BYU loses heartbreaker to East Carolina, as path to bowl eligibility narrows

BYU’s losing streak extends to four, program now must win two of its last three to make a bowl game

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) is tackled as BYU hosts East Carolina, NCAA football in Provo on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.

Provo • As the clock ticked under four minutes and the offense huddled on the sideline, Lopini Katoa thought to himself what the rest of the stadium already knew.

This, with the ball at the 9-yard line and in a tie game, had to be the biggest drive of BYU’s season. Go down and score, and you salvage a year that gone off the rails. Get stopped, and you are staring at the beginning of the end.

“We knew,” BYU’s running back said. “Obviously in the moment it is one play at a time. Do your job. Get it done. But everybody knows we are trying to get back on track. It was a huge moment for us.”

Less than two minutes of game time later, Katoa was back on the sidelines. The offense went three-and-out and Katoa watched what the beginning of the end looked like. East Carolina, on its final drive, setting up a 33-yard field goal to walk it off at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

27-24 ECU.

Now, BYU is 4-5 and wondering if it has any realistic chance at a bowl game. Having to win two of three games in November, after going winless in October, is about as narrow a path as possible.

“Nobody imagined we would be in this situation at the beginning of this year,” Katoa said. “It is what it is. We have to respond in the best way possible.”

This loss wasn’t the same as the crushing defeats that came before it. This wasn’t the blowout to Liberty where BYU gave up 547 yards. This wasn’t the defeat at the hands of Arkansas, where the defense allowed 644 yards and looked uncompetitive.

No, this game was close. The defense, despite its faults, gave BYU a chance to win.

Multiple chances even — as the Cougars had the ball on the East Carolina 12-yard line with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter before turning it over on downs. Then, a little later with under eight minutes to play, the offense had a fourth down-and-short in a tie game but again got stopped on a quarterback sneak.

But it didn’t matter that BYU was closer. It was the same result in a streak of now four losses. An empty, often head scratching, month of October meant that this program didn’t have a margin of error for close losses like this.

All they can do now is look up and wonder if they can traverse the path to six wins and a postseason. For the first time in three years, the Cougars are under .500.

“It is supposed to hurt,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “The struggle through adversity is tough... I was really proud of our guys compared to last week. But looking at the result of the game more than anything, [it’s tough].”

BYU played the game plan exactly how it wanted to all night. It kept its struggling defense off the field, running the ball for 244 yards and grinding the clock for almost 34 minutes.

Katoa, starting in place of usual first-teamer Chris Brooks, had a career-high 20 carries and 116 yards. It was the first time he went over 100 yards since 2018.

And even though East Carolina was potent in the limited snaps it gathered, still outgaining BYU 424-388, the strategy gave the Cougars a chance to win. That is, until the final drive — when the delicate bridge finally broke.

The Pirates, on their final drive, did just enough to expose the weaknesses of the defense. They ran the ball to get into BYU territory, as they did all night to gain 227 yards. Keaton Mitchell ended with 176 yards as he bounced run after run to the outside.

Then, they threw the ball into a secondary that tried to keep up but couldn’t. On a fateful fourth down-and-8, ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers lofted a ball to his receiver 20 yards down the field. A pass interference call on a panicked Kaleb Hayes effectively ended the game, putting ECU in field goal range to end it.

“That was tricky,” defensive end Tyler Batty said of the final penalty. “Obviously would have loved to see a different outcome.”

Either way, it’s an outcome that BYU has to deal with. And unlike the last time BYU faced bowl elimination in 2017, this was a team that was supposed to compete to win 10 games. This was the team with all the veteran experience. This was the team meant to usher the program into the Big 12.

Now, it is a team just hoping for answers.

“It’s weird,” Katoa finished. “When I first got here [in 2017], we experienced a lot of adversity. This is weird because we have so much talent and potential. The potential of this team is huge. It is a weird feeling... I know we aren’t going to fold. We are going to keep working.”