Eye on the Y: BYU linebacker says to ‘put the blame on ... the players’ for defensive struggles

Plus, snapping problems that underscore the state of the team and an unorthodox running approach

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Talan Alfrey (25) brings down Utah State Aggies quarterback Cooper Legas (5), in Football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah State Aggies, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

There is a question lying behind the platitudes about execution the BYU defense discusses every week.

What happened to all the veteran experience that was supposed to lead the Cougars’ defense this year?

“We didn’t have, I don’t think, a difficult scheme for our guys to execute defensive-wise,” Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake said as the defense reached its lowest point on Saturday. “... Fundamental tackling and mistakes on the field, we had some guys not doing their one-eleventh. That’s on the coaches for making sure they get that done and on the players to execute their assignment.”

And before we continue, the majority of the blame has fallen at the feet of the coaches. In college football, when a unit fails it is ultimately on the coaches. They get paid the money. They recruit the players. And certainly, over the next week, Sitake will make decisions about the defense.

But for a second, we can take a step back and examine the simple lapses that have also defined the defense. It’s basic things like tackling that would you figure a group that essentially returned every starter from 2021 — 10 out of 11 if we are being technical — would be better at.

“The scheme, you could say anything you want,” linebacker Ben Bywater said. “But at the end of the day we have to get off blocks and make tackles. I put the blame on myself and the players. We got to be better.”

I think Bywater is partly right. Most of the defense’s struggles, a group ranked outside the top 100, shouldn’t go on the players. But plays like the Cougars’ failed attempt at sacking quarterback KJ Jefferson, when BYU had four chances to wrap up the Arkansas QB but missed all of them, have to be at least partly chalked up to execution lapses.

The Cougar defense received a 38.5 tackling grade out of 100 against Arkansas, according to Pro Football Focus. Overall, BYU ranks 64th in the country in tackling.

“It’s not good enough, not even close,” Sitake said.

And that doesn’t include the penalties that have also played a role this season.

It would be understandable if BYU had a young defense. But this is an older group who have logged a lot of starts. Ultimately, would simply tackling better fix everything? No.

But seven weeks into the season, it is at least time to consider: What did all that returning production get BYU?

‘I don’t know how to hide that one’

Speaking of just plain and simple errors, let’s touch on the snapping for a bit. It might sound trivial, but for this team, nothing is too trivial right now.

BYU had Joe Tukuafu handling the snapping duties on Saturday. Normal starter Connor Pay was dressed, but did not snap the ball.

And at times it was an adventure. Quarterback Jaren Hall had snaps come directly at his face mask and there was a turnover on one of the snaps.

The turnover came on a fourth down-and-1. It looked like Hall wasn’t expecting Tukuafu to snap the ball, but he did. Arkansas landed on the mishandled snap and had short field possession to score.

“I’ll just be honest with you and tell you straight up, we were trying to draw them offsides,” Sitake said of what happened on the fumble. “There wasn’t even a play call in place. The ball was snapped which is why Jaren was surprised at it. I don’t know how to hide that one other than to say I don’t know what play we were snapping to.”

It looked sloppy, just like so much else that happened the last month of the season. This came on offense — which overall played well — but it felt indicative of the state of the team.

A different running approach

BYU played without two of its three running backs on Saturday. Backup Lopini Katoa missed the game with a concussion. Miles Davis was out again for the second straight week.

It left Chris Brooks and a big question mark.

So offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick decided to make the situation work for him. He put wide receiver Puka Nacua in the backfield to take carries. It’s his best weapon on offense outside of Hall. Why not just use this as an excuse to give him the ball directly?

Nacua had six carries for 20 yards and two rushing touchdowns (although the touchdowns didn’t come from true handoffs). Overall, a successful day on the ground game.

Different approach, but whatever works.