“A win.. would change the momentum of our season” — BYU football seeking for a spark against Arkansas

BYU has been a second half team all season long. It’s time to see if that trend will continue as the latter part of the campaign begins.

The Cougars may be 4-2 at the year’s midway point — against what analyst Phil Steele ranked as the ninth-toughest schedule in the nation — but the stoke surrounding the program is dying out. Just ask the AP voters who dropped Kalani Sitake’s squad out of the top 25 for the first time in 2022.

Sure, beating Baylor was fun, but losses to Oregon and Notre Dame have stung in different ways and matchups with Wyoming and Utah State raised even more concerns despite escaping both with wins. It feels as if there’s been nothing to celebrate since taking down the Bears in double overtime more than a month ago, and one could argue this is BYU’s gloomiest position since starting 2-4 in 2019.

“Our team is very disappointed at the moment because we expect to go undefeated and nothing less,” safety Micah Harper said. “There’s still a lot of season left, and a win against Arkansas this week would change the momentum of our season.”

Boy, could this team use some momentum.

It’s no secret that slow starts have plagued the Cougars, who rank 94th nationally in first half offense after six games. They’ve come out stiff and sloppy on both sides of the ball every week since Baylor.

After halftime, however, the Cougar offense has roared to the tune of eighth-best in the nation. Just as halftime adjustments have been crucial in each of the past three weeks, midseason corrections could save BYU’s season, starting Saturday afternoon against an SEC foe at LaVell’s house.

“I think we’re constantly working, adapting and trying to figure things out,” offensive lineman Harris LaChance said. “We’ve changed up our schedule a little bit this week, so hopefully that will help us get used to an earlier game. We’re working on it and I think we’ll be good.”

Arkansas heads to Provo in a similar state of panic. Ranked as high as No. 10 this year, the now-unranked Razorbacks are currently riding a three-game losing skid, including consecutive 23-point losses to Alabama and Mississippi State. Much like the Cougars, the clash of high preseason expectations with underwhelming results is proving frustrating for Arkansas.

Quarterback KJ Jefferson is expected to play against the Cougars after sitting out with an injury last week, leading a Razorback offense averaging 233.8 rushing yards per game on nearly five yards per carry. For BYU — who has surrendered more than 170 ground yards per game and was torched by Notre Dame for 234 more last Saturday — stopping the run continues to be a struggle, but a loud performance against Arkansas could go a long way as a tone-setter down the stretch.

Looking at the Notre Dame game, we definitely needed to get off the field faster,” defensive lineman Caden Haws said. “There were a couple of third downs we gave up and a couple of really long runs where our tackling could’ve been better. We could’ve had guys in a better place at the line of scrimmage that would’ve kept those big plays from happening. We’re looking at that as a challenge with such a run-heavy team like Arkansas.”

Receiver Gunner Romney — who exited early against Notre Dame and was admitted to a local hospital for testing — has not been seen at practice this week and is unlikely to play Saturday. Running back Miles Davis is still rather questionable, but receiver Chase Roberts is expected to return for his first start since Oregon.

Quarterback Jaren Hall played through a shoulder injury against Notre Dame, limiting his output to just 120 passing yards along with a rather uncharacteristic opening interception. He’s practiced all week thus far, and his health will always be a concern going forward, but Sitake said Hall has “no choice” but to power through.

“This is mid-season football, so (Jaren) needs to be ready to go,” Sitake said.

Receiver Puka Nacua was a non-factor in his return from injury against the Irish, finishing with just a single carry, no catches and dropping what would have been a critical third down conversion in the fourth quarter. A healthier Hall should give Nacua more chances to cook against Arkansas, adding another dimension to a BYU offense already beginning to break through in the run game after rushing for 160 yards in Las Vegas.

Of course, the earlier the Cougars can move the ball, the better.

“The pieces are there, and we know that, and anyone who watches our team knows that,” Hall said. “For whatever reason we’ve been a really good second half team, so if we can simply find a way to connect early on and just play the way we do in the second half, we’ll score a lot of points and take a lot of pressure off of our defense.”

Scoring early would take a lot of pressure off the defense, and beating Arkansas would relieve even more pressure from everyone else. It’s that simple. One win could fix everything.

The Cougars and Razorbacks kick off Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Provo. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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