‘Make decisions as a head coach’: BYU coach Kalani Sitake considers need for defensive change after 52-35 loss to Arkansas

Razorbacks roll up 644 yards and seven touchdowns. Sitake will consider taking over play-calling from embattled defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki

BYU Athletics Arkansas rolled up 644 yards of offense with 34 first downs in its 52-35 win over BYU on Saturday in Provo.

Provo • Kalani Sitake was pensive. Then he was authoritative.

He blamed the coaches. Then he blamed the players.

And by the time he finished his remarks after a 52-35 drubbing to Arkansas, in which his defense gave up 644 yards and 34 first downs, he finally took ownership. With no answers, he considered change. For the first time after five weeks of defensive blunders, he openly considered the possibility of taking over play-calling for his embattled defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.

“I’m the head coach,” Sitake said. “I have to figure this out... I’m going to go back and assess and review and make decisions as a head coach.

“... This is my seventh season, and there are times when I have had to [call plays] defensively,” he continued. “I’m involved in it. I don’t think I’m ready to answer that question now. But it is an option. I like our guys. I think the effort they give us is fantastic. We need to get focused on getting things done. I’m not close to any options out there [yet], that being one of them.”

It was a raw version of Sitake who seemed to come to terms with the identity of his defense as seven games are in the books and his program is now 4-3. It’s a defense that can’t get off the field on third down, as Arkansas was 12 for 15. It’s a defense that hasn’t been able to tackle, as Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson evaded four would-be tacklers at the end of the first half to set up a touchdown that broke the game open.

More than anything, it’s a defense that doesn’t give its team a chance to win in its current iteration.

The offense put up 471 yards of offense. Jaren Hall threw for 356 yards, his season high. But still it felt like the offense had no chance to keep pace as Arkansas scored on eight consecutive drives from the first quarter on.

The minute BYU had its first three-and-out of the second half, the game was over. Arkansas came down and scored on a 64-yard run from Raheim Sanders and 29 seconds later the visitors had a three-score lead.

“It seemed like ballgame,” Sitake said. “We couldn’t generate enough momentum to keep up and score with them. … I’m really focused on third downs. That is the biggest issue to me.”

BYU did not get a stop on defense from the 10:36 mark in the first quarter until the final drive of the game. Jefferson threw for 367 yards and five touchdowns. The Razorbacks as a whole also rushed for 277 yards and averaged nearly eight yards per play.

“I have some ideas on how to get that done over the weekend and making sure we play a lot better next weekend,” Sitake said, acknowledging the current course can’t continue.

The urgency of Sitake’s comments were something that hasn’t been seen yet in 2022. But there hasn’t been a worse defensive performance in the Sitake era since 2016 against Toledo. That year, the first season with Sitake and Tuiaki at the helm, BYU allowed 692 yards to the Mid-American Conference opponent.

And back then, a performance like that could be played off as a learning curve. This is too deep in the Sitake era for it to be explained away in that light.

Perhaps the concerning part was there seemed to be no working adjustments from the first half to the second half from the defensive staff. Even in a monthlong slide that the defense has been on, it consistently found a way to improve after the intermission.

Instead, Arkansas poured in 271 yards in the second half and scored 21 points after the intermission. If the Razorbacks hadn’t had a 10-minute drive to end the game, the stats would have been more gaudy.

“The scheme, you can say whatever you want,” linebacker Ben Bywater said. “At the end of the day, you have to get off blocks. The players have to be better. … We are trying to win. This is college football. This is [the coach’s] livelihood. I don’t blame them [if they made changes].”

Bywater, normally the man who spins BYU’s defeats into something positive, didn’t have anything left to say. He said the postseason goals are over. He said the defense has too many questions.

Frankly, he sounded like the rest of the program after the loss: out of answers. It is partly why Sitake walked away from his news conference after taking just five questions.

He said what comes next, and the changes made, are on him. All there is left to do, in his words, is “finish it.”

“I know what we can do as a team to get us playing at our best,” Sitake said. “And that is what I’m going to do. Sometimes it can be just a quick change and other times we are going to need every part of next week to get it done. I don’t know if that make sense. I don’t think the answer is one thing.

“I think the answer is a few things and I have an idea of what they are.”