Kedon Slovis kept BYU alive with his arm, but he needs help on the ground

Slovis attempted 51 passes and racked up 357 yards through the air in Saturday’s Big 12 opener.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Kedon Slovis (10) tries to shake Southern Utah Thunderbirds linebacker Josh Lopez (45) as he looks downfield, in football action between the Southern Utah Thunderbirds and the Brigham Young Cougars, at LaVell Edwards Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

Lawrence, Kan. • Kedon Slovis was busy.

The BYU quarterback threw the ball 51 times on Saturday against Kansas. That’s the most by a Cougar since Zach Wilson threw it 53 times back in 2019 during a loss to San Diego State.

“As an offense, as a passing game, we took a huge step forward today,” Slovis said.

But ...

“Gotta cut the turnovers,” the quarterback added, “and establish the run game.”

The latter will be front of mind for the Cougars after their struggles on the ground against the Jayhawks last weekend.

Heading into the game, BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga was quick to dismiss questions about the Cougars’ struggling rushing attack.

“For whatever reason if fans and people think I’m stressed, or people are stressed or worried about it, I’m not,” he said.

At that point, BYU’s rushing attack had averaged just 78 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. When the Cougars beat Arkansas a week ago, they did so while mustering only 7 yards of rushing in the second half.

But Unga wasn’t fazed.

“The offense, there are so many different weapons,” he explained. “If it is not the run game, we are passing the ball pretty good. We are moving the ball with teams trying to take away the run game and stuff.

“Pass game’s there, so pass the ball. Run game’s there, run the ball. I don’t think it’s rocket science.”

Maybe he had a point. But there is a fine line between leaning on the passing attack because it’s there, and being overly reliant on it because you can’t do anything else.

The question is, did BYU cross that line in a 38-27 loss to Kansas?

Slovis was good for the most part. He finished with 357 yards and two touchdowns. He made several throws that kept BYU in the game.

BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis passes the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

But he also had two interceptions, largely a byproduct of throwing it as many times as he did. And he didn’t have any run game to keep the defense honest. BYU ran it 22 times for 9 yards. The Cougars’ featured backs had just 38 yards between them.

So Slovis threw it 51 times.

Is that sustainable?

“A lot of it is situational,” Slovis said. “You are playing from behind and you have to catch up. ... Again we have to run the ball more efficiently. I think everyone knows that; it is no secret. But when you are playing from behind you have to throw the ball.”

Even when BYU was not playing from behind, though, it couldn’t run the ball effectively. In the third quarter, when it was a one-possession game, the team had -4 rushing yards on 18 carries.

It undoubtedly was part of the reason BYU eventually fell behind. The Cougars had no running plays over 10 yards. All the explosiveness fell to Slovis, which ultimately proved too much to ask on Saturday.

“If I had the answer to [the running game] I would tell you guys,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “... I think a lot of teams are trying to take the run away from us. That is fine. They do that, we’ve got to make them pay. That is throw the ball in the air. When you throw the ball in the air, you’ve got to take care of the football. You can’t throw interceptions and you can’t take sacks. "

But interceptions might be inevitable when you throw 51 times. Even quarterback Jaren Hall last year threw an interception every 62 throws. Slovis throwing it 51 times in one game is bound to lead to some fluky plays (like the double-tipped pick-six) or some poor communication (like his fourth-down interception to Chase Roberts).

And even if teams are trying to take away the run, the Cougars know they have to move the ball better than they have. That is now three weeks in a row where BYU hasn’t gotten past 80 yards rushing. The last time that happened was in 2017, when BYU played a stretch of LSU, Utah and Wisconsin.

“Obviously I want us to be more than successful every time we run the ball,” Unga said. “And I want us to run the ball 50 million times a game. But defenses are scheming up stuff to stop the run. So we just got to keep working at it. We’ll be fine. I’m not worried about it.”

BYU needs to have more of a presence running the ball, if only to help Slovis throw it. How might that happen? Could it mean more out of the offensive line? Could it mean turning to backup Miles Davis at some point?

“There is a possibility, you never know,” Unga said when asked if he’d turn to Davis who was productive last year but hasn’t seen the field this season. “Miles done such an amazing job. It all just depends where we are at depth-wise.”

Either way, BYU knows Slovis needs help if the Cougars are going to be successful this season. He may be one of BYU’s best players. He was the biggest reason BYU scored 27 points. But this weekend proved you need more than that in the Big 12.