PROVO — Some good can come from the bad.
This time a year ago, BYU was 1-7, injuries were piling up, spirits were down, frustration ruled and San Jose State came to town, a remedy for seven straight losses.
Today, the Cougars are 4-3. They experienced two weeks of being ranked in the top 25, had injuries pile up, tasted frustration, but have been pushed forward by the contributions of 25 freshmen who have started at one time or another.
Saturday against Northern Illinois, a respected Group of Five opponent, BYU's youth movement will be sorely tested. But the players' roles, in part, came about because of what happened a year ago.
Quarterback Zach Wilson, receiver Gunner Romney and tight end Dallin Holker all came aboard when BYU football was suffering a lot of pain. Running back Lopini Katoa was on the team, but his role as a redshirt was to be humble and wait. Now, they join linemen James Empey, Brady Christensen and Keanu Saleapaga as starting youngbloods on offense.
Assistant head coach Ed Lamb said in coaching circles, it is a theory that the best recruiting years are on a down year.
“Not all of our freshmen were recruited last year, but a good number of them were,” said Lamb.
“A good reason for that is that they looked at things and thought they could make a difference, believed they could make a difference, and prepare to make a difference early in their careers.”
Lamb has absolutely witnessed this from new faces injected into BYU’s roster.
“They bring a new energy, a new perspective and a new competition to the game and I think that is what is going on,” said Lamb.
That was evident in BYU's convincing win over 6-1 Hawaii two weeks ago when the coaching staff placed a lot of playing time on freshmen.
“Even though I’ve heard that, lived it and experienced it, but if you had mentioned that to me when we were back in the thick of our recruiting last December that this might be one of our best classes ever because of our struggles on the field, I’d had said, ‘Nah, we’ve just got to work and get the best guys we can.’ But it’s proven to be true.”
From Wilson to cornerbacks Isaiah Herron and D’Angelo Mandell, rookies came in and made big plays last time BYU took the field.
“They come in and sometimes in the past in the coaches’ room we’ve called it youthful enthusiasm. Some of these guys haven’t been beaten enough, or been beaten down or defeated enough on the field to be afraid of playing," Lamb said. "Maybe using afraid isn’t the right word, it is youthful enthusiasm not to be hesitant. They just come out and they give it all they’ve got and have enthusiasm and an optimistic outlook.”
What does Lamb expect out of BYU’s team this week, hosting a very good defensive team in Northern Illinois?
He said it has to be taken for what it is on its own. It is a different week, a different opponent, and all that matters is getting a win. The Hawaii euphoria is in the rearview mirror.
Lamb explains how coaches have to approach each week. Kyle Whittingham at Utah made this observation Monday, noting that the only game that matters is the one that comes next, not the one just played and not the one a week after the next scheduled contest.
“I can’t even tell you who we play after UCLA,” said Whittingham.
Said Lamb, “I think it’s critical that we take a victory in as we take a loss; it’s a one-game thing, a one-time thing.”
Lamb often talks to players about how games play out in the NFL.
“In college football, we always tend to think we’re better than this team or they’re better than us, or we lost to Washington 35-7. There are many examples in the NFL of teams losing 37-7 and coming back in that season and flipping it the next time they face them.
“That’s how it works. So we have to leave Hawaii behind. We are not a better team than Hawaii or worse team than Utah State. What we did against them is now our record and we have to live with it and go on. There is no way to predict what will happen.”
So, in Game 2 of the Wilson era, it is a new challenge, a different time and new opponent.
It all begins again, even for the rookies, who do not know what it's like to lose seven in a row as their brethren did a year ago.