Steve Sarkisian and the No. 7 Texas Longhorns return to the Forty Acres for the first home game in four weeks to take on Sarkisian’s alma mater, the BYU Cougars, this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Central on ABC, almost certainly without the help of their sophomore quarterback and leader Quinn Ewers.
Head coach Kalani Sitake and the Cougars have come out of the gates in their first season with the Big 12 swinging, starting off 5–2 for the 2023 campaign.
“We’re playing a really good BYU football team, 5–2, obviously my alma mater, I know a lot of those coaches,” Sarkisian said Monday. “They’ve got a veteran football team and they play extremely hard. They’re tough-nosed, they’re hard-nosed, they play the game with a real mentality and effort.”
Sitake also commented on their relationship, saying, “Sark’s been so good to me throughout our coaching careers, he’s always been a guy I can turn to — the fact that he is a Cougar, it’s nice to keep that friendship.”
All friendships will be put aside for this week’s matchup, however, as the former teammates meet at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with only three losses between both coaches on the year.
Veteran quarterback play on offense and BYU’s ability to create turnovers on defense will certainly be the most difficult challenge for Sarkisian and this Quinn-less offense headed into Week Eight. It will be paramount Ewers is unable to go that this coaching staff prepares redshirt freshman backup quarterback Malik Murphy to protect the ball against a Cougars defense that has accumulated the fourth-most turnovers in the nation at 16.
“As we go on to this stretch here in the second half of the season, every game is a Big 12 championship game,” Sarkisian said. “Our ability to stay focused on us and what we need to do to play good football to keep stacking wins is of the utmost importance.”
Texas enters this game battered and bruised after a narrow 31–24 victory over the Houston Cougars, with multiple key players listed on this week’s injury report. Versatility, as Sarkisian has preached all season, will be the key to victory against BYU as this week’s preparation will certainly be very different than it has been for the Horns all season.
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick runs multiple different offensive sets with a steady balance between rushing and passing schemes. Sarkisian is familiar with Roderick since they were also teammates in Provo — Roderick caught passes from Sarkisian.
“Aaron Roderick, their offensive coordinator, was a receiver of mine when I was there,” Sarkisian said. “They’ve definitely got a veteran quarterback in (Kedon) Slovis and they’ve got a multitude of tight ends that they like to use. So, you know, we got our work cut out for us.”
Roderick and Sitake have used the transfer portal to retool this offense, adding a whopping 15 new players from the portal, leading to some growing pains in moving the football on offense as the offensive line continues to gel.
The Cougars have been extremely efficient with the football this year, dominating the turnover margin this year with only seven turnovers on the season. They are also extremely efficient in the red area, converting at the 23rd-highest red-zone offense percentage in the nation at 91.3 percent.
However, this BYU offense has had struggles as of late, including an embarrassing 11–44 loss toTCU on the road, and have not been a particularly high-flying offense, averaging 27 points per game and posting only two games with over 300 total yards. Their defense has been the factor that has carried them through games, as the offense is more methodical and does not turn the ball over.
Graduate transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis commands the offense following stops at USC and Pitt, and has been efficient this season with a touchdown-to-interception rate of 3:1.
It hasn’t been the most flashy quarterback play from Slovis with 1,519 passing yards, 14 touchdowns ,and four interceptions this year with a completion percentage of 56.6 percent.
Despite the efficiency, consistency from Slovis has been an issue from week to week, mainly as his offensive line has had trouble protecting him. Week Six against TCU is a great example — Slovis went 15-of-34 passing for 152 yards and a pick against a 4–4 Horned Frogs team that is allowing an average of 230 yards per game through the air.
Despite the Week Four matchup against the Jayhawks where the Cougars were forced to abandon the run and throw the ball 51 times, Slovis is averaging 168 passing yards on 32.6 attempts against conference opponents — he’s like a Jimmy Goropolo or Brock Purdy, game manager-type of a quarterback. Slovis only averages 6.7 yards per attempt this season, as methodical dives through the run game and short passes to Rex seem to be their bread-and-butter on offense.
They like to use Slovis as a runner in the red area however, with three touchdowns for the 6‘3, 215-pound quarterback. BYU has been incredibly efficient in the red zone, and primarily likes to keep it on the ground when knocking on the door.
Overall, Slovis does not pose a tremendous threat through the air for this Texas defense. However, his efficiency as mentioned before can sustain long drives, especially when he is able to get the ball into the hands of his talented receivers and tight ends.
