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Gordon Monson: BYU’s Big 12 struggles can serve as a road map to winning, too

The Cougars need to see improvement on the offensive line and, as ever, on the recruiting trail.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) has his face mask grabbed by Iowa State Cyclones defensive end Joey Petersen (52) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Provo, Utah.

In cadence, BYU football achieved in its just-completed bowl-less season what was expected of it. It got beat in the beat of the beat.

One step up, two steps back, two steps up, three steps back.

Celebrating or taking a few scraps of last-minute solace in a double-overtime season-ending loss to Oklahoma State tells you what you need to know about Year One in the Big 12.

BYU claimed two league victories in its rookie season there. No big surprise. What was surprising was how poorly the Cougars played on offense. You don’t have to study NCAA statistical rankings — in which BYU bottomed out — to know that. Anyone who watched the games is fully aware.

The most important position in all of football, other than quarterback, is the offensive line. I’ve surveyed enough veteran coaches to come to that conclusion. Some say defensive line. The majority say the offensive front, the nameless guys who so often set the tone for an entire team. It’s more than a tone. It’s a healthy heartbeat. Curious it is that the skill positions get so much attention, so many of the spotlights and headlines, but it’s the big’uns up front that are the soul of any great team.

With the Cougars, we’re not talking about great. We’re talking mediocre, perhaps something south of that. And the offensive line’s barely-clearing-the-tree-tops performance, which was one more surprise, sentenced them not just to seven losses against only five wins, but it also led to horribly lopsided scores against decent opponents, but not of such a high quality that BYU should have been embarrassed the way it was.

Again, it wasn’t just the counting of the final numbers — 270 points yielded to 122 gained in Big 12 games — that grabbed observers by the throat and thrashed them about in the manner of an old Foghorn-Leghorn cartoon. It was the way BYU couldn’t stir much of a ball-movement/scoring threat in games that probably would have turned out the same in win-loss results, but that were straight-up not competitive.

The whole of it was more lopsided than what might have been, even though balanced prognosticators — and Cougar coaches themselves — figured it would be a tough go prior to season’s first kick.

It takes time for a football program, even a proud one like BYU, to get acclimated to a power-conference schedule. Usually that time, in the case of eventual success, is spent examining and improving upon the overall talent level of an outfit, which ricochets the entire endeavor back to the most important aspect to it — recruiting.

News came down recently that two BYU assistant coaches were fired, and that’s significant, evidence of a clamor for something better. Whether those guys — OL coach Darrell Funk and tight ends coach Steve Clark — were scapegoats or assistants who fell plainly short in their assignments, the two more important matters are the competency of the head coach and the ability of all those on staff who recruit to draw in the players necessary to win.

Kalani Sitake has had some successes and some failures in his tenure, and all of what led to both could be, will be accelerated by wading and warbling further into the Big 12. He must be in control of his program, top to bottom. He must be large and in charge to push the thing forward. That’s not to say he must be a Big L leader, a tyrant, who bullies his way in bending everyone in and around the team to acquiesce to his will. No. It’s a matter of him being 1) the smartest, most capable one in the team room, and 2) a stellar motivator.

But even bigger than that, he must recruit better. Being in a respected league will help in that regard. Independence did not help. Even if you harbor some doubt about the efficacy of the star system in recruiting rankings, at least in group form, they’re telling. Not always, but usually. They may miss on individual athletes, here and there, but overall, the more highly-ranked athletes signed, the greater the probability of winning becomes. That’s not brain surgery.

BYU has struggled in that process, frequently — no, almost always — hauling in lesser classes than the teams they seek to conquer moving forward. They do get really good players — quarterbacks that have been drafted into the NFL, and pro stars such as Fred Warner and Puka Nacua. There simply haven’t been enough of them in the mix.

Why?

Sitake built his reputation in part on being a players’ coach. He’s a forever likable man, a coach who knows how to wrap his arms around a recruit and gain his trust. But it’s more complicated than warmth and hugs, especially now.

NIL rewards — for prep players and for transfers — have become critical, difference-makers commanding, in more than a few instances, over a million dollars to secure their so-called loyalties. BYU, like many other programs, must find the resources needed to make playing in Provo attractive. Love it or hate it, that’s just the way it is.

Even more crucial is the ever-present hurdle, the same familiar story, regarding BYU’s Honor Code and the bevy of gifted athletes who want no part of a school regulating their personal lives. That dissuasion runs from the big stuff — the hovering threat of getting tossed from the team if too much “sinning” is going on, sex outside of marriage, alcohol consumption, pot smoking — to small matters such as restrictions on dress and grooming. One BYU coach told me the question he gets asked by recruits more than any other pertains, remarkably enough, to hairstyles and facial hair, what’s permitted, what’s disallowed.

BYU can do something about all that, and if it does, it will be rewarded with a greater number of better athletes. Even more acclimated LDS kids, good people with good intentions, are concerned with some of the school’s rules, a few of which are antiquated and unnecessary. Policies centered on deeper philosophical, religious tenets, like LGBTQ issues, also cast shade, at least for some recruits who may not be directly affected by them, but who seek a less repressive educational environment.

BYU isn’t for every football player, but it can be a place of positive growth and learning for more players than it currently draws in.

You know the deal. They know the deal. Sitake knows the deal.

Where it goes from here, as the Big 12 expands and the football competition stiffens, even as the opportunity for playoff berths widens, remains to be seen. It was easy to predict BYU’s struggles in its first year, and it’s easy to see struggles next season, as well. Beyond that?

It comes down to … is there an echo in here? … recruiting. The days of the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, when the Doug Scovills and the Mike Holmgrens and the Norm Chows could implement wizardly passing attacks that slapped lesser, unprepared opponents upside the head, are over.

Now, you get the athletes, enough of them, to win consistently, or you don’t.

Given decent coaching, for BYU, and pretty much every other aspiring program, it’s as simple as that.

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