Lynchburg, Va • Kalani Sitake struggled to go into firm detail about the changes BYU’s defense made this week, and that was exactly the point.
After weeks of defensive miscues — and the embarrassment of giving up 52 points and 644 yards to Arkansas — the Cougars’ head coach wanted to simplify the defense. He pulled the playcalling duties away from his long-time defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki and tried to call a game that simply put players in position to make tackles.
Maybe, the bet was, the scheme was too complex. Boil it back down to the basics.
“Trying to focus on execution,” Sitake said.
It didn’t work.
Liberty looked the same as Arkansas did one week before — only this was an opponent heading for Conference USA, not the SEC. The Flames ended with 547 yards, 28 first downs and controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes. It resulted in a 41-14 loss, the worst day in several years for the program.
It was the third straight week the defense allowed over 490 yards.
“Not sure if we executed well,” Sitake said.. “I’d have to watch the film and break it down a little more. Obviously need to make more plays defensively. Need more disruption overall, tackle better and shore up the run.”
The list could have continued, as BYU did not succeed in any facet of stopping Liberty’s offense. Any plan that Sitake put together quickly fell apart as BYU once again missed tackles and got beat in coverage. Scheme or not, BYU couldn’t make plays to stay in the game.
It manifested from the jump too. On the second snap defensive back Kaleb Hayes got beat on a 41-yard pass. It got called back, only for D’Angelo Mandell to get beat on the other side of the field a couple of players later for another big gain. All of it was symptomatic of a day where BYU could generate no pressure on the quarterback, hold in coverage or stop any part of Liberty’s will.
Sitake noted several times that players were in a position to make plays, but plays simply weren’t made. It was the strongest repudiation Sitake has made calling out his roster this season.
“Us as players, we have to be better,” defensive lineman Tyler Batty said. “It’s not like our coaches are on the field, right? It’s not like they can go make tackles, or catch or run the ball. So we have to be better.
“Execution from our players. ... I firmly believe we have the best coach in the nation. We have an amazing coaching staff.”
Some other obvious changes were made from last week. Tuiaki was moved down to the field from his normal press box position. Batty said he didn’t think it changed much as the same symptoms popped up.
Really, BYU couldn’t take away any part of Liberty’s offense and make it one-dimensional. When Hugh Freeze wanted to run the ball, BYU allowed 300 yards on the ground and 6.3 yards per carry.
The Cougars routinely let players bounce off the line of scrimmage and get to the outside for big runs. The Flames had nine runs of 10 yards or more.
“It is probably a lot of the technique [that is the issue],” Sitake said. “They bounced a lot of runs. I’d be concerned if we didn’t have any bodies out there to make the tackles. I thought we did have bodies to make the play.”
When Liberty dialed up passing plays, it wasn’t much better either. Quarterback Johnathan Bennet, a player who completes 50% of his throws in his career, used the lack of BYU pass rush to go 24 of 29 for 247 yards and two touchdowns and an interception.
BYU had two takeaways, but it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of a game where Liberty cashed in on five touchdowns.
After the game, Sitake was asked if this stretch required an immediate change on the coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball. But he held firm that was not his answer at this point in time.
“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.”
In retrospect, the answer fit Sitake’s general disposition of the day. While in weeks past, Sitake called on the coaching staff to step up, this time he called on the players. Changes were made, they didn’t work.
The question now is which changes will work for a defense that appears broken beyond repair?
“We need to execute better,” Sitake said. “I thought simplifying it would be a lot easier for us to execute. I will have to go back to the film and see why we didn’t executive. See where is the fault.”