BYU football: Was stage too big for Cougars against Notre Dame?

LAS VEGAS — From the slow starts to the issues getting the right personnel on and off the field to the kicking game woes and the inability to hold their own in the trenches, the BYU Cougars have a laundry list of problems to work on this week as they put the discouraging 28-20 loss to Notre Dame in their rear-view mirror and turned their attention to Arkansas of the powerful Southeastern Conference.

That clearly showed on coach Kalani Sitake’s crestfallen face as he spoke to reporters in the bowels of Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas after BYU’s most recent face plant on a national stage, the mistake-filled setback to a barely above average Fighting Irish team (3- 2).

“What is going to happen is I have to take ownership of it and make sure it (is fixed),” Sitake said after BYU dropped to 4-2 and saw whatever chance it had of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game washed away . “So in my eyes, it is pretty simple. We will get that done.”

“What is going to happen is I have to take ownership of it and make sure it (is fixed). So in my eyes, it is pretty simple. We will get that done.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

If there was a positive, it was that the Cougars played more disciplined football than they have lately, committing just one penalty, a delay of game because they didn’t have enough players on the field before Justin Smith missed a PAT attempt after their first touchdown.

“We made that a focus on our team,” Sitake said. “We played a lot cleaner.”

Another positive was the second half, when the Cougars outscored the Irish 14-10 and made a game of it after they fell behind 25-6 early in the third quarter and it appeared they were going to be blown out of the building and back to Provo with their tail between their legs.

“The unfortunate part is that if we played better and had more efficient, complementary football in all three phases (in the first half), we would have had a much better chance than where we are sitting right now,” Sitake said.

“So we are frustrated about the loss, but I am feeling good about the players, and the belief and love we have for each other. We will keep building on that. We will get through this, and I am anxious to play the next game.”

Some of the organizational aspects of the game that went awry in the first half are “fixable” and getting them ironed out is “doable,” Sitake said.

But there are deeper issues more related to talent that need work, especially before the Cougars go to the Big 12 and face Power Five opponents on a weekly basis.

For instance, lost in BYU’s comeback Saturday was the fact that the Irish dominated almost every statistical category. Notre Dame out-gained BYU 496-280 and ran 73 plays to BYU’s 46. A lot of coaches say time of possession is a meaningless stat, but it wasn’t on this night because the Irish were able to control the clock and keep Jaren Hall off the field.

Notre Dame had the ball for 40 minutes and 55 seconds, BYU for just 19 minutes and 5 seconds. The Irish were an efficient 11 of 16 on third down. They got there by winning first down — a problem the Cougars have encountered all season.

“We gotta find a way to do it, and if it means different players, great,” Sitake said. “If it takes different schemes, great. But the sense of urgency needs to take place. That’s my job. I need to put more pressure on our guys to get it done.”

Was the stage too big for BYU?

Linebacker Max Tooley and receiver Kody Epps insisted the stage wasn’t too big, but it sure looked that way in the first half, when BYU fell behind 18-6, were 0 of 4 on third down and mustered only 67 yards of offense. The Cougars have been terrible in the second quarter, getting outscored 59-34 in that frame through six games.

“I mean, we were here last year, we won here last year (against Arizona),” Tooley said. “I think maybe we came out slow. But I think we proved we can hang with guys like Notre Dame. No matter how much disrespect they all gave to us, we (showed) we are going to show up and put up a good fight, regardless.”

Said Epps: “We fought hard. The score was 28 to 20. I don’t think that tells the story of who can hang with who. They came out victorious, but we fought. We can hang with them.

So the Cougars are 1-2 so far against the five Power Five opponents on their 2022 schedule, with another P5 coming to Provo this week for a 1:30 pm clash on ESPN. Arkansas is 3-3 and has lost three straight games against arguably the most difficult first-half of the season schedule in the country.

The Razorbacks fell 40-17 to Mississippi State in Starkville, Mississippi, on Saturday, but were without starting quarterback KJ Jefferson, out with a concussion. Coach Sam Pittman said after the loss that he expects Jefferson to be cleared to play Monday.

Of course, the Cougars have their own injuries to worry about. Quarterback Hall is clearly dinged up, even if he said after the loss to ND that he is OK.

Receiver Gunner Romney left the game early in the fourth quarter and was taken to the locker room. After the game, he was driven by cart to the team bus area, according to Spencer Linton of BYUtv.

Running back Miles Davis missed the game with a lower leg injury, while DL Gabe Summers left the game early as well. Defenders Malik Moore, Josh Larsen and Jakob Robinson also did not play.

Cougars on the air

Arkansas (3-3) at No. 16 BYU (4-2)

Saturday, 1:30 pm MDT

LaVell Edwards Stadium

Provo, Utah

TV: ESPN

Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM

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