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Late-season momentum, and not much else, at stake for BYU as Cougars collide with woeful UMass in Saturday matinee

Coach Kalani Sitake says ‘opportunity to keep building’ presents itself in 10 a.m. MT contest against one of the worst teams in college football

SHARE Late-season momentum, and not much else, at stake for BYU as Cougars collide with woeful UMass in Saturday matinee

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) runs in the game against the Idaho State Bengals at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

AMHERST, Mass. — Having secured a bowl bid for themselves, a contract extension for their beloved coach and given their 19 seniors a proper send-off at LaVell Edwards Stadium last weekend, the BYU Cougars made the 2,100-mile trip to the East Coast on Thursday to face one of the worst college football teams in America.

It would be easy to call this matchup of independents heading in opposite directions a trap game for the Cougars, except for the simple fact that the UMass Minutemen haven’t shown the ability to catch much, let alone block, run and tackle. If UMass (1-10), a 40-point underdog, keeps it even remotely interesting Saturday (10 a.m., FloSports.tv) it will be seen as a disappointment for a 6-4 BYU team bent on continuing its four-game winning streak and taking as much momentum as possible into its post-Thanksgiving season finale at San Diego State on Nov. 30.

“It’s another opportunity for us to keep building,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who received a three-year contract extension Monday that will take him through the 2023 season.

Last November, BYU made the lengthy trip to Massachusetts for an early game and rolled past UMass 35-16 after a slow, turnover-filled start. But at least that game was at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, home of the New England Patriots. This one is at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, which seats just 17,000 and won’t come close to being filled.

“It’s another opportunity for us to keep building.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

Having faced the likes of Utah, Tennessee, USC, Washington and Boise State this season, how can the Cougars possibly get motivated to play this game?

“We are going to treat them as if they are USC,” said BYU defensive tackle Uriah Leiataua. 

“They are a good opponent and they can surprise anyone. And yeah, I think that’s the answer.”

UMass’ only win came over Akron, which is winless.

Safety Troy Warner, who made his season debut last week against Idaho State, said the Cougars have “too much at stake” at this juncture of their season to overlook anybody.

“We really just want to treat this opponent like any other opponent,” said Warner, brother of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner. “It is another opportunity for us to continue the winning streak that is going right now. I know they haven’t had the best season, but we are looking at it as an opportunity to get better.”

Starting quarterback Zach Wilson, in particular, will be looking to shake off more rust after a so-so performance last week against FCS Idaho State, his first action in six weeks. Wilson was 14 of 22 for 167 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 53 yards in last year’s win over UMass.

“We have to approach every game like it is our last,” Wilson said. “We only have 13 games a year, so there is no reason to prepare like it is not a business trip.”

In their last game with a 10 a.m. (Mountain time) kickoff, the Cougars were upset 28-21 by Toledo on Sept. 28. But that’s not why they lost, Wilson said.

“Personally, I like getting up early, having the early games,” he said. “It shouldn’t affect us. We take it seriously. We get to bed early and get up early ready to play.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes acknowledged that Wilson was “a little rusty” against the Bengals, although the sophomore threw for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Like Sitake, he wants to see some sustained improvement from a group that should get receiver Aleva Hifo and running back Lopini Katoa back from minor injuries that kept them off the field last week.

“If we want to take that next step and be a more consistent team, not just the team that steps up and plays well when it is a big game, or the team that plays well when our backs are against the wall, but the team that shows up every single Saturday, and plays with a certain amount of consistency, we have to practice at that level,” Grimes said. “The devil is in the details.”

Sitake has reminded his players that just two years ago, UMass stunned BYU 16-10 in Provo, a loss that led to the dismissal of offensive coordinator Ty Detmer a few weeks later.

“We are creating momentum, and creating belief in each other,” Sitake said. “I see our team getting better in a lot of areas, and this is another chance to keep that going. … We know going into this game we have to be ready for their best shot, and we have to make sure they get ours.”

After this trip, its fourth to the Eastern time zone this season, BYU will have logged 15,000 miles of travel. After the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 against an opponent from either the Mountain West or the American Athletic Conference, the Cougars will have logged more than 21,000 miles.

Cougars on the air

BYU (6-4) at Massachusetts (1-10)

At Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, Amherst

Saturday, 10 a.m.

Streaming: FloSports.tv

Radio: KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM