Fayetteville, Ark • The warmup is over for BYU.
Starting with this weekend’s road game at Arkansas, the Cougars will face 10 straight Power Five opponents from now until late November.
Any chance BYU had to iron out the run game, or figure out the intricacies of a new defense, should have been dealt with during Sam Houston or Southern Utah.
Now, the Cougars face a team that blew them out 52-35 a year ago in Provo. The Razorbacks broke BYU’s defense for 644 yards and 52 points. What will change in BYU’s defensive approach this year as it sees quarterback KJ Jefferson for a second time?
College GameDay makes their picks
Pat McAfee was the lone member of College GameDay to pick BYU this morning.
“I don’t know why I did this, but it is just kind of how I feel,” McAfee said. “Give me BYU. I just think for some reason, a mature team, going in there and getting a big-time dub.”
Kirk Herbstreit picked Arkansas, along with Lee Corso.
“BYU going into SEC country. That I want to see,” Herbstreit said. “I want to see how they handle that atmosphere. I know [Arkansas running back] Sanders is out. It puts more on [quarterback] KJ Jefferson.”
How to Watch
Kickoff time: 6:30 p.m. CT / 5:30 p.m. MT
Radio: BYU radio SiriusXM 143/ BYURadio.org / BYU Radio App/ KSL 1160 AM,102.7 FM
Weather: Around 75 degrees and cloudy
Keys to the Game
1. Stopping KJ Jefferson
It is easier said than done. But the first order of business for BYU will be at least limiting Arkansas’ dynamic playmaker at quarterback.
Last year, Jefferson put up 367 yards and five touchdowns on the defense. He also added 32 yards on the ground and willed Arkansas to eight straight scoring drives.
One play in particular might have defined the entire season for BYU’s defense:
Late in the second quarter, Jefferson escaped a slew of tackles behind the line of scrimmage and found a receiver for a big gain. The play set the Razorbacks up for a final score just before halftime.
New defensive coordinator Jay Hill said the key on Jefferson will be bringing multiple tacklers to him when the opportunity arises. So far, BYU has been a better tackling team than last year. This is its first Power Five test, though.
Another note on Jefferson: Arkansas might be even more reliant on him this year. The Razorback’s running game has been suspect in the first two weeks. It means head coach Sam Pittman might put more on Jefferson’s plate in critical moments. All the more reason why priority number one for BYU starts with the quarterback.
2. Running game ... anyone home?
Arkansas might have issues running the ball, but so does BYU.
The Cougars will start a new running back this time around, freshman LJ Martin. But that doesn’t solve all the offensive line problems in the running game.
The Cougars averaged 3.3 yards a carry in week one. For an encore, BYU averaged two yards a touch against Southern Utah.
It was so much of a concern that SUU’s coach called out BYU’s offensive line. He questioned whether the program was actually Big 12 ready.
It would be safe to assume Arkansas will dare BYU to run the ball and beat it on the ground. All eyes will be on Martin to see if he can get something sparked.
3. Pass rush, overblown or a real talking point?
BYU’s defense has created turnovers this year. It has four interceptions and multiple fourth-down stops.
Still, something that it doesn’t have is sacks (only one through two games).
Kalani Sitake knows it. He said he would take interceptions over sacks. Still, he acknowledged a couple of sacks would be nice.
Against Jefferson, sacks might become a little bit more critical. Hurries and even quarterback hits don’t seem to phase him.
This was Hill’s assessment of where things stand: “I think we’ve had a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. They have thrown four interceptions now to our corners, throwing off their back foot.”
It will be a week to put the pass rush to the test.
Defensive coordinator Jay Hill on KJ Jefferson’s broken tackles play last year:
“We’ve seen a lot of film of him doing that, not just to us last year but to lots of teams. You watch the first two games this year and there’s a bunch of times where people have an opportunity to sack him and they don’t.”