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Was BYU's defense against South Florida as bad as it appeared? Yes, but Sitake believes it to be 'fixable'

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, walks off the field after a timeout as BYU and USF play a college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. BYU won 35-27. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



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PROVO — BYU coach Kalani Sitake was none-too-pleased with his team's defensive effort, particularly in the second half, of Saturday's 35-28 win over South Florida that helped the Cougars inch up two spots in the latest Associated Press Top 25.

After holding the Bulls to 153 yards and six points en route to a 28-6 halftime advantage, there's little doubt the Cougars (4-0) lifted their foot off the gas. USF (1-3) finished with 367 yards of offense, 23 first downs, and 35 minutes in time of possession as it trimmed the three-score game down to one.

And while Sitake wanted to give credit to South Florida coach Jeff Scott and freshman quarterback Timmy McClain, who completed 17-of-24 passes for 186 yards and ran for 59 more, he also didn't hold back his displeasure with his own defense.

"I felt the offense came to play. The defense for the first half was pretty good and we just have to find ways to make plays," Sitake said after the game. "I thought USF did some really good things. I can't believe their quarterback is just a young freshman.

"They made some plays and we didn't make enough on defense in the second half. But we've got to find a way to make those more automatic and get points on the board. Thankfully we got the win."

A day later and after taking Sunday off as BYU traditionally does as the flagship institution of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sitake was still "disappointed" with what he described as a lot of "very fixable things" from mostly young players seeing some of their first reps in a live game.

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki agreed, saying the starters — even as limited as they were without defensive linemen Atunaisa Mahe and Tyler Batty, and cornerback Isaiah Herron, among others, not in the lineup — mostly held up their end, as the first half illustrated.

The further down BYU went on the depth chart, though, the more pronounced the problems became — most of them coming back to players trying to make too many plays while failing to fully cover their own assignment. Injuries certainly played a role, but most of the issues came down to new players receiving a baptism-by-fire against USF's uptempo offense and mobile quarterback.

"Some of the young kids in there were making little mistakes," Tuiaki said during his weekly Coordinators' Corner coaches show. "As we rewatch it back, I have to remind myself that even guys like Khyiris (Tonga, who is now with the Chicago Bears) were once making mistakes that these young guys are now making. It's just getting more reps, being able to coach them up, and getting better. There were so many young players."

That youth and inexperience caught up to the Cougars in their first game against a non-Power Five opponent of the year.

"They grinded us down and showed some good things from their players and the coaching staff. But we've got to find a way to get off the field," Tuiaki added. "It felt like there were a lot of third-and-ones and third-and-shorts, as well as fourth downs, and we let them keep going."

BYU will need to improve quickly before Friday night's road kickoff at Utah State (7 p.m. MT, CBS Sports Network) against one of the top offenses in the country.

Utah State (3-1, 1-1 Mountain West) ranks 10th nationally in total offense, averaging 533.2 yards per game, including 443 yards in Saturday's 27-3 home loss to Boise State.

The Aggies boast the No. 13 passing offense in the country at 319.8 yards per game and rank 25th in rushing with 213.5 yards per game with an up-tempo system similar to the one South Florida ran for parts of their own game.

Individually, wide receiver Deven Thompkins was leading the nation in receiving but just fell to No. 3 nationally with 128.5 yards per game on the 11th-best receptions per game of 7.2.

Sitake said it's "highly doubtful" that Caleb Christensen — a Sky View product who played cornerback and was the team's top kick returner — will play against his former hometown team.

"It's sad, because he's from that area and was looking forward to going back home and playing in front of his friends and family," Sitake said.

BYU defensive back Ammon Hannemann (22) makes a tackle on South Florida running back Jaren Mangham (0) as BYU and USF play a college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
BYU defensive back Ammon Hannemann (22) makes a tackle on South Florida running back Jaren Mangham (0) as BYU and USF play a college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The coach is more hopeful that Herron will be available after missing last week's game against USF. So, too, is Tuiaki.

Herron is listed as a starting cornerback with D'Angelo Mandell for Friday's game on the Cougars' depth chart, with Shamon Willis, Kaleb Hayes and Jaylon Vickers as backups.

In Christensen's absence, running back Lopini Katoa will be BYU's top kick returner, with safety Javelle Brown as backup.

Tuiaki also confirmed that both Mahe and Batty will be available Friday. He added that the two defensive linemen were healthy Saturday but hadn't practiced all week and were held out "to protect them from themselves," which likely contributed to the Bulls' 6-of-15 third-down conversion rate and 4-of-5 conversions on fourth down.

"We'll be at full strength on the D-line, at least," Tuiaki said.

QB update

Sitake said quarterback Jaren Hall, who sat our Saturday with a rib injury, will return to practice Monday with hopes of starting Friday night. But he also cautioned that a final decision on the starting quarterback won't be made until a few days of practice, a challenge made even more tricky with the short week.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick is "hoping to know" more about the quarterback situation by late Monday, but believes the decision could be dragged out as long as Tuesday afternoon as he decides between Hall and backup Baylor Romney.

Romney threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns and added 20 yards on the ground in his first start of the year for the Cougars, including a 47-yard strike to younger brother Gunner Romney in the third quarter to help BYU pull away for good, despite the possession disadvantage.

"We might need them both," Roderick said. "Who knows?"

BYU quarterback Baylor Romney (16) takes off on a run as BYU and USF play a college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
BYU quarterback Baylor Romney (16) takes off on a run as BYU and USF play a college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Afternoon kick coming

The Cougars won't be kicking off late at night again.

After Friday night's trip to Maverik Stadium, BYU will host Boise State at 1:30 p.m. MT on Saturday, Oct. 9. The game will be broadcast on either ABC or ESPN, the network announced Monday.

The Cougars opened the season with four-straight kickoffs in the 8 p.m. MT window, including three straight around 8:15 p.m. MT in the home-favored opening set. So next weekend's game will provide welcome relief to fans who stay until the end of the fourth quarter (not to mention sportswriters whose business keeps them in Provo until well after the midnight oil has exhausted itself).

It will also be the Cougars' first afternoon home game since Nov. 16, 2019, against Idaho State, and the first on national television since hosting then-No. 21 Washington at 1:30 p.m. MT on ABC on Sept. 21, 2019. BYU played seven games before the late television window that season, but three of them were on the road (BYU also played at Coastal Carolina in a 3:30 p.m. MT game last season, but that game — which was scheduled on about three days' notice — had been previously planned for the 5:30 p.m. ET window on ESPNU).

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