BYU football ‘running on empty’ on both sides of the ball

It’s correction time for BYU.

In last Saturday’s deflating 41-20 loss to Oregon, two glaring weaknesses became all too visible for the Cougars: BYU couldn’t run the football effectively, nor could it stop the opposing rushing attack on defense.

Just a week prior, BYU’s run defense had played hero in defeating Baylor, smothering the Bears to the tune of just 2.9 yards per carry. Baylor ran 52 times, but BYU never caved. It was a forceful statement for Ilaisa Tuiaki’s unit, making it appear that the defensive woes of 2021 were in the rearview mirror and BYU’s defense could, in fact, get off the field quickly and win games for the Cougars.

To quote Michael Scott, “oh, how the turn tables.”

Once Mar’Keise Irving burst for 36 yards on Oregon’s third play of the game Saturday, it was clear that the Cougars were in for a long day. Aside from one fluke 22-yard loss, the Ducks slashed BYU’s defense for 234 yards on 5.4 yards per attempt, with Cougar defenders whiffing repeatedly in pursuit for an absurd amount of missed tackles.

“There’s a lot to fix,” Tuiaki said. “We have some schematic things and some technical things.. we’ve just got to be better there.”

For comparison, BYU posted a 90.0 Pro Football Focus tackling grade against Baylor, its highest such mark since 2015. Against Oregon, the Cougars nosedived to 65.0. Such math is hard to dispute, and seeing an endless parade of missed tackles on film is even more conclusive.

“We need to go back to fundamentals,” linebacker Keenan Pili said. “Whether it’s the feet, angles or shape of the defense, we have to go back to those fundamentals, iron out those creases and get better this week.”

On the flip side, BYU’s offense has had its own struggles on the ground, finding as much difficulty in establishing the run as the defense has found in stopping it.

Players and coaches had been outspoken a week ago concerning improvement in the run game after posting 83 total rushing yards against Baylor, only for the Cougars to stumble further in Oregon to just 61 yards, averaging a lackluster 2.5 yards per carry in both outings.

“There’s a bunch of things that factor into it, including lack of technique and missed assignments,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “The guys are giving us the effort, but we just need to play more disciplined.”

Perhaps the rushing attack is suffering from false hope hangover similar to the run defense post-Baylor. Sure, BYU ran for 312 yards to open the campaign against USF, but results have stalled significantly since. When removing two outlier plays against the Bulls — Puka Nacua’s game-opening fly sweep score for 75 yards and Chris Brooks’ anticlimactic 52-yard touchdown run — the Cougars have averaged 3.57 yards per attempt on the season.

Not great, Bob.

The offensive line — advertised as the ultimate strength of the team heading into 2022 — hasn’t yet proven capable of creating consistent holes to run through, while Brooks and Lopini Katoa have been rather fickle out of the backfield as well. For an offense asking Jaren Hall to throw 40 times each game to stay afloat, already shorthanded at receiver and now losing another weapon in Dallin Holker, a rushing resurgence would make life easier for everyone.

“We pride ourselves on running the ball at BYU and we want to get better,” tight end Isaac Rex said. “I think staying on blocks, working on getting hands inside and staying in front of guys is pretty much our goal.. we want to improve the running game and we’ll get better this week.”

Despite the various struggles, the Cougars managed to escape their demanding opening quarter of the schedule 2-1 and No. 19 in the nation. There’s still plenty reason for optimism, especially with less daunting home matchups with Wyoming and Utah State to finish September, offering BYU the opportunity to get right in both establishing and defending the run before the midseason slate ramps up.

There’s no need to panic just yet, but if BYU’s adjustments have fallen flat two weeks from now, the chances of a late season collapse grow increasingly possible. As of now, the ceiling for the 2022 Cougars is directly correlated to their success on the ground.

“We’re in a situation where we’re humbled,” Sitake said. “Now we need to focus on how much we can learn from this and how we can get things back on track.”

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