Fresno State is coming off a loss to UNLV at home but is still in first place in the West Division. Up next is nonconference opponent BYU, which just won its second game of the season against San Jose State. The Collegian spoke with Josh Ellis, the sports editor at BYU’s student-run newspaper, The Universe, to discuss the upcoming game.
DG: BYU (2-7) is in the middle of its first losing season since 2004 after winning nine games the last two years. What happened? (Besides the fact that it had to face LSU, Wisconsin and Utah.)
JE: The biggest problem for BYU has been putting points on the scoreboard and moving the ball offensively. Even with last week’s season-highs of 598 total yards on offense and 41 points, BYU ranks 126th out of 130 FBS teams in offensive yards per game (302) and 125th in points per game (15.3). This, in turn, led to an average time of possession of 26:33 minutes per game, which ranks 123rd in the nation. BYU’s defense was on the field for nearly 42 minutes against LSU and 40 minutes against Wisconsin, and it’s hard to win games when your defense is worn down like that.
The Cougars did play a few tough games against then-No. 10 Wisconsin and then-No. 13 LSU to open the season, but losses to Utah State and East Carolina in recent weeks show that there have been major issues with the team’s ability to score. Injuries have also been a major factor—starting quarterback Tanner Mangum suffered an ankle injury against Utah and his replacement, Beau Hoge, was hurt against Utah State. At running back, KJ Hall didn’t play in the second half against San Jose State, and Fred Warner, who leads the team in tackles, left the game with an injury as well. On top of the injuries, leading rusher Ula Tolutau’s status is unknown after he was cited for possession or use of a controlled substance on Oct. 8. He did not play against the Spartans last week.
DG: How important was last week’s 41-20 win over San Jose State?
JE: The team really needed it. It ended the first seven-game losing streak since 1968 for BYU, gave the Cougars their first win over an FBS program and gave the fans something to cheer about. In the win, the offense finally showed some positives with six passes for 19 or more yards (three of which went for 40-plus yards) and seven runs of 10 or more yards, highlighted by a 75-yard touchdown run from Hall.
DG: I’m struggling to think of an emptier stadium than LaVell Edwards Stadium last week. Is fan support the lowest you’ve ever seen?
JE: The fans are divided—some are calling for wholesale changes, and others are saying to ride out the storm and things will improve. Last week’s attendance was 46,451—lower than previous games but still a strong showing from BYU fans. Some have moved on to basketball, but there is a solid portion of the fanbase that is going to ride out the season and cheer the Cougars on until the Hawaii game ends.
DG: These two teams last played in 2015 with BYU winning 52-10 at home. Do you think that result has any significance for this week’s game?
JE: I wouldn’t think so because so much has changed here in Provo since then. A new coaching staff and the turmoil of this season have made the 2015 game seem like it was played an eternity ago. I can see it motivating the Bulldogs, but BYU is just looking to build off of last week and get its first winning streak of the year.
DG: Head coach Kalani Sitake is in his second year. What’s the feeling surrounding his job security?
JE: Some are upset with Coach Sitake, but the general feeling is that he isn’t on the hot seat. Most of the frustration has been directed at the offensive coaching staff after an inept offense limped through the first eight games.
DG: Is there anyone on the offense that stands out?
JE: BYU’s top two running backs could miss the Fresno State game, so I would expect to see more passes this week. Mangum has had a rough start to the season but went 18-for-34 against San Jose State with three touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 146. While the Spartans weren’t the toughest defensive test of the year, the Cougars’ offense showed it can struggle against anyone with the performance against East Carolina. Seeing Mangum find the end zone through the air was a welcome sight for BYU fans. Hopefully, he can carry over the momentum from last week to Saturday’s game. Wide receiver Jonah Trinnaman could be another player to keep an eye on. He is averaging 12.4 yards per catch and had a season-high 45-yard catch against San Jose State.
DG: Who should Fresno State fans look out for on defense?
JE: Linebacker Butch Pau’u and lineman Sione Takitaki. Both players have 52 total tackles this season, and Takitaki has eight tackles for loss. Additionally, Dayan Ghanwoloku has emerged as a solid defensive back this year. He has two interceptions, which leads the team; 41 total tackles; and five pass break-ups. If Warner is healthy and plays against the Bulldogs, he’ll also be a must-watch.
DG: What is your game prediction?
JE: BYU leaves Fresno with a 28-24 win for its first winning streak since last year.