PROVO — Entering Kalani Sitake’s first season as BYU’s head coach — featuring a challenging schedule and new staff installing a new offense and a new defense — few observers believed that the Cougars were capable of an eight-win campaign.
And when BYU (8-4) opened the year with a 1-3 record, an eight-win season seemed out of reach. But the Cougars won seven of their final eight contests, including a 28-10 victory over Utah State in the regular-season finale last Saturday.
Meanwhile, BYU’s four losses were by a total of eight points.
Of course, several of the Cougars’ Power 5 opponents — Arizona (3-9), UCLA (4-8), Michigan State (3-9) and Mississippi State (5-7) — turned out to be worse than expected.
The Cougars have a shot at securing nine wins when they take on a Mountain West Conference opponent in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 21 in San Diego.
Overall, Sitake is pleased with his team’s progress in Year One.
“I think we’ve improved quite a bit. The goal was to get better every week. Obviously, when you win games, it looks better,” Sitake said. “Our team became closer the more we played around each other. With our schemes and the techniques we’re asking them to play became a lot more comfortable. The seniors have been the key to it, being able to help the younger guys come along. That’s going to be huge for us and our progress from here on out. Their willingness to lead by example, meaning they bought into whatever we asked them to do. If I were to evaluate the team, I think we’re a much closer team and they know what to expect from all of the coaches.”
Running back Jamaal Williams, who became the school’s all-time leading rusher this season, is happy with the way the Cougars turned things around.
“We started out a little slow with a new offense and a new system. But once we got everything going and knew what we were doing, we got into a rhythm and we started picking things up. We finished strong,” Williams said. “That’s what I wanted our team to do. My expectations for the team are high. I wanted them to know that I wanted us to be good, I wanted us to be great. For us to get there, we had to start thinking like that and playing like that.”
Senior wide receiver Colby Pearson said BYU has established a foundation for the future.
“This team has a very bright future and I’m excited for them. I think it’s only to keep going up and forward for them. I’m excited to watch them next season,” Pearson said. “It’s been a fun season, but there’s been a couple of games that we felt disappointed about. If a couple of little things would have gone our way, it would have been a completely different season. We kept moving forward to the next game. We’re bowling and we’re excited to go to San Diego.”
Quarterback Tanner Mangum, who will start in the bowl game in place of the injured Taysom Hill, said the offense has improved over the course of the season.
“I think there’s been a lot of progress, especially in the run game. That’s been huge. Being able to have different guys step in. Obviously, Jamaal is an amazing player. When he’s out, there’s a big hole to fill. It’s been good to get Squally (Canada) reps and K.J. (Hall) reps and see what they can do. Then to see our (offensive) line progress. They’ve gotten better," he said.
"In our offense, there’s a lot of responsibility on us as quarterbacks to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage, to make play calls, to make audibles. Receivers need to change routes. The more game experience you can get with that the more comfortable you are. It only gets better week by week. That will carry on to the bowl game and on to next season as well.”