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BYU 1-on-1: Cougar football has questions to answer at Arkansas

By Darnell Dickson and Jared Lloyd - | Sep 14, 2023

Marci Harris, Special to the Herald

BYU running back Mason Fakahua is tackled during the game against Arkansas at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

Daily Herald sports experts Darnell Dickson and Jared Lloyd address five of the big questions facing Cougar athletics this week:

1. BYU football coaches said the reason the running game didn’t produce against Southern Utah was because the Thunderbirds sold out at the line of scrimmage, opening up things for the passing game. Are you buying or selling that take?

DICKSON: Kedon Slovis said the same thing in the post-game news conference, and I see the point. But I would counter with the fact that BYU still ran 23 times and averaged just two yards per rush.

The Cougars should be able to do better than that against an FCS school, no matter what kind of defense it’s running. The failure is shared between the running backs and the offensive line.

Neither Aidan Robbins nor Deion Smith have been breaking any tackles and seem tentative hitting the holes. Freshman LJ Martin seems to have the best skill set to be successful in the run scheme BYU is using.

As far as the offensive line, there seems to be a lot of missed assignments and losing of one-on-one battles. I would be surprised if the Cougars reach 100 yards rushing against Arkansas even if the Razorbacks play straight up.

Maybe I’m completely wrong and the BYU running game is fine, like the coaches said. But it doesn’t feel fine or look fine to me.

LLOYD: I’m buying it, but with a caveat. I’ve always remembered an old clip I saw of former Cougar offensive coordinator Norm Chow saying, “As an offense, you do what the defense allows you to do.”

He then talked about how Jim McMahon came in with the attitude that he was going to make a play successful regardless of what the defense did. “He said show me that you are better than I am,” Chow said.

I think good teams have a balance of savvy game-planning to take advantage of what an opponent is doing and confidence that you can make a play work anyway.

Against Southern Utah, the run game yardage was hurt by some negative plays and the kneel downs at the end, but BYU’s blockers and running backs need to show they can be at least moderately successful even when opponents are stacking the box.

I also think that as an offensive staff, you need to see what an opponent does and be just as willing to use the pass to set up the run (like many past Cougar teams did) as you are at using the run to set up play-action passes.

2. Last year, Arkansas scored on eight straight possessions in its 52-35 victory against BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium. How many stops will the Cougar defense need to get to win on Saturday?

LLOYD: Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: If BYU has as many stops as it did against Sam Houston, victory is assured.

But while that would be nice for the Cougar defense, I don’t think very many people consider that to be a reasonable expectation.

To me there isn’t a magic number when it comes to stopping an opponent. Much more important is how you do it.

Turnovers are always welcome and I do think BYU will need to be at least even in this category to have a shot.

The other main factor is third-down conversions. If the Cougar defense can’t get off the field, particularly when it is third-and-long, BYU won’t win (and won’t deserve to either). The Cougars need to take advantage of opportunities to get the ball to the offense.

DICKSON: First, some numbers. BYU and Sam Houston each had 14 possessions in Game 1. Last week, the Cougars had 13 possessions (with six touchdown drives) and Southern Utah 12 with a field goal and a touchdown.

So if Arkansas has, say, 12 possessions, how many stops will BYU need?

I would say at least eight. I think the Razorbacks defense will be pretty stout and any more than four scores by Arkansas will be hard for the Cougars to surpass.

3. What’s your biggest key to BYU football coming up with a win in Fayetteville on Saturday?

DICKSON: For the first two games I wanted to see the Cougar offensive line establish dominance, and that didn’t happen. I can hardly expect BYU to dominate at the line of scrimmage against an SEC defense, so where else to look?

If the Cougars are full strength at wide receiver and Kody Epps is healthy, I think they could have some pretty advantageous matchups out there. Last year, the Arkansas defensive backfield had injuries and played a lot of youngsters. BYU took advantage of that.

The Razorbacks should be better in the secondary this year but a fully healthy Cougar receiving corps should be formidable and potent. The BYU offensive line has been good at pass protection and I believe Slovis will need another 300-yard game for the Cougars to have a shot at this game.

LLOYD: Football games between good teams come down to a few critical plays. Neither BYU nor Arkansas has demonstrated they are elite this year, but they aren’t bad either.

That means this will likely be contest where both teams will have moments that things are going well and others where they aren’t playing at the level they want to be at.

