Why a loss to Kansas might be the least of BYU’s worries right now

BYU loses to Kansas 38-27, but sees many key players go down along the way.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake talks to his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Lawrence, Kan. • At some point, the Cougars’ loss to Kansas simply became inevitable.

How could it have ended any other way based on the injuries BYU’s starting lineup had sustained by game’s end?

Left tackle Kingsley Suamataia, left guard Weylin Lapuaho, wide receiver Parker Kingston, and linebacker Ben Bywater were all out of the action and getting checked by the fourth quarter.

That’s not to mention the handful more that didn’t play because of previous injuries: Safeties Talan Alfrey, Crew Wakley, Micah Harper, running back Aidan Robbins and wide receiver Kody Epps all watched BYU play in Kansas rather than participate.

Mix that in with BYU’s existing structural problems — like its inability to run the ball, or the turnovers and perplexing penalties and timeouts that hurt the Cougars on Saturday — and you can see how BYU was careening to a 38-27 loss to Kansas for its Big 12 debut.

Ultimately, Saturday’s loss at Kansas might be the least of the concerns for BYU right now. Going forward, it is a matter of how fast the Cougars can triage this situation.

“We are going to dip into our depth a little bit,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We might have to for next week. Nobody, from what I know, is out for the season. Hopefully [we] get those guys back.”

What else can he say?

On Saturday, Sitake was forced to watch as his undermanned team struggled to overcome its own mistakes.

After BYU gifted Kansas 14 points off a fumble return for a touchdown and a pick-six, the Cougars needed stops and points. It couldn’t get either with many of its key players sidelined.

The Jayhawks gashed an eroding defense in the second half. After defensive coordinator Jay Hill adjusted his scheme to deal with quarterback Jalon Daniels, Kansas responded by rushing for 172 yards after the intermission (part of 221 total rushing yards).

BYU couldn’t get a stop after the break, with the Jayhawks putting together drives of 12 plays, 10 plays and seven plays.

At one point, BYU turned to fifth-string safety Preston Rex after Tanner Wall went down. Freshman Raider Damuni was also in for Ethan Slade at different moments.

By the time Bywater, BYU’s leading tackler with 10 tackles, went out in the fourth quarter even fellow linebacker AJ Vongphachanh didn’t know what to do.

“He is a big part of our defense,” he said.

That was after BYU already saw its best offensive lineman, Suamataia, go in and out in the second half. The entire left side of the line was out and mixing around.

Maybe that played a part in why BYU rushed for just 9 yards on 22 carries. It also allowed three sacks and several more hurries.

“Some guys will be on the field that we weren’t expecting,” Sitake said. “We got guys who were knocked out of this game. We have enough talent. That is why we went to the portal. That is why we develop our young guys.”

But on Saturday, BYU didn’t look like a team with enough depth. It looked like a team that was already playing with a small margin for error, and then the base fell out with this many players hurt.

Most of BYU’s issues through the first three weeks came up at different points. The offense had to call multiple timeouts because it couldn’t get lined up correctly. It had another illegal touching penalty that confused even Sitake.

On defense, a Kamden Garrett interception was taken away because of a hold.

The Cougars didn’t run the ball well yet again. At one point in the third quarter, BYU had 14 carries for -4 yards. BYU only slightly improved to 9 yards by the end of the game. The duo of LJ Martin and Deion Smith had 15 carries for 38 yards (2.5 yards per touch).

It forced quarterback Kedon Slovis to throw 51 times, finishing with 357 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. It was too much on his shoulders.

“We have to run the ball more efficiently. I think everyone knows that; it is no secret,” Slovis said.

In the past, BYU has been able to overcome costly turnovers, rushing woes and procedural mishaps.

This time, the mistakes got worse and the cushion got smaller.

“Obviously the thing that stands out the most is whenever you give up turnovers like that and you don’t get them yourself, it is tough to win games,” Sitake said. “Let alone lose by 11 points or so.”

And the more concerning part is that BYU doesn’t seem to have answers to the structural problems.

“If I had the answer to [the running game] I would tell you guys,” Sitake said. “It is probably a combination of getting the guys’ confidence back and I think a lot of teams are trying to take the run away from us.”

Which means if BYU can’t fix the structural issues, it needs to at least get its cushion back to overcome the miscues. It starts with guys getting healthy and the depth coming back.

It’s why as BYU leaves Kansas a single loss is the least of its concerns. The uncertain status of an evergrowing injury report is now more pertinent.

“We have no choice,” Sitake said of how BYU is going to overcome it. “We feel really good about the talent on our team. We have enough talent. We have to have these guys ready to go.”