‘There’s obviously something wrong’: What has been the issue with BYU’s slow starts?

Kalani Sitake shows frustration over issues he thinks shouldn’t be ‘showing up’ at this point in the year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) tries to hold on to the ball, as Utah State Aggies linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (10) goes after the loose ball, in Football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah State Aggies, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

Kalani Sitake was specifically unspecific when talking about why BYU has looked unprepared to start games this past month. Between slow starts and some glaring substitution mistakes, first-half troubles have cost the Cougars two games and any chance to break through to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

But in lieu of any details, BYU’s head coach did offer his frustration in spades — the most pointed frustrations he’s had about a team that hasn’t seemed to fix the problems that have plagued it for the past month.

“There is obviously something wrong there,” Sitake said of the first half of games. “I’m not going to air it all out here. But there is a pie chart that goes to all the blame and I have a big portion of that. We have to figure it out.

“... I don’t think [some of these issues] should be showing up. Especially midseason. Especially with the veteran group.”

Even if Sitake wouldn’t go into detail, there are some obvious issues to address — beginning with the Cougars’ defense.

Just look at the past two weeks as a perfect illustration: Against Utah State, the Aggies ran the ball ad nauseam and chewed the clock until they churned out 52 plays to BYU’s 19 in the first half of that game. Simply put, the defense couldn’t get off the field as Utah State converted first downs and ran for 97 yards in the first quarter alone.

Fast-forward to Notre Dame and it was the exact same thing. The Irish held the ball for nearly 22 minutes in the first half and they converted 6 of 9 third downs. They ended the night 11 of 16 on third down. Notre Dame ran 73 plays to BYU’s 46. It’s hard to win like that.

“Maybe the goal is to get off the field,” Sitake said.

Things then turn to the offense, which hasn’t helped the situation in the first half of games. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said he felt like he was calling games against a military academy because of how sparingly his group has the ball.

“When you get out there [on offense], you sort of start pressing and say you got to make something happen because I might not get the ball back for half an hour,” Roderick said last week.

And there is merit to that, but the offense has compounded the issue. Let’s stick with just the past two weeks as examples. As Utah State ran the ball, BYU had three, three-and-outs that gave the ball right back to a struggling defense.

Against Notre Dame, the first half drive chart looked like this: interception, four-play drive, touchdown, three-and-out, safety. The end result: an 18-6 deficit that BYU could never climb out of.

BYU’s offense has gone three-and-out on 18.8% of its drives. That is up from 13.2% in 2021 and just 10.3% in 2020.

“When [the defense] plays 50 snaps in the first half, you are going to get tired,” Sitake said. “... Offensively [you have to] sustain drives and put some points on the board and get first downs.”

This brings up the issue of the substitution errors that BYU had in the last month. Because the defense is on the field so often, the defense has been doing entire line changes to keep people fresh.

The Cougars had to burn two timeouts against Notre Dame in the first quarter because they had only 10 players on the field. BYU then took a penalty on an extra point because it only had 10 players again. The point after attempt was missed.

“The accountability is on the players and the coaches,” Sitake said. “I don’t like to blame the players, so the coach’s job is to make sure they are in the right place at the right time. That’s what it comes down to. And if [the player] isn’t in the right place at the right time, find a new player to do it.”

BYU has been a hard team to describe this year, and now it is apparent why. Because when the Cougars are playing well — see the second half of Utah State, Wyoming and parts of the second against Notre Dame — BYU is undoubtedly a top-25 team. Problem is, too often that team has only shown up for 30 minutes.

“I think it is a matter of starting off slow and I don’t have all the answers,” linebacker Max Tooley said. “I just know it has to change.”

Running game progress

BYU’s running game has been deserving of criticism over the past month.

But finally, against a very physical front seven of Notre Dame, BYU ran the ball well. It could be argued that it was the Cougars’ best rushing attack of the year.

Starting running back Chris Brooks looked exactly as you would have expected when he transferred from Cal. He had a complete game where he was good from the opening carry on his way to 90 yards and a critical touchdown. He looked decisive, running downhill where he is most successful.

Lopini Katoa was also quite effective as BYU averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a team. For a 160-yard outing, that 5.5 yards per carry number means there weren’t many empty attempts. About the only hollow rushes came at the goal line early in the first quarter.

Roderick said he believed BYU was getting closer to finding the right balance with the run game and players’ roles in the scheme. It looked closer to a finished product in Week 6.