The warning signs were visible right from the start for BYU’s offense.
Generating modest totals in points (20) and total yards (365) in the season-opening victory over Portland State, a Football Championship Subdivision program, was a bad omen.
Losses to LSU and Utah followed, and BYU’s front-loaded schedule continues with a game against the University of Wisconsin. The Cougars (1-2) host the No. 10 Badgers (2-0) on Saturday in a nationally televised game at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Through three games, BYU ranks No. 124 nationally (out of 129 teams) in both total offense and scoring offense.
“We’re trying to find out what we can hang our hat on and get our identity,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “You hate saying that after three games, but we need to establish that quickly because we’re losing games.”
There haven’t been many bright spots for the BYU offense in 2017, though one emerged in the second half of the 19-13 home loss to Utah last week.
BYU had gone eight consecutive quarters without a touchdown until freshman tailback Ula Tolutau scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter.
Tolutau, a 6-foot-1, 250-pound bruiser, signed as part of UW’s 2014 recruiting class before spending the next two years on a LDS Church mission in Bakersfield, California. During that time, Gary Andersen left the Badgers for Oregon State and was replaced by Paul Chryst.
Last November, Tolutau told the Deseret News he was reopening his recruitment due to a combination of Andersen leaving and uncertainty about whether he’d qualify academically at UW.
A native of Glendale, Utah, Tolutau settled on BYU and provided a spark with 29 yards on six carries after halftime against the Utes.
“It makes those safeties think a little bit when they come down into the box,” BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer said this week on the BYU Coordinators’ Corner Show. “If he’s going downhill, we’re happy. We want him attacking the defense and going downhill and putting his foot in the ground and have to make people tackle him.”
Only four of BYU’s 73 rushing attempts have gone for 10 yards or longer. The Cougars rank No. 118 nationally in rushing offense as they try to replace two of the most productive runners in program history — tailback Jamaal Williams and quarterback Taysom Hill.
Williams, now a backup running back with the Green Bay Packers after being drafted in the fourth round, rushed for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns and became BYU’s all-time leading rusher last season. Hill, who spent training camp with the Packers before being signed by the New Orleans Saints, added 603 yards on the ground last season.
Junior Squally Canada, BYU’s primary back this season, is barely over 100 yards through three games. Cougars left tackle Thomas Shoaf said the offensive line deserves part of the blame for the pedestrian running totals.
“We were very physical in fall camp,” Shoaf said, “and we’ve kind of slacked off on that a little bit.”
BYU’s passing game hasn’t been much better. Junior quarterback Tanner Mangum has thrown twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdown passes (two) and is completing 54.4 percent of his passes.
Freshman tight end Matt Bushman, who has 13 catches for 149 yards, has been BYU’s most productive receiver. But no consistent playmaker has emerged from an inexperienced group of wide receivers.
Making matters worse, Mangum limped off the field late in the Utah game with what appeared to be a left ankle injury. He was seen on campus earlier this week wearing a protective walking boot and is questionable for Saturday, meaning either sophomore Beau Hoge or Koy Detmer Jr. could start against the Badgers.
Trying to come up with answers for all of these issues is Ty Detmer, who threw for more than 15,000 yards at BYU from 1987-91 and won the Heisman Trophy as a junior.
Detmer spent most of his 14 seasons in the NFL as a backup, but he developed a reputation as a terrific mentor to young quarterbacks.
During his four seasons with the Packers — Detmer was a ninth-round pick in 1992 — he was a calming influence on the sidelines to another young player — Brett Favre.
Now, it’s Detmer’s job to guide the BYU offense through rough times.
These aren’t uncharted waters for Detmer, who reflected back on a poor start to his final season as a player for the Cougars.
Detmer was the reigning Heisman winner as a senior in 1991 but was surrounded by several inexperienced players. It didn’t help that BYU began its season with games against No. 1 Florida State, No. 23 UCLA and No. 12 Penn State.
After an 0-3 start, BYU rebounded to finish 8-3-2 and Detmer passed for more than 4,000 yards.
Despite back-to-back losses, one of which came in a rivalry game against an in-state opponent, Detmer believes playing the Badgers forces the Cougars to get over their disappointment in a hurry.
“I think you want to get back and have your opportunity to kind of right the ship and prove you can play with everybody,” Detmer said.
“I think for the players, it kind of helps them get that mind back right again that we’ve got to go or it’s going to be ugly if we don’t get ourselves back ready to play again quickly.”