Misery business: Last second field goal spooks BYU in 27-24 loss to East Carolina

Play the music.

“Wake me up … when October ends … .”

The sky is falling in Provo, where once-proud BYU suffered its fourth consecutive loss in 27-24 fashion to East Carolina Friday night to clinch the agony of a winless October.

“We’re at a point in our season where our backs are against the ropes right now,” running back Lopini Katoa said. “It just didn’t happen tonight.”

While East Carolina’s 35-yard, time-expiring field goal officially gave the Pirates the win, the Cougars had already squandered the victory long before, having failed on two separate fourth down tries in the game’s final quarter.

Rather than kick a field goal on the East Carolina 12-yard line to take the lead, Kalani Sitake elected to open the fourth quarter by gambling on fourth and two with Miles Davis, who was stuffed for no gain to end a promising BYU drive.

“That’s something I could have done differently,” Sitake said of his decision to refuse the field goal in favor of Davis. “That’s my fault.”

Just a few minutes later, the Cougars had another chance to pull ahead, only for Jaren Hall to come up short on a fourth down quarterback keeper. Even when BYU’s defense followed by forcing a turnover on downs, the offense immediately sputtered to punt its possession away, where a fourth down pass interference call on Kaleb Hayes put the Pirates in field goal range to finish the Cougars for good.

It was almost as if BYU refused to win, repeatedly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

How on earth was this team ranked No. 12 in the country at one point this year?

“You get defined by your culture when things go really bad,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “Sometimes success can mask some of the issues, and so this exposes a lot of it.”

Even riding the losing skid, the Cougars played much cleaner than they had in their debacle against Liberty last Saturday. The defense — while still quite problematic — showed improvement to step up in critical moments, the offense had its best rushing effort of the season and Jaren Hall appeared back to his true form. Even BYU’s horrific third down prevention enjoyed a nice rebound, dropping from a 69.7% opponent success rate in October to holding the Pirates to a mere 2-8 on such chances.

But none of it would be enough.

“It just comes back down to execution.. We just didn’t execute on certain things,” receiver Puka Nacua said.

Sure, execution is an issue, but what about coaching? The staff that has called just five successful fourth down tries out of 20 attempts definitely deserves a good share of the blame.

BYU ran the ball 42 times at a 5.8 yard clip, led by 116 yards from Katoa and another 60 from Hall. Hall passed for 144 yards and two touchdowns, with Nacua catching seven passes for 79 yards and a score and Chase Roberts adding a touchdown as well.

The Pirates, however, churned for 424 total yards, marking the fifth time BYU’s defense had allowed more than 400 yards of offense.

The Cougars are 0-5 in such contests, by the way.

“Our job is to get off the field, but that was tricky,” defensive end Tyler Batty said. “We would’ve loved to see a different outcome.”

Pirates running back Keaton Mitchell was near unstoppable, running 21 times for 176 yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Holton Ahlers dinked and dunked his way downfield all night in throwing for 197 yards and running for a pair of scores as well.

It seems as if each week is a new low for the Cougars, who now fall below .500 at 4-5 for the first time since 2019 after a promising 4-1 September. If 2021 was “no loss November,” 2022 has proven to be “awkward October,” with BYU completely irrelevant on the national landscape and dangerously close to missing a bowl game for the first time since 2017.

“We’re on a losing streak right now, and the only way to turn it around is to love each other and allow our culture to take over,” Sitake said.

At this point, you’ve got to wonder if all this “love and learn” talk is even making a difference anymore.

The Cougars face a tall task in attempting to end their futility next weekend against 5-2 Boise State, having only won on the Broncos’ blue turf just once before in program history.

“I know that we’re not going to fold, we’re going to keep working,” Katoa said. “You’re going to see improvements every week, because that’s just the character of this team. Nobody imagined that we’d be in this situation coming into this year. It is what it is, and we just have to respond in the best way possible.”

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