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Sitake prepares to take BYU down the homestretch with welcome return to LES

Brigham Young head coach Kalani Sitake reacts to a call during the first half of an NCAA football game between Boise State and Brigham Young in Boise on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.
Brigham Young head coach Kalani Sitake reacts to a call during the first half of an NCAA football game between Boise State and Brigham Young in Boise on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.
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It’s Kalani Sitake’s coming down-the-stretch time.

It’s a much-needed return to familiar turf. A time to whistle, “Johnny Comes Marching Home.” This is a BYU version of the Athenian’s coming back from the Battle of Marathon.

It’s been a long, arduous road for this rookie coach who christened his inaugural season as a Division I head football coach with an independent schedule that was supposed to doom his club right out of the chute. Some experts predicted a 1-6 start. A reasonable observer could sit down now and see this team could be 7-1 at this stage of 2016.

Yet, he’s fired up, excited, as on task and zoomed in as a Home Depot worker stocking aisles for Black Friday.

Will his players show the same?

Sitake said he believes so, even playing an FCS opponent in Southern Utah.

“Our approach won’t change at all,” he said. “I’ve talked before about respecting our opponents — look at what Southern Utah did last year and having guys go on to the next level.

“Knowing Ed Lamb was mostly responsible for that and having him on our staff is a huge benefit. I’ve coached at that level before too and there are a lot of great players and coaches there. We are planning on giving it our best shot. I know we’ll get theirs.”

This Saturday, Sitake and BYU will enjoy a rare home game with the rest of November’s games at home as well. It will be a run other teams have already enjoyed, most in September. Sitake got six of his first nine games on the road, three of them in the Eastern Time zone.

To my recollection, that has never happened at BYU.

On Saturday against SUU, an opponent Utah got in its own opener Sept. 1, Sitake is challenged specifically to keep his squad on track.

The 4-4 Cougars can reach bowl eligibility with a win, by contract, a visit Dec. 22 to San Diego. But more important, this is the first of a four-game stretch in which Sitake can get the Cougars to nine wins. And that is a story.

There are specific things crucial for Sitake and the rest of November.

As an independent with no conference title race to chase through turkey day, can he keep his squad focused, on point and motivated?

Can he keep star Jamaal Williams healthy and productive for the bowl game, which will likely be against a very tough Wyoming or San Diego State squad?

Will he be able to create an opportunity for sophomore quarterback Tanner Mangum to get reps and prepare for next season?

Like most teams, BYU has injuries galore. Can he keep his squad healthy and depth intact?

Will Sitake be able to use this rare home schedule to keep BYU fans, who have rarely seen this team in Provo, engaged? These fans have been asked to pay a hefty price to watch a finish of non-league opponents SUU, UMass and Utah State. How many butts will be in the seats for this stretch in LaVell Edwards Stadium?

These are all keys we’ll be watching in weeks to come. What will be the motivation, focus, and execution?

This week’s picks:

Washington State 42, California 31: Leach goes hunting Bear.

San Diego State 34, Nevada 14: Aztecs enjoying super season.

New Mexico 34, Utah State 24: Lobos are too explosive.

UCLA 21, Oregon State 17: Bruins playing for pride.

Washington 28, USC 24: Huskies sniff a playoff berth.

Oklahoma 34, Baylor 27: Baylor is missing it’s tool bag.

Alabama 38, Mississippi State: Can MSU pull off another upset?

West Virginia 34, Texas 31: Mountaineers may end Charlie Strong’s job.

Wyoming 37, UNLV: Cowboy’s have been impressive, strong.

Ohio State 27, Maryland 20: Buckeyes dominate.

Oklahoma State 42, Texas Tech 34: Cowboy’s win with defense.

Stanford 37, Oregon 28: Ducks have lost a lot of steam.

BYU 38, Southern Utah 10: Tanner Mangum in the third.

Last week 13-3; Overall 75-48 (.609)

EMAIL: dharmon@deseretnews.com.

TWITTER: Harmonwrites