‘It is a fight or flight moment’: BYU hits its lowest point in years in loss to Liberty as shocking fall continues

Now 4-4 and sinking lower each week, a broken BYU team hasn’t yet found rock bottom.

Liberty running back Dae Dae Hunter, left, protects the ball from BYU's Kaleb Hayes during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Lynchburg, Va. (Paige Dingler/The News & Advance via AP)

Lynchburg, Va. • Keanu Hill didn’t pick up his helmet. He couldn’t as he stood on the edge of the red-painted end zone, looking out on the thousands of Liberty students piling onto each other.

He knew this moment was coming. The public address announcer practically announced that a field storming was on its way in the third quarter of a 41-14 Liberty win. An exclamation point to a victory that was long punctuated as Liberty did to BYU what the Cougars were supposed to do to the Flames.

But nonetheless, BYU’s receiver stood there looking at it, because it still was so surprising. Six weeks ago, Hill was in a mob of his own in Provo after BYU took down No. 9 Baylor. This was the opposite end that BYU never thought it would see this year. Same players, same coaches but six straight weeks of results that dived deeper and deeper into the abyss, until it resulted in BYU looking like it didn’t belong on the same field as Liberty.

BYU is 4-4 and questioning whether it can make a bowl game rather than chase 10 wins.

“We have been in this situation for a couple of weeks,” quarterback Jaren Hall said. “Things have not gotten better.”

If anything, things got worse.

After giving up 644 yards and 52 points to Arkansas last week, Kalani Sitake talked about overhauling the defense entirely. He called plays. He simplified the scheme. He took control. But it still didn’t work.

Liberty piled on 547 yards this time around, 300 of them coming on the ground. Dae Dae Hunter broke big run after big run, until finally he pounded out an 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter that gave Liberty a convincing three-score lead. He finished with 213 yards himself and averaged 9.3 yards per carry.

And if BYU was giving up the run to to stop the pass, it didn’t show. Liberty quarterback Johnathan Bennett, a career 50% thrower, completed 24 of 29 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns.

Overall, the final stats amounted to 7 for 12 on third down, 77 plays and not a single punt until 4:53 in the fourth quarter. Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki called the Arkansas game the lowest moment in his time at BYU; this might have been worse as the bottom has yet to be hit.

“It is a fight or flight moment,” Sitake said as athletic director Tom Holmoe stood in the back of the press room. “I only know one way. That is to work hard and make sure we have the right guys with us along the way.”

Who those right guys are will be a question. At the top of this list is whether Tuiaki returns to the staff. Sitake dug deeper into his commitment when asked by The Tribune.

“I’m going to keep running the defense and focus on executing better,” Sitake said. “I’m going to ask the guys to coach their positions better, hold everybody accountable. I’m going to ask the players to hold each other accountable. I look forward to seeing who wants to come out of this mess. It is an easy filter for me to see who wants to join the fight and who wants to not be a part of it”

And unlike last week, the questions will also extend to the offense that appeared hapless. For as much as BYU’s defense couldn’t get off the field, the offense couldn’t stay on it. Only two drives lasted longer than three minutes, and one of them was a turnover on downs.

Quarterback Jaren Hall threw for 187 yards. BYU had just 12 first downs compared to Liberty’s 28. After taking a 14-3 lead on an Isaac Rex touchdown, Liberty scored 38 straight points. Sitake called it “shocking.”

“We didn’t do anything in the three phases to really gain the favor of the game,” Sitake put it plainly.

That might have been the worst part of the entire performance. Because Liberty coach Hugh Freeze conceded before the game that BYU was bigger and more talented at every position. BYU should have been the team to dominate in all three phases. They are two programs, theoretically, on two different levels of college football.

Yet, BYU has fallen this year to the point where nothing is safe. It has plummeted to the worst loss for the program since 2017 against UMass. Defensive end Tyler Batty sat at the podium after the game and admitted it is the most frustrated he has felt since coming into BYU.

And after the field was stormed and everything went quiet, it looked like a program in need of immediate help.

Hill picked up his helmet and walked away, hitting the fence on the way it. He was frustrated and shocked, but left to pick up the pieces with a broken group.

“I’ve been through stuff before,” Sitake said. “I know people have concerns but all I know how to do is fight. I’m all about fighting through stuff. Back me in the corner and find out. Things are about to be really tough in our program and that is how it has to be. Looking forward to seeing our team after we go through all of this.”