STARKVILLE, Miss. — It was a scary moment in a season of painful hours.
In the third quarter of BYU’s 35-10 loss to Mississippi State in the heart of SEC country, linebacker Fred Warner made a tackle then flipped over on his back. He didn’t get up. Doctors and trainers were called to his side to determine what was wrong. He then got up on his own power, went to the bench where he was further examined around his shoulder area.
Then, before you knew it, Warner was back on the field making plays.
In what has become BYU’s worst season since 1968 in terms of win futility, Warner has been this team’s alpha. As losses have piled up, he’s faced the media postgame ritual and answered the tough questions. He’s shown up Mondays and repeated the act as a BYU captain. He’s called team meetings, spoken his mind, opened his heart, poured out his soul to a fragile and downtrodden squad whose quest to beat an FBS team is extended to another week after the humbling loss to the Bulldogs.
Warner is the problem with BYU football. He’s the problem because BYU doesn’t have 85 more just like him. If they could clone him, this team would see wins. Warner is athletic. He backs it with burning passion. He backs that with a big-play style. He brings everything he has on every play, every game.
His imprint on this team is valuable but seemingly impossible to manufacture. That’s why the Cougars are 1-6 heading into another road game at struggling East Carolina this week.
What was going through Kalani Sitake’s mind when he saw Warner lying on the turf at David Wade Stadium in Starkville in the middle of a hot fall day?
“That our best player was hurt,” said Sitake.
As it turns out, Warner had a stinger and should be sore, but OK. But that moment was not lost on Sitake or anybody who cares.
“Fred has played more plays than anybody on this team,” said Sitake. “He got tired and came out, but stuff like that happens. He’ll bounce back, he’ll be fine. He’s a competitor and will fight through it and find a way to get better for next week.”
Indeed, he will.
In the meantime his backup, freshman Chaz Ah You, had to be helped off the field in the second half, favoring his knee. It was a physical game.
Sitake said BYU came to Starkville to take on an SEC team that beat LSU with a game plan to ride its offensive and defensive line. Instead, it backfired. BYU’s offense couldn’t get enough of a push up front to sustain its run game and failed defensively to pressure or stop MSU’s quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who ran 15 times for 103 yards and hit 19 of 30 passes for 241.
For the Cougars, it was a familiar script. BYU’s offense, playing conservatively and limiting passes to bubble and tunnel screens, tried to establish the run. Instead, it ran just 46 plays to MSU’s 84.
While Warner and his defensive mates struggled to stop MSU’s offense at the point of attack most of the day, facing 84 plays while BYU’s offense had just 46 snaps fit a pattern this season.
MSU outgained BYU 546 yards to 176, and that morphed into a 35-10 advantage at the end. MSU had a whopping 35 to 8 advantage in first downs. There is no team in America that can compete with that kind of disadvantage unless they get 10 turnovers, most in enemy territory, and completely control momentum and energy.
But that’s not what we saw Saturday, albeit corner Dayan Ghanwoloku intercepted Fitzgerald twice when he tried to throw touchdown passes. Ghanwoloku returned those two picks a total of 105 yards, or 60 percent of BYU’s offensive yardage production on the day.
Tanner Mangum, starting his second game since coming back from a high ankle sprain suffered at the end of a loss to Utah, had one of his biggest plays of the season, a 42-yard strike to Aleva Hifo.
As this team goes, that is a peg to step up on come Monday practice.
No doubt Warner will be at the forefront of everything that day, trying to will this team to a win next week on the East Coast.
It’s a chore.
But one Warner won’t shirk or let go.