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What happened on the 100-yard pick six that ended BYU’s dream of beating Oklahoma? Kalani Sitake is ‘not going to sugarcoat it’

BYU lost to No. 14 Oklahoma behind three turnovers by quarterback Jake Retzlaff.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oklahoma Sooners defensive back Key Lawrence (12) tries to tackle Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) before he scores a touchdown at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.

Provo • As the ball left quarterback Jake Retzlaff’s hand, even Kalani Sitake couldn’t believe it.

BYU running back Aidan Robbins had been gashing Oklahoma’s defense. He had just ripped off two carries of 20-plus yards. At the 2-yard line, with the score tied, all Retzlaff had to do was hand it off and let BYU take the lead.

But Retzlaff pulled the ball on a run-pass-option and threw it to a covered Kody Epps. Oklahoma defender Billy Bowman Jr. picked it off and took it nearly 100 yards for a touchdown. It was a fatal 14-point swing in a game Sitake could only lament as a “missed opportunity.”

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Sitake said. “Don’t make that throw. Hand the ball off to the back. That is a simple play.”

The play was the most inexplicable mistake in a day full of them during a 31-24 loss to No. 14 Oklahoma. Everything played out for BYU to potentially steal a monumental win — beating a Big 12 power at home, to get to bowl eligibility, in its first Power Five season.

Instead, turnovers, all off the hands of Retzlaff, ruined the moment. Three turnovers gave the Sooners 21 points and saw any opportunity of an upset evaporate.

“I don’t want to throw guys under the bus, but I don’t know what to tell you,” Sitake said. “I want to be transparent and honest with you. That is a really tough lesson [for Retzlaff] to learn with an opportunity to win this game and have the fans storm the field and stuff like that. It didn’t work out because one way or the other we didn’t take care of the football.”

BYU had multiple chances to take the lead ruined by Retzlaff’s turnovers Saturday. The first time came in the first quarter, with the game tied at seven. Retzlaff had an exchange with Robbins where he pulled the ball and fumbled it.

Oklahoma recovered it and scored on a 27-yard touchdown pass two minutes later.

Then, tied at 17 in the third quarter, Retzlaff threw the pick-six that gifted the Sooners new life with a backup quarterback in the game. Starter Dillon Gabriel, who led the Big 12 in passing, was knocked out with a head injury at halftime. Oklahoma’s offense wasn’t moving the ball.

And the last one came with the clock ticking under nine minutes. The game was tied at 24 and the Cougars had a chance to drive down the field and take a lead. Instead, Retzlaff was hit by linebacker Danny Stutsman and gave Oklahoma the ball at the 25-yard line. Three plays later, the Sooners scored again to take the final 31-24 advantage.

“One we just mishandled the ball,” Sitake said. “The other one was an empty formation, third and short and you try to find a way to get the ball out. You know that there is pressure coming. We have our hot routes and everything in place. We just didn’t execute.

“... If you don’t show you can take care of the football, that it is a big part of playing for us. We have had players who have shown bad ball security and they just don’t get on the field again. And I feel comfortable with it.”

Out of all the mistakes though, it was the pick-six that was the most perplexing and costly. In one play, BYU went from potentially going up seven to climbing back from a deficit again.

“A huge moment swing,” Sitake called it.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oklahoma Sooners defensive back Billy Bowman Jr. (2) tackles Brigham Young Cougars running back Aidan Robbins (3) at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.

At that point, BYU had run for 217 yards. Robbins had a season-high 182 yards and finally looked like the star transfer running back BYU brought in. The Cougars were about to score 10 unanswered and put the pressure on backup quarterback Jackson Arnold to come back on the road.

And to make it worse, Sitake said the play was always designed as a run even though it had a pass option. He made it clear this was not the same situation that famously cost the Seattle Seahawks the Super Bowl in 2015 when they threw an interception on the goal line instead of running it.

“It wasn’t like the ‘Beast Mode’ decision back in the day,” Sitake said. “This was a definitive RPO call, which means run first.”

Sitake said Retzlaff’s reads were all to hand the ball off. The only reason to throw would have been if the defense wasn’t set and a receiver wasn’t covered. Oklahoma had multiple defenders covering receivers.

“I don’t think the receiver even was expecting the ball to go to him,” Sitake said. “It was one of those moments where you just have to hand the ball off. They even had two guys out on coverage. ... You only throw the ball if the numbers are out there.”

But Sitake admitted going forward he might have to consider abandoning the run-pass-option in that spot.

“Maybe it is simpler to take the pass option away from the quarterback,” he said. “... I think [Retzlaff] had the one [completion] where he threw the ball into Isaac [Rex]. He kind of knifed it in there. Maybe he was feeling the momentum and thought he could accurately get the ball to the receiver on that [pick-six]. It’s like you can’t take those risks, especially against a really good team.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) hands the ball off to Brigham Young Cougars running back Aidan Robbins (3) against the Oklahoma Sooners at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.

For Epps’ part, he thought he was open for a split second. But when the ball was snapped, he was covered.

“They just made a late call and got a guy over really quick,” Epps said.

Will Retzlaff be the Cougars’ first choice next week? Sitake made it clear he’s benched players for those types of decisions before.

Starter Kedon Slovis has been out with an injury but could be available against Oklahoma State next week. With bowl eligibility on the line, Sitake said he would think about turning back to him.

Until that decision is made, though, Sitake will have to think about the what-ifs. Because if you told Sitake that BYU would hold Oklahoma to 368 yards, that it would be playing against a backup quarterback, that it would be competitive in the trenches, he would have taken it.

“It looked like in some of the other games maybe we were overmatched or we weren’t in the right spots,” Sitake said. “... This one I felt like the guys were fighting.”

In the end, though, it still ended in a sixth loss.

And the endless thoughts of what happened at the goal line?

“Turnovers were such a downer. That is the thing I’m going to keep coming back to,” Sitake said. “I don’t care if quarterbacks or players think we overemphasize it. Take care of the stinking football. Don’t put it on the ground and don’t be careless throwing the ball as well. That ball does not belong to him. It belongs to the program.”