Eye on the Y: Can BYU football end its skid and find a way to become bowl eligible?

Plus: An awkward blueprint for the offense, questioning the final offensive sequence and examining Kaleb Hayes’ panicked play

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Puka Nacua (12) as BYU hosts East Carolina, NCAA football in Provo on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.

You could start with history because it tells a story.

The first winless October since 2014. The first four-game losing streak since 2017. The first time allowing more than 400 yards in four consecutive games since 2019.

All of those numbers harken back to darker times in BYU history, which should say a little bit about the current state of this 4-5 team.

But truthfully, you don’t need any stats or history to know this team is spiraling right now. Anybody who simply watched East Carolina run up and down the field, and the offense sputter time after time in the fourth quarter, would arrive at that conclusion.

It begs the question: Can BYU realistically go on the road for two of its last three games and somehow find two wins to qualify for a bowl game?

As unfathomable as it may have sounded in September, this could be just the fifth BYU team since 1973 to finish with a losing record. And the main reason is there are just too many questions in this group right now. New questions arise seemingly every week, with no answers to existing ones.

At first, when BYU began its slide, still sitting at 4-1 and inside the top 20, it was the defense that was the glaring red flag. The Cougar D gave up 52 points to Arkansas, then proceeded to allow 41 points to Liberty.

Against East Carolina, nobody could say BYU found a fix. Yes, the defense gave up 27 points. But the Pirates rolled up 424 yards in just 27 minutes of game time. It would be hard to believe if ECU wasn’t on the field for 34 minutes (the average of what Arkansas and Liberty were) that it wouldn’t have put up higher point totals. The Pirates averaged 7.3 yards per play and still picked up 20 first downs.

And as the month of October has moved on, it isn’t just the defense anymore. The offense, too, has to be looked at. It mustered just 14 points against Liberty. Then, with three chances to win the game on Friday night, it put up zero points in the fourth quarter. This included two turnovers on downs when BYU’s best option, Puka Nacua, didn’t touch the ball and a three-and-out where Jaren Hall tried to get the ball to Masen Wake (who has nine catches all year).

Call it play-calling. Call it execution. Call it offense. Call it defense. It really doesn’t matter at this point. It’s all ugly right now — and there are few signs things are improving.

So can BYU go on the road and beat Boise State (first in the Mountain West) and then down Stanford? Sure, the Cougars could. But right now there is nothing to hang your hat on to say that BYU will, or should, win either of those contests.

The only blueprint that works?

There are two realities for this offense right now.

The first is that a passing attack is the best way to feature the Cougars’ two best players, quarterback Jaren Hall and wide receiver Puka Nacua. The second reality is that BYU needs the offense to run the ball to keep a bad defense off the field.

The offense’s best version, and the team’s needs, are two different things.

Against East Carolina, we saw a glimpse into this conundrum. BYU ran the ball 42 times for 244 yards. Even with Hall playing well, BYU just kept milking the clock and picking up first downs. It nearly worked. The defense stayed off the field. The East Carolina offense was limited in its snaps. At the end of the game, unlike against Liberty and Arkansas, BYU gave itself a chance to win.

But I left this game thinking about two issues going forward. First, can this offense realistically be sustainable while running the ball that much? Boise State is statistically one of the better defenses in the nation. The prospect of running for 244 yards against the Broncos, on the road, is unlikely and this strategy only works if the Cougars run the ball effectively.

Second, this game plan took the ball out of Hall’s hands. Hall was playing well on Friday too, his second-highest-rated game according to Pro Football Focus. But he only attempted 25 passes for 144 yards. It is far under his normal production and I would think if he passed more BYU could have scored more (but BYU’s defense would have likely allowed more too).

We have seen when this offense is at its best. Look at three weeks ago against Arkansas, when BYU was matching an SEC defense with throw after throw from Hall to Nacua. Hall threw for 356 yards. Nacua had three touchdowns.

Coach Kalani Sitake said after the game he doesn’t necessarily think BYU needs to run that much to win going forward. To him, the running was just working on a given night. However, it is hard to believe Sitake wouldn’t have wanted to throw the ball more on Friday with Hall going well and Nacua seemingly playing well (79 yards and a touchdown).

What happened on the final offensive sequence?

We have already written about the confusing fourth-down decisions made by Sitake this weekend. But there is another poor sequence that deserves some attention.

On the final offensive drive of the game, with a chance to win the game, BYU went three-and-out. It gave the ball back to ECU to set up a game-winning field goal.

The three plays were a short pass to Wake, a run by Lopini Katoa and an incomplete pass to Wake. Not once did Hall or Nacua get a real chance.

In that situation, with the season potentially on the line, it would be fair to question why BYU’s two best players didn’t get a shot. It would also be fair to question why Wake, who hasn’t been a factor in this offense nearly all year, was so involved.

“I trust everybody out there on the field,” Nacua said when asked if he was upset if he didn’t get the ball. “On a lot of our motions, they did a good job of making sure they located me. I felt like there were plays where I had the opportunity to make a play and there’s play calls where it is my job to draw the extra defender so other guys can get open.”

Can you blame Kaleb Hayes for the pass interference?

Speaking of the final plays, the last real offensive play for ECU was a killer for the Cougars.

BYU had the Pirates on a fourth down-and-8 outside of field goal range. A stop would have sent it to overtime. And on the snap, ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers threw a ball into double coverage and the receiver had no real chance to catch it.

That was until BYU senior cornerback Kaleb Hayes yanked the receiver’s arm and got a pass interference penalty. It extended the ECU drive and put the Pirates in field goal range for the win.

Can you blame Hayes for doing what he did?

Hayes didn’t see that he had safety help over the top on the play and that Ahlers’ throw was going to be into double coverage. All he saw was the receiver slightly a step ahead of him. Obviously, the coaching staff would like Hayes to trust that his safety would give him help and not pick up a penalty. He didn’t trust though, and panicked at the last second.

That isn’t ideal for a senior. But frankly, BYU’s defense has been such a mess the last few weeks that why would Hayes assume there would be help? There hasn’t been in the past.

Games, and individual plays, don’t happen in a vacuum. If this was the first game of the season, maybe Hayes has confidence that he will have help and doesn’t yank on the receiver’s arm. But right now, it is hard to blame him.