No. 12 BYU has a run problem, and Kalani Sitake should rush to fix it

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake watches the end of the game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



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EUGENE, Ore. β€” BYU's Jaren Hall has lived up to his lofty expectations in the offseason, a ball spinner with NFL potential who leads his team from in front and sometimes behind to big wins and bigger confidence.

But even the redshirt junior from Maple Mountain High has his limits.

Hall had another banner day Saturday in Autzen Stadium, throwing for 305 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for another 19 yards on four carries. But in No. 25 Oregon's 41-20 throttling of the 12th-ranked Cougars, he wasn't enough.

Nor was Kody Epps' game, a career-high five receptions for 45 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. One game after Chase Roberts, who added four catches for 60 yards Saturday, went for a career-best 122 yards and a score, his teammate from Mater Dei High took advantage of his opportunities.

But don't call it a breakout game; Epps won't.

"The touchdown makes a lot of people happy, about what they've been waiting for from me," Epps said. "But it's a lot of stuff that I need to fix … a lot of mistakes that I made. It wasn't a breakout game, in my opinion, but I'm still happy to do it for the fans and for my family.

"There's just a lot of stuff I need to do better."

"Breakout games" don't matter in a loss, especially not in a game where BYU was out-gained 212-61 on the ground, even for the redshirt freshman wide receiver from Los Angeles.

Ever since rushing for 312 yards in a 50-21 blowout victory at South Florida in the season opener, BYU's rush offense has gone dormant. Part of that can be explained by a strong front seven of a Top-25 defense in Baylor, which allowed just 2.9 yards per carry for 152 yards in a 26-20 double-overtime loss in Provo.

But following the Cougars' latest setback, when Christopher Brooks, Lopini Katoa, Hall and even a screen-attempt from wide receiver Chase Roberts combined for just 61 yards on 29 carries on the ground, it's clear that BYU's rush offense is a problem.

Or at the very least, to use head coach Kalani Sitake's word, a concern.

"It's definitely a concern," Sitake said. "I don't know what the issue is. We thought that the defensive front for Baylor did a really good job, and obviously, (Oregon) did a good job shutting down the run. It made us one-dimensional, and put us in some tough situations on third down and even on fourth down.

"We couldn't even capitalize and make those plays. I think at the beginning, we couldn't finish drives. We'll get that fixed. But at the end of the game, we were just trying to get the train back on the tracks and take whatever positivity we could from this."

Brooks, the highly touted transfer from Cal who has 194 yards and two touchdowns in the first three games of the season, led the way with 28 yards on 10 attempts, including a 2-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter with the game all-but out of reach.

Katoa added 12 yards on five touches, and Roberts' lone play out of the back field β€” something BYU has struggled to find since Puka Nacua went down with an ankle injury in the first half of the Week 1 blowout against USF β€” went for just 2 yards.

A similarly highly touted offensive line led by NFL prospects Blake Freeland at left tackle and Clark Barrington at left guard likewise bear some of the blame. The group that runs deep with the likes of Connor Pay, Joe Tukuafu, Harris LaChance and Campbell Barrington, among others, protected Hall to throw for 305 yards with just one sack, and bought him as much time as needed to complete 29-of-41 passes.

But the run blocking? That's a different story.

The Cougars posted just 61 rushing yards β€” and just 39 in the first half β€” while averaging just 2.5 yards per carry. The Ducks, meanwhile, had three running backs average greater than 5.0 yards per carry, led by Mar'Keise Irving's 97 yards on 14 touches (as well as a 3.9 yards per carry average from quarterback Bo Nix, who had three short touchdown runs and a career-high-tying five scores overall).

Brigham Young Cougars running back Christopher Brooks (2) celebrates a touchdown with Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Clark Barrington (56)  at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
Brigham Young Cougars running back Christopher Brooks (2) celebrates a touchdown with Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Clark Barrington (56) at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The lack of a run game led to other issues, like an 8-of-15 third-down conversion rate or the Cougars' 0-for-4 effort on fourth down that included former Kearns High standout Jeffrey Bassa's stop on BYU's first drive of the game.

Identifying the issue is the first step in addressing it, and Sitake admits there is a concern.

Fixing it is the bigger problem, though.

"I trust our guys up front. That was a good defensive line," Hall said, referring to the Ducks. "They're coached very well.

"Our guys will be OK. There's no concern for the run game; it's not for me to say. I trust our guys, trust coach (Darrell) Funk, and trust our play callers."

Puka Nacua played a key role in the rushing game in the opener against South Florida, rushing for two touchdowns in a breakout game that caused offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick to refer to him as "the best jet sweeper I've ever coached."

But the former Orem High standout's absence was felt for the second-straight game, and Sitake can only remain "hopeful" about a return from an ankle injury. Likewise for Gunner Romney, who missed the first three games of the season and didn't even travel to Oregon with an undisclosed injury.

Nacua went through Friday's walk-through with the team, and was going to test his ankle before Saturday's game. But when the Cougars came out for warmup, Nacua only joined them in street clothes and a walking boot, standing near injured defensive end Tyler Batty at one point.

"I think we were hopeful that (Nacua) would go, and that we could see a lot of improvement from yesterday to today," Sitake said. "But the decision was that we just don't want to put him at risk. We're hopeful that this week will be time for him to return, and maybe time for Gunner.

"We need some guys back."

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A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for KSL.com since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.

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