Cougar defense collapses as Arkansas stomps BYU 52-35

O defense, where art thou?

A whole lot needs to go wrong for a team to lose a game where it scores 35 points at home with 471 yards of offense. For BYU, a 52-35 loss to Arkansas Saturday may just merit hitting the panic button.

“You won’t win a lot of games if you give up 52 points,” head coach Kalani Sitake said.

It’s hard to determine which statistic is most concerning: BYU’s defense giving up 644 total yards, seven touchdowns, 6.6 yards per carry or simply allowing the Razorbacks to convert 12 of 15 third down attempts. Now matter how you look at it, Arkansas did whatever it pleased offensively and made life miserable for the oft-scrutinized Cougar defense in its most embarrassing showing of the Sitake era.

“Anytime a team puts 52 points up, it’s not good enough defense,” linebacker Ben Bywater said. “We’ll be looking at the film, and it’ll be a tough few days with some honest conversations with ourselves and the coaches. We all need to step up.”

It seemed early on as if the Cougars would be capable of containing Arkansas’ offensive attack after recovering a fumble and forcing a punt on the first two drives of the afternoon. Such hope would evaporate almost immediately, as the Razorbacks scored on their next eight consecutive drives amid blown coverages and missed tackles galore.

“Third downs are the only down when it comes to defense, so you have to get off the field. Arkansas converted 12-of-15 third downs, and that’s not good defense,” Sitake said. “The other area of concern is fundamental tackling and mistakes on the field. We had some guys not doing their 1/11th, and that’s on the coaches to make sure they get that done and execute their assignment.”

No play better encapsulates the affair than a second quarter third-and-11 try for the Razorbacks, where the Cougars — trailing by three — had an opportunity to get off the field and regain some momentum. Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson dropped back into immediate pressure, where four different BYU defenders appeared to have him trapped for a sack, only for Jefferson to miraculously escape the danger and roll out to find a wide open Trey Knox, who scampered downfield for a gain of 36 yards.

How much more brutal can it get?

“We had a chance to sack [their quarterback], but they turned it into a 40-yard play,” Bywater said. “People can say all they want about schemes, but at the end of the day, we have to get off blocks and make tackles. Hats off to KJ Jefferson, but we have to take him down. We had four shots at it. We have to be better.”

Quarterback Jaren Hall threw for 356 yards and three touchdowns, with Isaac Rex, Kody Epps and Puka Nacua all finding the end zone for the Cougars. Epps caught nine passes for 125 yards, with Nacua hauling in eight balls for 141 yards while adding six carries for two more scores on the ground, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep up in the shootout with the Razorbacks.

The offense wouldn’t be without its own issues, as the Cougars lost two fumbles, Hall threw his third interception of the season and would exit the game early due to injury concerns. After surrendering just two turnovers in the season’s first six games, BYU coughed up three against the Razorbacks.

It was just one of those days.

“I think what’s frustrating is losing the turnover battle, because that’s not our identity,” Sitake said. “We’re focused on taking care of the football, and I didn’t feel like we did well enough at that today.”

The Cougars fall to 4-3 with the loss, appearing out of sync, deflated and in danger of letting the season slip away from them. BYU now heads on the road to face a 6-1 Liberty squad, desperately needing a win to right the ship and avoid further disaster.

“I would not say we’re losing faith,” Bywater said. “We recognize with our three losses that some opportunities are off the table, but we’re playing for our brothers, family and BYU. We understand that we need to play to a certain standard. If you’re not getting the job done, somebody else will.”

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