In the Cougars' season opener against Ole Miss, BYU averaged 2.9 yard per carry. Against Texas, it got even worse with an average of 1.9 yards per carry. Now facing rival Utah, the Cougars have to get all aspects of their offense working once again, and that includes the run.
"Our run game is not what we expected it to be right now," said running back Bryan Kariya. "It's also not what our team expected from us either. All of us feel a responsibility to improve on the run game and help contribute to our team in a way that we really need to, and I think it's a great opportunity to do that this week."
Given the performances in fall camp, the rushing results so far have been completely different than what most would have thought. The results have even caught members of the offense by surprise.
"I thought we would run the ball a little bit better than we have the past couple of weeks," Matt Reynolds said. "And I also think everybody did, and I think that's one reason why it's been a big focus this week to try and make sure that next week [we] won't have to talk about it."
Reynolds' words pretty much sum up how seriously the BYU offense is taking its struggles to heart. This offense simply does not want to talk about it any longer, and so to get rid of the negative buzz and chatter, the team has something to prove.
"I don't go into a game thinking I'm going to get shut down against a certain defense," Kariya said. "That's not factoring into my mindset at all. I'm just looking to go out there and be aggressive and hit those guys in the mouth. It's not just that Utah has a great defense, it just helps us raise our level of play for this next game and will help raise our level of execution and toughness too."
Kariya knows there are some things that the running backs can do to be more effective.
"What I've mainly been kind of talking about is just getting upfield," Kariya said. "You know, don't dance around, don't go laterally from side to side on the field. Just go upfield and put your head down and turn up the yards.
"Running the ball is kind of an instinctive thing, but at the end of the day it's kind of simple. You just have to hit the open hole and run that field and keep your legs moving and things happen. That's kind of my mindset and I think that J.J. [Di Luigi], Juice [Joshua Quezada] share that and Mike Alisa has been getting carries as well. So I think all of us know that's what we have to do to be successful running this week."
"If you look at the stats over these past couple of weeks, we haven't really run it that well like have traditionally have," said Reynolds. "We, as an offensive line, take that very personal. We've talked about that a lot over the past couple of days, and even the structure of practice has changed a little bit to further help us focus on the run."
If the Cougars are serious about establishing a dominant run game, it will have to start now at their home opener against their old rival.
"We're playing against a great defense and it's our first home game," Kariya said. "There's going to be a lot of excitement out there just with the crowd and our fans out there. I just feel it's time for us to step up out there and shoulder that responsibility.
"I think the blocks are there. We just have to take it upon ourselves to make sure that even if the hole is clogged up, because sometimes that's just the way it is, you just have to put your head down and go get the yards.
"It's not going to be given to you and linebackers aren't just going to say, ‘Oh hey, run right past me!' We're going to have to lower our shoulder, and sometimes if all you can get is three yards, then that's the best you could have done.
"Sometimes we view that as a successful run because it helps to move the ball on first down or second down and sets us up for a better situation on third down. Even if it's not one of those 10- or 15-yard runs, just go get those chunks and eventually that type of consistency will wear on a defense and things will open up."
In the Cougars' one-point loss to Texas, the offense only gained a meager 67 yards in the second half. That's hardly the yard-chomping, field-gobbling powerhouse Cougar offense of yesteryear. With a poor offensive outing the first two games, and with the offense being directed by first-year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, there is added pressure to try and prove that the BYU offenses of old can be unleashed in this year's team.
"Yeah, I think the focus is just trying to be the best that we can be," said Reynolds. "I think we have that potential. Now whether or not we really take that potential and turn it into reality is going to be determined in what we do during practice and how we show up on Saturday."
Under Coach Doman's direction, the Cougars offense has reverted back to the old BYU style of offensive schemes. However, without an established run game, some of Doman's new wrinkles – such as an increased emphasis on play action – won't be as effective.
"Play action has been one of our better things, and I think it had been because of the focus our opponents have had on the run," said Reynolds. "But the play action is only as good as long as the run is respected, so until we can get that run game really going and have it be a defensive focus every week, our play action will suffer. We have to focus on getting that going so when the time comes and we do play action, it's really hard to stop."
Utah head Coach Kyle Whittingham paid a rather nice compliment to Reynolds during his press conference last Monday, saying he felt Reynolds was a first-round NFL draft pick. It was a compliment BYU's big offensive lineman took to heart.
"I know Coach Whittingham personally and we have a good relationship," Reynolds said. "Anytime you're complimented or have your efforts recognized, it's obviously a big honor and I really appreciate that."
Hopefully Coach Whittingham's words ring true and Reynolds and the boys play like first-round draft picks against Utah's tough defensive line, because they are big, experienced and capable.
Four very capable linemen, two of which come by way of the junior college route, are fielded along Utah's defensive line. One is 6-foot-3-inch, 305-pound senior James Aiono, a four-star recruit out of Snow College.
The other transfer is a former BYU commit, but one that also ended up at Utah by way of Snow: 6-foot-3-inch, 325-pound Star Lotulelei out of Bingham High School.
The other two starting linemen are 6-foot-5-inch, 285-pound junior Dave Kruger, who has played in 26 games while starting in 17, and 6-foot-3-inch, 271-pound senior defensive end Derrick Shelby, who's played in 34 career games with 27 starts. If BYU is to establish a ground game, it will start by winning in the trenches against a very good defensive line.
"I think it's going to be a really good matchup and we've got a really good opponent," said Reynolds. "I think we've got to take them seriously as we're preparing, and there are some things that we are doing to specifically focus on the run. I think that's probably where it's going to start with us in making sure that we get that run game ironed out. I think once we get that going, everything else will follow suit."
Cougar fans across the nation and around the world will be pulling for just that.