Las Vegas • We’ll start with the facts.
Everything after that is up for interpretation.
BYU was driving at Notre Dame’s 27-yard line with a chance to tie the game, down 28-20. It had a fourth-and-1 with 3:37 left. After breaking the huddle to get a look at the defense, the Cougars called timeout to talk it over.
During the break, quarterback Jaren Hall said the offense didn’t change the play. They had confidence in running the ball with Lopini Katoa. It was a short-yardage call scripted during the week.
And when BYU finally snapped the ball, Katoa ran it to his right and was met by a cavalry of white jerseys. Turnover on downs. Ballgame over.
“It was just a momentum thing,” Hall said. “In that moment, really the whole game, we had run it really well. Able to get one yard every time we ran the ball. Just looking at history, what had taken place and how we were running the ball and how we were throwing the ball, just had a lot of confidence we would get that yard.
“Props to them. They held us up.”
Now let the debate commence.
There were plenty of options for BYU to run on the final offensive play of the game. None were guaranteed to work, but they will be analyzed.
The first, and most obvious, was to run the ball with starter Chris Brooks instead of Katoa. The decision to run isn’t necessarily a problem, like Hall said, but the ball carrier might be.
BYU was averaging 5.7 yards per carry at that point for a total of 160 yards and a touchdown. It was probably the best BYU had run the ball in weeks, not to mention Hall was playing with a shoulder that was less than “100%,” according to Sitake. The Cougars had converted two third downs on the ground in the second half and were moving it well.
But why Katoa? Brooks had 90 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown. He was averaging 6.4 yards per carry and finding holes for most of the night. Plus, his power style of running is more traditional for a short-yardage situation than Katoa. It is partly why BYU brought him in during the offseason from the transfer portal.
“I’m sure the coaches will rethink everything [now],” Sitake said when asked if he thought about putting Brooks in the game. “It’s what it is. I don’t think there is an option not to think about it. ... Sometimes it means different options and different players.”
There is an argument to be made, however, that Katoa was also running well and had just picked up a first down earlier on a third-and-18. Maybe he could catch lightning in a bottle twice.
This brings us to the second option: BYU could have kept the ball in Hall’s hands and allowed the quarterback to have a run-pass option to pick up a yard.
Hall looked off earlier in the night. He severely underthrew two passes to start the game which resulted in an interception and a three-and-out. But in the second half, he was playing well and looked better.
After going three of eight for 11 yards in the first half, he had 109 yards in the second and was six of nine throwing. His arm strength looked closer to normal on multiple passes across the middle to Kody Epps and a deep ball to Puka Nacua. Just three plays before the fourth-and-one, Hall completed a 27-yard pass to Epps to pick up the first down.
So to keep it in Hall’s hands was not out of the question. Calling a run-pass option would have given BYU the benefit of a multi-dimensional look. And the game would have been decided by the Cougars’ best player, even if he is hurt. Hall had decent success running the ball on Saturday too.
And finally, a third school of thought would have been to run the ball with a heavier package. BYU did not have any fullbacks in to pick up a yard. The Cougars brought in Stanford transfer Houston Heimuli this offseason who specialized in run blocking. Masen Wake is also on the roster and could help in these spots. But it was just Katoa in the backfield as BYU went down with the ship.
“It stings a tad bit, only because you want to win,” Epps said of the final play. “We want to keep the drive going but our guys did everything they could to fight for that extra yard. They stopped us.”
Did Jaren Hall play hurt?
Hall said he was fine. Sitake said he was not.
Who do you believe in the case of Hall’s shoulder? For this one we will again turn to the facts.
Hall spent the majority of his pregame warmups working with trainer Skyler Mayne to get his shoulder stretched out. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick also mentioned on the radio before the game that Hall had been nursing an injury this week after a hit he took in the Utah State game last week.
Hall admitted throughout the week he was not 100%. He denied having any lingering issues on Saturday.
“Everybody is dinged up,” Hall said. “Everyone has a thing. I felt 100%. Earlier in the week, a little different story. But tonight, felt great.”
Early in the game, it looked like BYU’s quarterback had trouble making the throws he normally makes. Look at the first play of the game. It was close to the same route Gunner Romney ran to start the Utah State last week. Hall made the throw just 10 days ago and hit Romney in stride.
This time, he missed the throw by several yards and pushed it to the left.
The play calling too would suggest something was off. Roderick allowed him to throw only 17 times for a season-low 120 yards. He has never had under 20 attempts since becoming the full-time starter.
Beyond that, Hall had thrown for over 250 yards in the last nine games.
So, it seems something was off.
“I don’t think he was 100%,” Sitake said. “We have to look at all the decisions that we are making and make sure our guys are in the right spot. He was definitely banged up. We have to go back and see what our game plan was.”
Hall looked much better in the second half though. After the interception, Hall didn’t throw a pass more than 10 yards down the field for most of the first half. But in the second, a deep throw to Nacua went at least 40 yards in the air. It looked like the Hall of old.
“I thought he made some really good throws, especially in the second half,” Sitake said. “Let’s see how he feels after this. We are open to whatever happens after this.”