For BYU football, a sense of urgency, a missed opportunity and a missing goodbye

Eye on the Y: What’s on the line when the Cougars face Stanford in the regular-season finale?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Tech's Deven Osborne (1) takes down Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Brayden Cosper (20) in football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah Tech Trailblazers at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

There were two simple questions we posed after the Utah Tech game: Did BYU get any better, and did it matter anymore?

Immediately following the game, the main feeling around the team was as though maybe all that mattered was getting to bowl eligibility at this point. In a 6-5 year, where seemingly every goal was off the table for this group, was it even fruitful anymore to parse out whether BYU was improving from week to week? This team is what it is at this point, I thought. Getting to the postseason was the best that this group could do, and players celebrated accordingly.

“Obviously it didn’t go as clean as I would like,” head coach Kalani Sitake said after the game. “… I’m just glad we made it to a bowl game. There are guys on our team that have never been to a bowl game. They are really excited and emotional about it.”

Well, after 48 hours to mull it over, we got new answers to those two questions. Some were expected, others were not.

To the first question, the answer was expected: No, BYU did not get any better. It would be hard to say giving up 26 points, 420 yards and nine passes of 15 or more yards was an improvement. This was the highest point total given up to an FCS school in BYU history.

“Um, I think it was a mixed bag,” linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa said. “I think there are definitely some things that we could have done better. One of the things I loved about the Boise State game is how hard we came out in the beginning. I think that is one of the things we can improve on.”

But the answer to the second question — about does it matter that BYU is not improving down the stretch of the season — received an unexpectedly serious answer.

Sitake went out of his way to talk about the urgency he feels about the future. How it is still quite important to him that this team shows improvement, even if most of the main players on this team won’t be here for the Big 12 and the season is a foregone conclusion

It means a lot, he said, for decisions that he will make with his staff in the offseason.

“I evaluate constantly and try to get a feel for each position group and each coach,” Sitake said. “... Just trying to make sure we are improving and we are all aligned in working toward the same goal. Which is doing everything we can to make sure these young men on our team are doing their best on and off the field.

“... We are going into a new situation. We are going into next year [in the Big 12] so there is probably a little bit more urgency for things to be done.”

And all of a sudden, there was new urgency injected into the final week of the regular season. Whereas on Saturday players talked about Senior Day and the joy of making it to a bowl game — regardless of the lackluster performance it took to get there — this week everyone is talking about showing growth.

Lineman Joe Tukuafu said it best before he left the podium on Monday. He was asked what BYU had left to play for now that a bowl game was secured and there were no tangible goals left.

All he talked about was next year, and how this team needed to show some improvement.

“I think playing [this game] will set the tone for how next year could play out,” he said. “It could set the tone, especially for the offseason. … We have to go out Saturday and play our best.”

Jacob Conover not throwing

One of the biggest downsides to BYU’s struggles on Saturday was that backup quarterback Jacob Conover didn’t attempt a pass.

Because BYU couldn’t truly put the game away until late in the fourth quarter, Conover only got to orchestrate one drive with 1:42 left on the clock. BYU ran the ball on every down trying to bleed out the clock.

We talked last week about how important it was to get Conover a real chance to get film for the offseason. BYU could have gotten some data points for the future to see if he is a viable option to potentially replace Hall.

Sitake saw it as a missed opportunity as well.

“I wanted to see him throw the ball,” Sitake said. “At the end we were just trying to run the clock out. You wanted to get guys some reps, especially when the game was under control. It’s just that it took a while to get there. That happens sometimes.”

Gunner Romney’s non-goodbye?

Fifth-year senior Gunner Romney was originally on the list of seniors being honored as if it was the last game at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

But Romney did not go through the ceremony. Did that mean he was coming back for another year, or leaving?

Sitake pumped the breaks on the speculation that ensued from Romney’s absence. He said a decision hasn’t been made yet as to whether one of BYU’s best receivers will return for the Big 12.

“Well, Gunner was honored last year [in 2021],” Sitake said. “I think like he felt like he didn’t want to do it again. That is pretty much the only reason.”

Lopini Katoa’s usage cut down

After being BYU’s most consistent running back this season, Lopini Katoa had one carry for nine yards and a fumble against Utah Tech. Even with the fumble, it was surprising to see a fifth-year senior’s usage get cut back so drastically.

Sitake almost seemed sad that it happened after the game.

“I wish you could just play all the seniors all the time,” Sitake said.

On Monday, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick alluded to a wider plan rather than Katoa just getting pulled. He said he wanted to ride Hinckley Ropati early in the game and allow Chris Brooks to finish it out.

Those two ended up getting 30 out of BYU’s 41 carries on the day. Ropati had 43 yards and Brooks had 102.