BYU made two costly fourth-down calls in loss to ECU. What was Kalani Sitake’s reasoning, and would he do it again?

Sitake’s propensity for being aggressive in high-stake moments has not paid off this season.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall (3) runs the ball as BYU hosts East Carolina, NCAA football in Provo on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.

Provo • Three offensive drives before East Carolina walked off BYU with a game-winning field goal, Kalani Sitake made a perplexing decision.

With the game tied at 24, and BYU staring at a fourth-and-2 at the East Carolina 12-yard line, Sitake didn’t take the points. Instead of a field goal, he opted to go for the first down, handing the ball off to his second-string running back. It ended in a turnover on downs and no points.

Then, on the next drive with the game still tied at 24, Sitake was aggressive once more. This time, BYU had the ball at its own 44-yard line with a fourth-and-1. Sitake could have flipped the field with seven minutes left and put ECU on its heels. But Sitake opted for a quarterback sneak that didn’t work. The ball never got beyond the BYU 38-yard line the rest of the night, giving the Pirates excellent field position for their final drives.

Two turnovers on downs were costly in a 27-24 loss.

“I have to look at my part as the head coach and the decisions I made,” BYU’s head coach said. “I own up to it.”

BYU’s loss to ECU can’t solely be placed on Sitake’s aggressive decision-making. BYU had a chance to win the game on its final offensive drive, even after both fourth-down failures (although that drive started at the 9-yard line because BYU did not flip the field).

That said, the fourth-down miscues unquestionably hurt BYU’s chance to win. And they deserve scrutiny based on two main premises.

No. 1, Sitake’s propensity for being aggressive in those moments flies in the face of BYU’s poor track record of converting fourth downs all year. No. 2, the play-calling on both fourth downs did not give BYU’s best playmaker a chance to touch the ball.

“Looking at analytics and all that stuff, if we aren’t able to execute and convert those, then we can’t just keep going for it on fourth down all the time,” Sitake said. “That is my job as a head coach. I make those decisions.”

Beginning with the first premise, BYU has not been good at converting fourth downs this season. Sitake has opted to go for it 20 times. BYU has converted just five of them. After the Oregon game in week three, BYU has covered just two of its last 17 tries.

So the confidence Sitake has in going for it in these high-stakes situations is surprising and is not substantiated by stats.

His confidence was especially surprising on Friday when he elected to go for it at the 12-yard line instead of attempting a relatively easy field goal. It would have given BYU a 27-24 lead.

It is impossible to say whether that lead would have held. But in retrospect, 27 points would have been enough at least send the game to overtime. Not to mention it would have put significant pressure on East Carolina on the final drives.

Sitake seemed to infer he was confused on the spot of the ball, and that is why he went for it. He insinuated that he thought the ball was spotted closer to the line to gain than it actually was.

“Now, in hindsight looking back at it, of course,” Sitake said of whether BYU should have kicked the field goal. “I think maybe it was actually longer than one yard. I think it was a full two yards. That is my fault. I just felt like we could have gotten that. There was some good momentum.”

Sitake then added that he had confidence in kicker Jake Oldroyd to make the kick, and that wasn’t the reason he went for it. Oldroyd, who has struggled this season, was seeing his first game action as a kicker in a month. Notably, BYU never got into field goal range again to give Oldroyd a chance.

“Jake had made one earlier and it seems like he has been kicking well,” Sitake said. “That [decision] is something I could have done differently and better.”

Beyond just the decision to go for it, though, it was also a surprising play call when BYU actually snapped the ball. On the first fourth down, only Miles Davis touched the ball as he ran into a wall of East Carolina defenders.

Davis was BYU’s third-best rusher on the night behind Lopini Katoa and quarterback Jaren Hall. Davis was effective, rushing for 46 yards on 11 carries, but he wasn’t BYU’s best option in that situation.

It raises the question: If BYU is going to risk it, why wouldn’t it give itself the best shot to pick it up?

On the second fourth-down attempt, a similar question can be asked. Hall tried to rush to the line of scrimmage and sneak the ball for a yard. Hall is one of BYU’s best options, but it looked like the main point of the play was for BYU to catch ECU off guard. When BYU saw the Pirates were all lined up and waiting for Hall’s sneak, BYU did not call timeout.

Also a glaring issue with both play calls was that BYU’s most effective weapon, wide receiver Puka Nacua, never touched the ball. Why not?

“I think that is a fair question,” Sitake said. “That is part of the evaluation process. Did we make the right decision? Everywhere, the play call and the personnel. I own up to my stuff. We went for it. I don’t know. I wish we had 100 Pukas on our team right now.”

Certainly, not many other coaches in the country would have gone for both fourth downs in that situation. Can BYU blame the loss on the fourth-down miscues entirely? Probably not. But they will be significant footnotes.