Is BYU missing belief, continuity or talent? The Cougars have questions after getting ‘manhandled’ against Iowa State

BYU came into the season betting on transfers and a new scheme. It hasn’t worked as the Cougars are 2-5 in the Big 12.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars tight end Ethan Erickson (87) has his intended pass broken up by Iowa State Cyclones defensive back T.J. Tampa (2) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Provo, Utah.

Provo • Whenever this season comes to an end for BYU — quite possibly two weeks from now in Stillwater — it will be Saturday’s 45-13 loss to Iowa State that stands out as the worst of it.

Maybe BYU could stomach blowouts to TCU and Texas. Maybe it could explain away a 30-point gut punch to West Virginia (although that was hard to believe even at the time). And no matter what lies ahead with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, BYU will always be able to say those were ranked teams vying for a Big 12 title.

But Iowa State? The Cyclones were barely over .500. They hadn’t hit 35 points all year. They were ranked outside the top 100 in offense.

Yet, they spent 60 minutes beating BYU so thoroughly that it left head coach Kalani Sitake utterly frustrated at halftime.

“It was bull crap,” Sitake said in a radio interview as he walked into the locker room. At that point, it was 31-7 and BYU had four total yards of offense in the second quarter.

You didn’t have to watch the second half to know it didn’t get any better. Iowa State didn’t even use the final 20 minutes of the game to score and still won by 32.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Darien Porter (10) breaks up a pass intended for Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Chase Roberts (2) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Provo, Utah.

And after a night so demoralizing — “It sucks, yeah totally sucks,” said tight end Isaac Rex — it raises the question that should have been asked weeks ago — maybe even back in August.

Was this team ever constructed to truly compete in the Big 12 this year? And is there any amount of fixing that can get this group competitive the final two weeks?

“We only have two games left,” Rex said. “Like how close are you going to be [to fixing it] before the season is over?”

Coming into this season, there were signs that something like this could happen. Something like BYU getting outscored 117-26 in the last three weeks and falling to 2-5 in the Big 12.

Back in August, BYU was ranked 14th in the conference in 247Sports’ Talent Composite Rankings. While that isn’t always a guaranteed indicator of success, being dead last in the league is never good. The talent level of this roster was always going to be a question.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Iowa State Cyclones running back Abu Sama III (24) keeps Brigham Young Cougars safety Ethan Slade (26) at bay for a touchdown run during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Provo, Utah. Iowa State won 45-13.

But it was more than that. BYU was embarking on a strategy it had never used before. It was relying on an offense built on at least six transfers. It was bringing in a new defensive scheme that over 90% of the room had never seen before.

In the past BYU was built on two things: continuity and development. It threw out the playbook going into the Power Five — where it was already going to be at a talent deficit in year one.

“I think what we underestimated a little was how long it would take to play as a unit. To really, really click as a unit,” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said earlier in the week. “In the future, you have to be smart about how much continuity you can maintain and how you fill in your needs without breaking your continuity.”

With the lack of it, BYU lost its way this year. Its identity on offense of being a physical offensive line that runs first and passes off of it was gone.

According to Pro Football Focus, the offensive line has gone from ranked No. 1 in the country in pass blocking to No. 43 this year.

The run blocking has gone from top 12 the last two years to No. 74 this year, per PFF. It is no surprise then that BYU came into Saturday averaging under 80 yards on the ground. The last time the Cougars’ rushing offense averaged less than 100 yards on average was 2003.

Without a run game, BYU’s passing attack has been pedestrian. It’s not the way the system was built. Roderick will tell you that.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Talmage Gunther (36) misses a pass during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Provo, Utah. Iowa State won 45-13.

“We have not been as physical as we have in the past,” he said. “The last three years we hung our hat on a physical run game and play-action pass and throwing the ball down the field off of our run game. And it has not been as good as it should be. And we are still trying to fix it.”

Defensively you can also pick out flaws about the construction of the team. A new scheme in the first year of the Big 12 was always going to be hard to learn. It also takes a level of buy in, something that takes time. And Sitake is questioning whether players believe.

“My first response to [why the defense has regressed] is guys probably not believing in the system and believing in what we are doing,” he said.

The run defense is ranked No. 103 in the country this year. It just gave up over 230 yards to Iowa State.

“There are teams out there running the same system and having great success with it,” Sitake said. “We’ve had great success with it early in the season. We have to find guys who can get it done.”

None of this is to say that BYU didn’t need to change the defensive scheme after last year. It also isn’t to say the offense didn’t need to bring in transfers. They did. BYU’s offense was losing many of its players and the defense had bottomed out a year ago.

But that still doesn’t change the reasons for the current distress. A combination of new players on offense and a new scheme on defense was never going to be a recipe for quick success in the first year of the Big 12.

And it leads to nights like Saturday where BYU was bullied into going 1-of-11 on third down on offense and allowed 443 yards on defense.

“There are not a lot of things going right for us right now,” Sitake said after losing to one of the Big 12′s more average teams.

It summed it up well. And now the reality of BYU’s position in the league is settling in this year. Some teams are competing. As for BYU ...

“We are nowhere near that right now,” Sitake said. “...It will be interesting to see what will happen in the Big 12 conference [race]. We will be watching it. Trying to do whatever we can to create chaos.”