clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Utes are coming: Opener against rival Utah has been a ‘central motivating factor’ for BYU Cougars throughout training camp

Intensity and focus have defined Kalani Sitake’s fourth preseason approach

BYU center James Empey prepares to snap the ball during the Cougars’ scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. Gabriel Mayberry, BYU

PROVO — It has been reverberating off the walls of the Student Athlete Building that fronts BYU’s outdoor football practice field, echoing inside the Indoor Practice Facility, and ringing across the finely manicured turf at LaVell Edwards Stadium since spring camp opened way back on March 4.

“Beat Utah.”

That’s how the Cougars have ended virtually every get-together in 2019 leading up to the rivalry showdown on Aug. 29 at LES. Actually, it has been pretty common for BYU players to utter their first opponent’s name every year in the Kalani Sitake era — “Beat Arizona” was last year’s rallying cry — and it has worked.

The Cougars have won their last five openers, three straight under Sitake.

Somehow, though, the post-practice exclamations have been delivered with more force, more intensity than usual in preseason training camp this month. And they’ve followed what players and coaches have described as the most fiery, focused and passionate practices in recent memory.

Losing eight straight games to a rival, including last November’s soul-crusher at Rice-Eccles Stadium, 35-27, will do that to a team.

“I’m absolutely sick of hearing about (the rivalry losing streak),” said senior receiver Micah Simon, a Texan, “and I’m not even from here.”

Senior safety Austin Lee took it a step farther, saying, “Everything I have done the last eight or nine months is to be ready for the season, and to be ready for Game 1. It just burns, man. It really just burns.”

Don’t be fooled; The Cougars have been watching Utah film and scheming for the Utes’ highly touted defense and new U. offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s tendencies for months now. They will turn all their attention to the Utes, ranked No. 14 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, on Thursday after breaking camp with a closed scrimmage Wednesday at the stadium.

“This has been a great opportunity, at least from BYU’s side,” said assistant head coach Ed Lamb. “We aspire to beat Utah. It has been a long time. We have tremendous respect for what they’ve done. I think there was a time historically where it was a motivator for Utah’s program to catch BYU and to win their share of rivalry games. Clearly, that’s flipped now, and it is a central motivating factor for our players, and we sure appreciate the opportunity to unleash that passion and let them go.”

Those days when former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff would downplay the rivalry are long gone.

“I think it certainly matters that the rivalry is the opener, because that game is more important than the others,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. “I think any time you open with a big game, that is a positive, and it gets players focused and gives them motivation throughout the summer and fall camp. The magnitude of this game only heightens that.”

Utah will be out to match the record of nine consecutive wins in the rivalry, then no doubt will talk about breaking the record on Sept. 3, 2020 at Rice-Eccles in 2020.

“The thought of that makes me sick,” BYU linebacker Zayne Anderson said at June’s media day.

Which is why camp has been characterized by one word — intensity.

“It does feel more intense,” Sitake said. “Playing Utah (and having a front-loaded schedule) gives us more of a sense of urgency. The fact that we played them so recently (adds fire). It is really fresh on our guys’ minds. … Our guys are a little more serious, and more ready. I think that’s been a huge byproduct of our intensity.”

During the Wisconsin versus BYU football game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.
BYU coaches and players react during the Wisconsin-BYU football game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Will it matter, or will Utah’s seemingly superior talent and depth be too much to overcome, even at LES? That’s a topic for another day; Lee, a former Ute, said all the Cougars can do is become their “best selves” and see what happens.

“We’ve known we had them in Game 1, and that’s ingrained in us,” he said. “We were frustrated last November, and we took that frustration out on Western Michigan (49-18) in the bowl game and that momentum has continued to take place through the workouts and spring ball and practices the players have been running. We are very ready for it.”

Quarterback Zach Wilson, who has completed his last 19 passes — all 18 in the bowl game — said he approaches every game the same, but acknowledges that having the team he grew up cheering for and wanting to play for makes it all the more important to be ready.

“Luckily, we have had the whole summer to prepare for those guys,” Wilson said.

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, a former Utah assistant, said a big reason why camp has been more intense is because Sitake has figured out how to make it that way.

“Kalani has more clarity in everything he is doing, and having Utah first adds to that,” Tuiaki said. “Obviously, it is a game that means more than some of the other ones. Not that the other ones are not important, but rivalry games always get your attention.”

Especially when they are up first, you’ve had nearly nine months to think about the previous one, and you haven’t won one since 2009.

“I say that we are going to shock some people,” Lee said.