Wide receivers/tight ends
It is relatively rare to see college football programs utilize their tight ends in the passing game like Texas does with Ja’Tavion Sanders, but this Cougars offense has certainly leaned heavily on the fifth-year Rex to move the ball this year. With 23 receptions for 316 yards and a touchdown, Rex is the second-leading receiver in targets and yards for this Cougars passing attack.
At 6’6, 255 pounds, Rex is able to high point the ball and make plays in the open field. He has certainly been a reliable outlet for Slovis in the short and intermediate game, although it is interesting to note that he is not used in the red area a lot with his height, only totaling one touchdown on the season.
The wide receiving corps is led by third-year sophomore Chase Roberts (6’4, 210 pounds) at the Z position and senior Eastern Michigan transfer Darius Lassiter (6’3, 205 pounds) at the X. Roberts leads the team with 29 receptions and 430 receiving yards, while Lassiter has totaled 23 receptions for 272 yards and four touchdowns, as well.
Roberts is the deep-ball threat for Slovis, averaging 14.8 yards per attempt, and is able to move effectively down the field. Standing at 6’4, he can effectively make big plays against smaller corners and is a threat in the red area.
Lassiter is the speedy receiver at the Y, challenging defenders with his quick burst off the line. Drops in critical moments have been an issue for Lassiter, however, as seen in the two missed catches on third down against Texas Tech last week.
Freshman wide receiver Parker Kingston is used in a multitude of different ways, from receiving to rushing, and even passing the ball. The 5’11, 180-pound freshman is lightning fast with a 4.3 40 time that makes him a dangerous player in both the receiving and kick return game.
In Week Two, Kingston had a 37-yard touchdown pass against Arkansas. So look for Roderick to open up his playbook with some possible trickery against the best defense they have faced all season in the Longhorns.
Roderick would surely prefer to establish the running game to maintain some balance on offense, but BYU has struggled in that regard, averaging only 2.8 yards per carry, 130th nationally, and 79.3 rushing yards per game, also 130th in the country.
Three-star freshman running back LJ Martin out of El Paso has led the team in rushes in this backfield with 96 carries for 438 yards and 4 touchdowns. Standing at 6’2, 205 pounds, the shifty Martin is able to find holes effectively, make defenders miss in the open field, and break off long runs, like on the opening drive against Texas Tech when Martin broke off a 55-yard rush to start the game.
Although Martin controls the majority of the snap count, big-bodied junior Aidan Robbins at 6’3, 240 pounds will act as the change-of-pace back, often in short-yardage situations.
This BYU rushing attack as a whole however has been limited this year with only 555 rushing yards on the season. It will be interesting to see how they are able to sustain any offense on the ground against the best defensive front they have seen all season in the Texas Longhorns.
The offensive line has seen a lot of turnover from last year with only one returning offensive lineman, so Roderick brought seven transfers into a rotation that is certainly short on depth with only 10 total offensive lineman on the roster.
Senior center Connor Pay (6’5, 305 pounds) is the only returning veteran from last year, with multiple lineman graduating or entering the transfer portal, such as the Barrington brothers who left to play for Dave Aranda at Baylor.
Both guard positions have been filled by transfers Paul Maile (6’2, 300 pounds), a senior transfer from Utah, and Weylin Lapuaho (6’4, 305 pounds), a sophomore transfer from Utah State.
This patchwork of transfers has had trouble protecting the quarterback this season with the 24th-most sacks allowed in the nation. They have also had trouble creating holes for the moribund rushing game averaging less than 80 yards per contest.
This week’s matchup against a strong Texas defensive front should prove to be a hefty test for an offensive front that has struggled to protect the backfield all season. Byron Murphy and T’Vondre Sweat should have a good showing this week against this Cougars offensive line.
The defense for this Cougars team has been the benchmark of their success this season with first-year defensive coordinator Jay Hill joining BYU this year after nine seasons as the head coach of Weber State.
Hill runs multiple different defensive schemes and has completely turned this defense around with their incredible ability to create turnovers this season. So far the Cougars have totaled 16 takeaways, including five against Texas Tech last week. Granted, Tech is relying on their third-string quarterback who threw three interceptions in the Week Seven matchup, but the ability of this defense to recognize plays and fly to the ball in the secondary is impressive.
With nine players on the defense coming from the portal, much like the offense, this Cougars defense has seen tremendous turnover as Hill has created an entirely new squad to begin his tenure with the Cougars.
Fourth-year junior defensive end Tyler Batty (6’5, 270 pounds) leads this Cougars front seven as one of the few returning starters for this defense as a whole. Off the left edge, Batty leads the team with 3.5 sacks on the year for 32 yards.
