“We couldn’t make a play on that. We couldn’t get to the quarterback enough,” Sitake said.
The whole thing led to another slow start and a deficit out of which the Cougars couldn’t climb. Sitake had warned for weeks that BYU needed to work itself out of the habit of self-inflicted wounds or it would come back to hurt them, he said. On Saturday, it did just that.
“We couldn’t play consistent enough football. That is my job,” Sitake said. “All coaching. That is me and our coaching staff. The fact that we weren’t organized — it is Week six. We are struggling to put 11 guys out there. We have got to figure it out and that is all on coaching.”
The team that Sitake talks about when BYU is at its best did show up eventually. Hall finished with 120 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Kody Epps had 100 of those yards and both scores. And the Cougars rallied from a once 19-point deficit to bring it within a score. When Brooks ran into the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 25-20, the Cougars had real life.
But that team didn’t show up for long enough. BYU is 4-2 and lost a game that had the opportunity to change the trajectory of the season. And undoubtedly the outcome will be marred by what ifs.
“The coaches need to rethink everything,” Sitake continued. “I think don’t think there is an option not to think about. When it doesn’t go the way you want, fix it.”