‘The reason why we’ve won’: BYU’s offensive line doing its part for No. 13 Cougars

BYU’s offensive line prepares for snap during game against South Florida Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU’s offensive line prepares for snap during game against South Florida Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. | BYU Photo

New BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk has directed the unit well since taking over for the departed Eric Mateos, now at Baylor

Admit it, there have been plenty of seasons in recent memory when BYU’s offensive line has not lived up to expectations.

Through four games, this is not one of those seasons.

“They have been the reason why we’ve won,” BYU receiver Neil Pau’u said Tuesday.

The Cougars (4-0) take their No. 13 national ranking and undefeated season into Logan on Friday in what could be their most difficult game of the year to date, which is saying something considering they have knocked off two ranked teams.

But those wins were in Provo. To keep its perfect season going, BYU will have to take down 3-1 Utah State in front of a hostile crowd at Maverik Stadium (7 p.m. MDT, CBSSN). BYU’s offensive line, which has committed only a handful of false starts and holding penalties through a third of the season, and allowed just three sacks, will be counted on to lead the way.

BYU is tied for sixth in the nation in fewest sacks allowed, .75 per game. In addition to protecting quarterbacks Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney extremely well, the Cougars have ran the ball effectively when they have needed to.

In the fourth quarters of the last three games, the Cougars have killed the clock with long, time-consuming drives by primarily running the football. That’s when an offensive line shines the most.

Still, new offensive line coach Darrell Funk is far from satisfied.

“We have had moments in the first few games where we have looked like we want to look,” Funk said last week. “Unfortunately, we have had times where we do have things we need to improve on. We have a lot to improve on. We are just starting to realize how good we can be up front.”

A little bit of adversity struck in the 35-27 win over South Florida, as starting right tackle Harris LaChance went down with a lower leg injury and spent most of the game on crutches on the sidelines. Freshman Campbell Barrington filled in admirably, displaying the depth that Funk and head coach Kalani Sitake have said they’ve been developing the last six months.

Sitake said Monday he is expecting LaChance to make a recovery and be available this week.

“But is it nice to know that we can count on some of those other guys to be in there and continue to do good things,” he said.

Before he went down against the Bulls, LaChance said the offensive line was taking pride in the way it was closing out games.

“We have been putting a big emphasis on owning the trenches every play, and that’s what we are doing,” said the Herriman High product. “We are just tuning up right now, man.”

The offensive line has done so well that starting quarterback Hall advocated in a news conference after BYU’s 26-17 win over Utah for them to get a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal like most of the Cougars’ skill players and better-known defensive players have received.

“That was awesome when he said that. It is great to get some love. Obviously we want some love, and that was dope of him. That was funny,” LaChance said.

Running back Lopini Katoa said the O line is a big reason why he’s rushed for 135 yards and Tyler Allgeier has rushed for 346 yards. Hall has picked up 166.

“I feel like they are getting better and better each week, learning to work as one unit,” Katoa said. “I feel like they have shown a lot of great things throughout the first four games and are getting better and better.”

Funk said center James Empey and left guard Clark Barrington are grading out the best, followed by LaChance. Empey and Barrington are on the 2021 Rotary Lombardi Award Watch List, and on Wednesday Empey was named a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy, which is annually bestowed by the National Football Foundation to the nation’s top football scholar-athlete.

Empey has started in 38 games for BYU and has a 3.84 GPA in finance.

Barrington’s ascension has been steep as well.

“Clark is tough. He plays hard. He knows what he is doing. His football IQ is as high as Empey’s,” Funk said. “He is off to a really good start. He really is. I am happy with him.”

LaChance was a swing player last year, going back and forth between right and left tackle. He’s entrenched at right tackle now, having picked up where consensus All-American Brady Christensen left off.

“The guy has only played right tackle (this season) and he is really starting to feel comfortable with all the nuances of the one side. So I am happy with him,” Funk said.

Starting left tackle Blake Freeland owns the highlight play among the O linemen through four games, having crushed an Arizona State cornerback on a block the freed tight end Dallin Holker for a big play.

“Blake has got a lot of ability,” Funk said. “He’s been a part of some really good drives. … That’s a fun play for a tackle when it works out like that. It is not a fun play for a DB. But when you got a 6-8 kid that can run like that, and is that athletic, you do it. And he certainly did a good job with it. What he did was pretty fun.”

Freshman Connor Pay and junior Joe Tukuafu have rotated at right guard, with Tukuafu getting the start last week against USF.

“Connor and Joe have had their moments, but in terms of consistency so far, it has been James, Clark, and then for the most part, Harry,” Funk said.

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