The right side of the line has been filled by two fifth-year senior transfers from Boise State, Jackson Cravens (6’2, 305 pounds) at defensive tackle and Isaiah Bagnah (6’4, 235 pounds) at right defensive end. Bagnah is certainly undersized for his position, but is quick off the edge and able to use finesse moves to accumulate 22 tackles on the season.
As a unit, this Cougars defense has had troubles getting home with only seven sacks on the season. They also have had problems containing the run, allowing an average of 150 rushing yards per game, and 188 rushing yards per game against Big 12 opponents.
Weaknesses on the defensive front for this Cougars team have been saved by their secondary and veteran linebacker play.
The linebacker room is led by fifth-year senior linebacker Max Tooley, who leads the team in tackles with 50 at the Rover position. Tooley is seemingly everywhere on the field playing the nickel and linebacker slots for this defense, totaling a sack and an interception for the Cougars. He is also effective at covering the slot, so we may see Tooley on Jordan Whittington a lot in this matchup.
Tooley is flanked by senior Utah State transfer AJ Vongphachanh, who has had a remarkable season thus far in his first year in the system. Vongphachanh has totaled the second-most tackles on the team with 46 at the strong-side linebacker position.
This linebacker corps has some of the most depth on the team and has been paramount in their ability to highlight the defensive secondary that has defined their defensive success this season.
Now to the strongest position group on this Cougars team — their defensive secondary. Fourth in the nation in turnovers with 16 and tied for fifth in interceptions with 11 on the year, this 5–2 season for the Cougars is mostly due to their impressive ability to take the ball away, a collaborative effort defensively with six different players recording a pick on the season, although defensive backs Eddie Heckard and Jakob Robinson have been the leaders for this unit with seven interceptions between the two.
Junior transfer cornerback Jakob Robinson leads the team in interceptions with four in his second season with the Cougars. Robinson has made a meaningful impact on this secondary’s ability to create takeaways, often lining up against the best opposing receivers. The 5’11, 170-pound corner has totaled 41 tackles and three pass deflections on the season in becoming one of the focal points of this roster.
On the other side of the field is Heckard, a senior who followed Hill from Weber State. Second only to Robinson with three interceptions on the season, Heckard is also effective in blitz schemes and getting into the backfield. So far this season he has totaled 23 tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble to go along with his three takeaways.
The back end of the defense is led by sophomore strong safety Ethan Slade, who had a monster game against Texas Tech last week. The sophomore Utah native is effective at protecting the back end with 38 tackles and an interception of his own against the Red Raiders.
This unit will definitely be the biggest challenge for Sarkisian’s offense calls as Murphy steps in for the injured Quinn Ewers. Because of their incredible ability to create turnovers and weak defensive front, we will likely see a heavy dose of Jonathan Brooks and CJ Baxter as a means to control tempo and limit turnovers in this game.
The punting game for BYU this season has been spectacular thanks to the leg of junior Ryan Rehkow, who was named to the preseason watch list for the 2023 Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter for the third consecutive year after finishing the 2022 season averaging 46.2 yards per punt. In Week One, Rehkow was named the Big 12 Co-Special Teams Player of the Week by recording nine punts for 479 yards for an average of 53.2 yards per kick.
It’s interesting to discuss a punter as the highlight of their special teams unit, but Rehkow has a unique ability to flip the field.
Will Ferrin handles the kicking duties for the Cougars and has been efficient. With only one missed extra point on the season, Ferrin has hit 95.8 percent of his extra points this year. He has also made 6-of-8 field goals this year, with a long of 46 yards and is also 3-of-4 on kicks from over 40 yards. He has totaled 41 points with his leg for the Cougars this season.
Kingston handles most of the punt return duties for BYU with an average of 27.3 yards per return and currently holds the two longest kick returns for the program since 2019 with a 46-yard return and a 41-yard return. He’ll definitely be someone to look out for if the Longhorns are forced to punt this Saturday.
The Longhorns face a multitude of challenges against BYU coming into Week Eight, mainly the loss of Ewers. This Cougars defense has proven its ability to shift momentum by creating turnovers through their impressive secondary, but they continue to struggle up front.
Therefore, the game plan for Texas on offense should be to establish a running game early, leaning on Jonathan Brooks and CJ Baxter to take some pressure off of Murphy against this playmaking secondary.
On defense the game plan is simple. Get to the quarterback. This Cougars offensive line lacks any continuity from last season and has had struggles all year protecting the quarterback. So far, Pete Kwiatkowski and this impressive Texas defensive front that has totaled the 46th-most sacks this year with 17 should aim to make Slovis uncomfortable in the pocket, forcing long third downs and uncommon mistakes for the veteran quarterback.
Texas is a 10.5-point favorite against BYU, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.