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BYU’s Defense Against Arkansas Leaves Sitake Mulling Over His Options

Oct 15, 2022, 8:06 PM
BYU Football, Arkansas, Defense...
KJ Jefferson (1), the quarterback for the Arkansas Razorbacks, runs the ball while playing the BYU Cougars in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. (Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)
(Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – BYU football has left Kalani Sitake with a lot to ponder after falling to Arkansas, 52 to 35.

Unlike the last four weeks, BYU got off to a fast start against the SEC’s Razorbacks. First, the defense forced a takeaway, then caused the Hogs to punt.

But it was all downhill from there on the defensive side.

Everyone knew Arkansas had a potent ground attack as they were 11th nationally in rushing offense entering the game. However, the passing game was a completely different story. Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson against BYU showed the Hogs are more than just a ground attack passing for 367 yards, five touchdowns, and completing 73% of his passes.

One of the knocks on Jefferson was his lack of accuracy as a passer. However, play the BYU defense and those concerns will be shored up in a hurry.

Once again, another opposing quarterback sliced up a BYU defense. It’s becoming the identity of this group as they begin the second half of the season with a 4-3 record after the 17-point setback to Arkansas.

BYU football is struggling with third-down defense

What will it take for BYU to fix its defensive woes?

“I’m really focused on third downs. That’s the biggest issue to me,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “Because even the moments in the second half the crowd was into it, [Arkansas] had to take a timeout. … It was third and long, maybe eight, nine, ten, I can’t remember, but just didn’t get off the field.

“Credit to Jefferson, he made a nice throw and they’ve made nice plays. But third down is the only down that comes to defense. So you gotta get off and they converted 12-of-15. That’s not good defense and that’s my main area of concern.”

The numbers aren’t pretty for BYU. They allowed 644 yards of offense to Arkansas, 34 first downs, 7.9 yards per play, and they racked up 277 yards on the ground.

Tackling was also a significant problem in the loss to Arkansas. During the second quarter, BYU’s defense had Arkansas in a 3rd & 11. Jefferson picked up the first down with a pass through the air, but then the receiver was able to get yards after the catch and turn an 11-yard gain into a 36-yard reception because of the poor tackling by BYU.

“The other area of concern is fundamental tackling and then mistakes on the field. We had some guys not doing their one-eleventh. So that’s on the coaches to make sure that they get that done and on the players to execute their assignment. We didn’t have a difficult scheme for our guys to execute defensive-wise. But got to get out of plays and 12-out-of-15 on third down is not good enough, not even close.”

With everything of national significance off the table for this BYU team and no games against Power Five opponents until the final week of the regular season, what happens now?

Could Sitake step in and take over defensive playcalling?

Kalani Sitake has a history of running defenses. He was one of the top defensive coordinators in the country during his time at the University of Utah from 2009-2014.

Earlier this year in the spring, Sitake said he wanted to see explosive plays from this year’s BYU defense. That isn’t happening enough, as BYU’s once-promising season, which began with a preseason AP Top 25 ranking, could be at risk of finishing with a mediocre record. So, could Sitake step in and take over the defense from seventh-year staffers in defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki and assistant head coach Ed Lamb?

“We’ve done that before as a program. This is my seventh season, so there’s time we’ve had to do that, and I’m involved in [the defense],” Sitake said. “But I don’t think I’m ready to answer that question right now. I know that’s an option. So we have a lot of different options out there.”

Other options that could be considered include personnel changes, maybe the scheme. Whatever option Sitake goes with, BYU’s defense needs a fix in a hurry.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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