PROVO — BYU’s defensive and offensive coordinators have some decisions to make.
They aren’t using injuries, a tough schedule, short week, three road games (Madison, Seattle, and Tucson) nor the fact half the players on offense are freshmen as a whiny excuse. Although they could.
No, they must reinvent their identity for the second half of the season. During the first half, that identity was tough, physical, confident play and execution. But after the first three of six games, that identity morphed into hesitation, less than physical play and poor execution.
Losing does that. It’s no fun. Lose and you stomp through the weeds of second-guessing and outside criticism. Win, and folks give you parades and hugs.
How will Kalani Sitake regain the team's mojo with a few fewer bodies and a dent in the ego?
“I’m open to everything as far as change if it will make us better,” Sitake said on Monday. “That being said, it’s schedule, personnel, scheme, whatever it could be to perform better. That’s what we’re looking at.
"We’ll tweak some things here and there built on the principles of our core stuff, which is hard work and our belief in each other. That’s what we’re going to go with this week; work extremely hard and try to have a better result Saturday.”
Monday, following the Cougars' 45-20 loss to Utah State, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said his offense needs better execution, more physical play, more first-quarter points, fewer mistakes and bigger chunk plays. Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said his side needed to be more physical and sound, use better technique and be fired up right out of the chute. Both said it is their job to see that it happens.
As an outside observer, I’ll add another element.
Football is a violent exercise. It is very physical and it takes a great amount of energy and emotion. What I’ve observed of the Cougars since they left Madison is a very passive, protective mindset.
It’s protectionism instead of sell-out, passionate swinging and throwing round-house punches. It’s like a prize fighter circling the ring, avoiding the fight. And it’s reset the mindset.
It shows itself defensively in playing soft zone coverage, stingily using blitzes to protect the back end, kind of waving a white flag. It’s created a mindset of retreat instead of attack.
At Washington, BYU was not going on the attack, but rather played conservatively against a fast runner and prevent defense against a good passer. But what happened is the runner ran wild and the quarterback was so efficient that he almost set a Pac-12 record.
Same on offense.
Sure, Squally Canada hasn’t been whole. But the dink and dunk, piecemeal pass and run game, the avoidance of taking more shots and forcing a defense to defend more of the field until it was do-or-die versus Utah State appeared to have taken the aggression out of the offense.
Because the Cougar offense doesn’t produce enough ego plays, defenses have only needed to defend 10 yards instead of 30 or 40. It’s kind of like waving the white flag on offense and emboldens defenders.
BYU’s offense has shown it cannot score from way out. It needs a methodical, mistake-free drive to the red zone, where it has actually been pretty good. But because it hasn’t scored from distance, does it mean it can’t be done if there’s more attacking done?
Grimes is smart enough to know he can’t call plays if they can’t be blocked and his guys can’t execute them. He can’t afford three-and-outs on failed plays. But the aggressive mindset seems to have leaked out of his players — they aren’t physical enough now.
I’m not in the crowd that says Tanner Mangum has failed, things are all his fault and he should lose his job.
But an aggressive approach would be to use Zach Wilson’s talents, when possible, to shake things up and inject diversity and energy into BYU’s offense. The backup has a quicker release, stronger arm, more velocity on his throws and has a greater ability to escape a failed play to extend chances for success.
Bronco Mendenhall often said the thing that kept him sleepless at night as a defensive coach was worrying about facing a dual-threat QB. Give him a one-dimensional runner or thrower at that position and he could defend an offense. But if the guy can run, it scared him because it is hard to prepare for. He saw that firsthand at New Mexico when BYU’s Brandon Doman dashed his defense to pieces.
Playing Wilson, either as a replacement or as a situational tool, is an aggressive move and a gamble. It is a shakeup. It could be costly, but it could bring big rewards. And it doesn’t mean Mangum loses his job. But the alternative is to ask for greater execution and hope for the heightened physicality that just hasn’t been there when futility sets in. Big plays ignite the emotion an offense needs to compete.
So far this season, BYU has come out of the gate and been unable to score in the first quarter. That then puts the defense in a protective, white-flag-waving mindset. And it isn’t working.
Grimes knows how to design chunk plays. Tuiaki knows how to dial up blitzes.
They don’t because they’re being conservative. But I think it's costing their guys emotionally.
Sitake is evaluating his QBs, he told reporters.
“Just like every personnel group, that one gets a lot of attention. I’m open to anything," he said. "Everyone will compete and we’ll see who plays on Saturday. Everything’s my call. It will be all of our calls but it will come down to me. I’m leaning for whatever can get us the best opportunity to win. That’s where I’m leaning.”
I picked BYU to lose to Washington, like most everyone. I then picked in print for the Aggies to beat BYU on a short week. Neither was a big surprise. Not at all.52 comments on this story
What is a surprise is how much emotion has been taken out of the game for BYU. In these two losses, failure to get enough big plays has made it harder to play with energetic violence. We’ve seen some strange mistakes as a result.
The Cougars need to knock QBs around and be disruptive to have something to hang their hats on. Conversely, the offense needs to make defenses defend the entire field.
Whatever it takes.
Decisions have to be made. If you don’t put on the gloves and swing away, you’re running from the fight, and the Cougars looked like they were running from the fight in Seattle and Provo the past two weeks.