For the Cougars to win, they have to show they can handle the road environment and come through with clutch performances. That is needed in all three aspects of the game, since it is never certain where the biggest plays will come.

Leaders have to be at the forefront in moments like this, so BYU will need guys like Kedon Slovis, Isaac Rex, Ben Bywater, Max Tooley and Malik Moore to play well and make few errors to set the tone.

4. Sure, it’s still preseason, but is this the best BYU women’s soccer team Jen Rockwood has ever coached?

LLOYD: Since it is only fair to gauge this team on its first seven games, how does that stack up to how other Cougar teams did in their first seven games?

Did you know that BYU women’s soccer has won at least six of its first seven games 12 times since 1995? That’s a staggering 43% of the time under Rockwood, which is incredibly impressive.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the ones who should be in the conversation of being the very best:

  • 2023: 7-0 (wins over No. 1 UCLA and No. 21 St. Louis)
  • 2019: 7-0 (wins over No. 12 Texas A&M and No. 14 Kansas)
  • 2016: 6-1 (loss to Nebraska, wins at No. 5 Penn State and No. 19 Ohio State)
  • 2012: 6-1 (loss at Utah, wins over No. 6 Penn State and No. 11 Lone Beach State)
  • 2010: 6-0-1 (Tie at LSU, wins over No. 14 Northwestern and No. 21 Washington St.)
  • 2006: 6-1 (Loss to No. 22 Fresno State, wins over No. 15 Georgia and No. 21 Colorado)

I don’t see another season that is clearly better than 2023, where BYU has notched 28 goals and been dominant in most games.

But it’s too early to compare this year’s squad to what the other teams accomplished overall. That test will come over the next few months.

DICKSON: There is a lot of competition for that accolade. Rockwood has produced a bunch of really good teams, including the 2021 NCAA runners-up. That team had two superstars in McKayla Colohan and Cameron Tucker, plus a lot of great complimentary players.

What gets lost in the works in that 2021 team lost to Utah State 2-1 in overtime on September 18 and was just 5-3-1. The Cougars went on to win 13 of its next 14 matches to reach the NCAA College Cup final.

This year’s team has started 7-0-0 and owns a dominating win over defending national champion UCLA.

What makes this team different is its depth on offense. Eight different players have scored and when Erin Bailey, Rachel McCarthy and Ellie Walbruch come off the bench, BYU is just as dangerous and difficult to defend.

The Cougars are ranked No. 1 and will be wearing a target on their back the rest of the season. Sometimes, that can become wearisome. This could potentially be a College Cup final kind of team but the grind of the Big 12 will be formidable.

5. Looks like Zach Wilson is getting another chance to be the starting quarterback for the New York Jets. Can he get the job done this time?

DICKSON: What a finish on Monday night for the Jets, right? Wilson did have a bad interception in the first half but he did everything he was asked in the second half, including several key third down conversions and a quarterback sneak to set up the go-ahead field goal.

Replacing an injured Aaron Rodgers just four plays into the game was a difficult task. The Jets didn’t give Wilson much of a chance to go downfield and the offensive line is still pretty shaky in pass protection.

It’s possible the Jets will go out and grab a veteran quarterback, but they’ve said Wilson is their guy. I will be interested to see what the game plan on offense will be with Wilson at the controls instead of Rogers.

With that incredible defense, it will likely be very conservative. It really feels like the Jets players and coaches believe in Wilson, whose passer rating (81.4) was better than the Bengals’ Joe Burrow, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Bills’ Josh Allen in Week 1.

LLOYD: It seems like everyone forget that under Wilson started last year winning five of six games as the starter for the Jets. Yes, he wasn’t perfect during that stretch (96-of-167 for 1,202 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions) but he managed the games fairly well.

When the Jets got decimated by injuries, things fell apart for Wilson and the rest of the team. Maybe that will happen again — but maybe it won’t.

Wilson has an excellent running back group to rely on as well as a really good defense to take some of the pressure off. Still, he has to be smarter than he was last season.

Did working with Aaron Rodgers help? We’ll certainly find out over the next few weeks.

Darnell’s point about the shaky New York offensive line might be the biggest factor. Wilson has to know his limitations, make quick reads and then just take what is open. Holding the ball too long will be a disaster and so he needs to swallow some of his instinct to try to extend plays.


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