Football can be a cruel, cruel mother.
Crueler to those who deserve it.
It gives heart and hope one minute, even to the downtrodden, and then wickedly steals both away the next, leaving the afflicted to suffer from what was given and what was taken.
That was BYU’s fate on Saturday, a day when the Cougars were trying one more time to ascend out of deep desperation, to climb up to any kind of higher ground, maybe even, best case scenario, to qualification for a bowl game.
All they had to overcome was a double-shot of trouble — beat Oklahoma, a team favored against them by … oh, somewhere around a thousand points, and fix themselves, an even bigger challenge. BYU had lost three consecutive games, including a couple of embarrassing shellackings.
Make it four straight now.
“This felt like a missed opportunity for us,” said Kalani Sitake. Which is better than no opportunity at all.
The Cougars went ahead and fell to Oklahoma on their home field by the count of 31-24, but this loss was different than many of those that had come before. Like Sitake indicated, it could have been a win. It looked like a win, walked like a win, turned its heel and batted its eyes like a win, it whispered to them like a win. And then, it hit them over the head with a tire iron — or did they do that to themselves? — leaving them to … well, you know, suffer.
And it also should have made them pose serious questions to and about themselves, about why this season has turned out the way it has.
Somewhere deep down, the Cougars had to know they were going to struggle at times in their initial run through the Big 12. They had never faced a league schedule like this, and defeat was bound to settle in snug with them. But losing in the lopsided manner they had against teams like TCU and West Virginia on the road and at home against Iowa State, a game in which BYU seemed to have done the worst competitive thing any team can do — quit — was a whole other matter.
Sitake said in the postgame that he thought his team’s effort in some of the earlier losses was solid, not about effort, rather about errors. Maybe they were more about an abject lack of talent. But then, how could one explain what happened on Saturday, when the Cougars went blow-for-blow against a nationally-ranked opponent, a foe they might have beaten minus their mistakes?
Sitake pointed directly at his team’s goofs — “The turnovers cost us,” he said — in the defeat against the Sooners. But even with the botches, they were what they hadn’t been against that string of other Big 12 teams — competitive.
To be real is to say straight up that the Cougars’ valiant showing against the Sooners was as much an indictment regarding past sins as it was encouragement for present and future success. And the cruel mother was happy to dish out that judgment.
Even worse, defensive back Eddie Heckard claimed in the postgame that the Cougars are “better than” the Sooners: “They’re good, we’re better.”
He also said he and his teammates “prepared like no other for this game.”
If that’s all true, why haven’t the Cougars prepared like no other for every game? And why are the Cougars the team that sits now at 2-6 in league standings?
Either way, all the preparation led to proceedings that went like this: BYU fell behind by a touchdown and tied it up. It fell behind by another touchdown and tied it up. It fell behind by a field goal and tied it up. It fell behind by another touchdown and tied it up. The next touchdown doomed the Cougars.
Especially emblematic was a sequence in the third quarter, when, with the score knotted at 17, BYU was nigh onto taking the lead. That’s when quarterback Jake Retzlaff fired a dart to the goal line that was completed all right, but completed to Billy Bowman, a Sooner defensive back who returned the ball 100 yards for a score. It was the sort of play that had devastated the Cougars in past games, leading to a flood of opposition scoring thereafter.
Not this time.
Sitake criticized the crucial pass play, saying, when knocking on the door like that, Retzlaff or anyone else should have run the ball.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” said Sitake, characterizing the mess-up as a 14-point flip. “… That’s a tough lesson to learn.”
Speaking of effort, however, BYU fought back with what had worked for it pretty much throughout the game — stiff blocking from its offensive front, tough running from Aidan Robbins and accurate passes and timely bursts on the ground by Retzlaff. The QB’s TD run, punctuating a drive that included a clutch fourth-and-2 throw, leveled the score at 24 near the end of the third quarter.
Another mistake — a fumble by Retzlaff on a blind hit in the pocket, recovered at the BYU 25-yard line — led to the final and decisive touchdown by Oklahoma in the fourth.
The self-evaluation, the questions needing answers, for and from the Cougars, though, had less to do with their deficiency of talent and more to do, no matter what the coach said, with its own combo-pack of effort and coordination. Errors can be committed by any team, and BYU’s big ones cost them 21 points in this game. OK, that’s explainable, if not excusable.
But where, exactly, had their suddenly proficient offensive line play been against quality opponents heretofore? Where had the run game been? Where had the effective passing been? Where had the stiff defense been?
Admittedly, BYU’s resistance was aided down the stretch in this game by the absence of Sooner starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who was injured at the end of the first half and did not play in the second. Gabriel had nearly 200 passing yards while he was on the field. So, there was that.
Still, the Cougars’ offense showed out in a way it hadn’t in previous weeks. Robbins ended up with 182 rushing yards, double what BYU had averaged per game as a team, and the Cougars got 217 in total here. The running back had been dinged at times earlier, but the abysmal ground game had plagued BYU all season. And the offensive line play had, to some extent, baffled Cougar coaches, who had expected much more from the guys up front. But they were determined to do their jobs, individually and collectively, against one of the best opponents BYU had faced in 2023.
Retzlaff, in his third start, looked much more a D-1 quarterback against Oklahoma, completing a decent percentage of his throws, firing two touchdown passes. His wheels certainly helped, too, even if and as the pick-6 didn’t.
The defense held the Sooners to 368 yards and just three touchdowns and a field goal.
Again, if BYU could put all that on now-9-2 Oklahoma, why couldn’t it conjure that kind of threat all along?
Perhaps this was a case of what the Cougars had achieved over the past number of decades, when they could rise up here and there, on occasion, against quality teams, beating some of them, but likely could not have held up week after week after week against them.
Not every team in the Big 12 this season could be considered high quality, but at 5-6 heading into next week’s regular-season finale at Oklahoma State, regardless of what happens in Stillwater, BYU, with its ratcheted-up overall challenge, has failed to gain a winning record. As mentioned, the Cougars have won just two conference games.
BYU optimists could look at Saturday’s loss as progress, as a step forward in a power league. BYU pessimists/realists could look at it and shake their heads, seeking answers, searching for reasons why the positive signs demonstrated against the Sooners didn’t arrive sooner.
“We’re building something nice here,” Sitake said.
If so, the Cougars had best lean heavily toward the latter, not the former group. Find their answers and their reasons. And hold themselves properly accountable for shortcomings that should never have come up quite so short. No shame in losing in their first year in the Big 12, as they did against Oklahoma. That was expected. But suffering defeat in the league games they’ve lost, by the total count of 230 points to 88, makes football a crueler mother than it needs or wants or intends to be.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.