TAMPA — The main goals for the BYU football team during the bye week seemed pretty straightforward:
Defensively, stop the run.
Offensively, turn drives into touchdowns.
When tested in those areas on Saturday afternoon at South Florida, however, the results for the Cougars were dismally predictable:
Awful and terrible.
Those failures cost BYU another winnable game as the Bulls stopped the Cougars eight times inside the 15-yard line in the fourth quarter, holding on for the 27-23 win and handing BYU its third loss in a row.
“Obviously I’m very disappointed in the outcome of the game,” Cougar head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We’ve got lots of things to address and improve on. We made a lot of mistakes in all three phases.”
BYU had plenty of chances to seize control of the game as it drove inside the USF 30-yard line on seven of its 12 possessions — only to manage just 16 points (three field goals, one touchdown) on those drives.
“If we would’ve finished our drives, we would’ve won the game,” Cougar sophomore running back Lopini Katoa said. “I’m not sure exactly why that is. We will watch the film. My guess is it is various things that we can work on and get better at, things like cleaning up our protection in the red zone, hitting the seams harder in the run game or making that third level miss.”
The most glaring offensive struggles came in the fourth quarter, after the Bulls had rallied to take the lead.
BYU — led by third-string quarterback Baylor Romney — had a first-and-10 at USF’s 13-yard line with under five minutes to play. But a pass fell incomplete and then a five-yard rush was followed by a fly sweep that lost two yards. The fourth-down pass gained five yards but that wasn’t enough to move the chains.
After the Cougars finally managed to stop the Bull run game without a first down, Romney guided BYU back down the field. A pass interference penalty on USF gave the Cougars a first-and-10 at the 12-yard line with a chance to snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat.
It wasn’t to be as BYU once again couldn’t find a way to make the play it needed.
Romney had a pair of passes sail out of bounds, then was sacked. He put the ball in the end zone on the final play of the game but the Bull defenders easily knocked it away to preserve the USF win.
“It hurts,” Katoa said. “Everyone is hurting — and it should hurt because we know we can be a great team. We know that isn’t how we are as a team. We know we are better than that. It hurts.”
The Cougars appeared to be in good position to win the game after a 29-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Jaren Hall gave BYU a 23-14 lead midway through the third quarter.
But the disheartening failure of the Cougar run defense to stop the Bulls in the second half would turn everything around.
After BYU sophomore linebacker Chaz Ah You intercepted a pass later in the third quarter, USF simply stopped going to the air and solely relied on its ground game.
The Bulls ran the ball on 13 consecutive plays. Aided by great field position when BYU fumbled the snap on a punt, USF gained 101 rushing yards on those plays to score the two fourth-quarter touchdowns that put the home team in front for good.
“It looked like we were getting knocked off the line of scrimmage and getting chunk yardage,” Sitake said. “Give them credit because they were able to move the line of scrimmage. We felt like we had it pretty sound in the first half but it fell apart. With guys not holding their ground and getting knocked off the line, it became a fight and they beat us in the second half. Defensively we talked about stopping the run. That was the key and we weren’t able to do that.”
The Bulls finished with 244 rushing yards and just 72 passing yards — 39 of which came on a play when USF quarterback Jordan McCloud was hit as he threw but tight end Mitch Wilcox made a great diving catching the end zone.
BYU’s offense, mostly under the direction of freshman Jaren Hall but also with Romney at the helm after the Hall got hurt, tallied 439 yards (218 rushing, 221 passing) but the failure to cross the goal line made those stats meaningless.
“That’s something we’ve definitely got to get better at moving forward,” Cougar offensive lineman James Empey said. “We’ve got to improve on that and put points on the board. We’ve got to score when we are down there. We were moving the ball pretty good. We’ve just got to take advantage of opportunities that we have.”
BYU now head back to the drawing board as it heads home to host No. 14 Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Oct. 19 (8:15 p.m., ESPN2).