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After falling to Utah, BYU now faces a Tennessee team that might feel worse about its loss than Cougars do

Cougars schemed long and hard for Utes but now must refocus for Saturday’s first-ever matchup in Knoxville

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake and Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham congratulate each other after Utah defeated BYU 30-12 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake and Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham congratulate each other after Utah defeated BYU 30-12 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

PROVO — The thought seemed to have dawned on BYU receiver Micah Simon midway through BYU’s postgame news conference in the wee hours Friday morning after the Cougars endured another gut-punch loss to Utah, this time by the tally of 30-12 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

After you have primarily focused on taking down your rival for nearly eight months, plotted and schemed and sacrificed summer play time and done everything imaginable to break that curse that just turned into nine-straight losses, where do you go from here?

Getting the Cougars to refocus will be no easy task for coach Kalani Sitake and his staff this week.

“You work all offseason for this game, for this first game, and against a great team like them,” said Simon, his voice breaking up. “You obviously want the best and want the win. It is going to sting right now.”

Actually, it will sting for an entire year, and perhaps even more so after Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, a senior who had just played in his final rivalry game, called BYU’s program “poo-poo” and said: “We’re never going to lose to them again.”

Suffice it to say, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was a much more gracious winner, calling for some kneel-downs in the final minutes instead of trying to tack on an extra score. He was thanked for the “classy move” by BYU coach Sitake in their postgame embrace.

Having put most of their eggs in one basket in preparing for the opener, the Cougars can’t afford to dwell on the loss or stew over all the mistakes they made that allowed the No. 14 Utes to run away in the second half.

“We have to move on because this isn’t going to define our season,” said Simon, who had three catches for 35 yards. “We still have 11 games to play, and I feel like we will be a really good team. We just have to continue to come together and continue to execute. I am looking forward to learning from this game to continue battling with my brothers.”

Moving on for BYU means another steep challenge: Saturday’s 5 p.m. MT venture into 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium for a first-ever matchup with the SEC’s Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols will surely be an angry, motivated bunch after they were stunned 38-30 by Georgia State in Knoxville on Saturday.

Some longtime observers called it the worst loss in Tennessee football history.

But the Cougars have their own problems to worry about, like turnovers and stopping the Vols’ run game.

“I still believe there are a lot of really good things that came from preparing for a great opponent like Utah,” Sitake said. “We will learn some lessons from this and try to answer back. We will have to bet back (to work) and take it out on Tennessee next week. … The only way to face this is to work hard and do even more to get ready for the next game.”

Sitake, Simon and the other two players BYU brought into the interview room early Friday morning — tight end Matt Bushman and linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi — were effusive in their praise of the Utes but all agreed that the Cougars made it too easy on their rivals.

“I thought we were competitive,” Sitake said. “There were some really good things early, but just way too many mistakes in terms of turnovers that put our defense in bad positions. And then at the end, we were just surviving.”

Incredibly, Utah has scored nine defensive touchdowns — six interception returns, three fumble returns — in the last eight games against BYU. How can BYU close the gap on Utah?

“The biggest issue for us would be to get better at taking care of the football,” Sitake said. “That would be one thing. I think if you look at the last decade, turnovers would be the issue. Just errors. We can’t really judge it (straight up) if we are giving up two touchdowns on pick-six’s and fumbling the ball in the red zone and giving a great team like Utah those shortcuts to the (end zone).”

Said Simon: “I feel like if we take those (interception returns) away and take away our fumble, we won’t put our defense in such bad situations, and it would have been a different game.”

But those are topics to rehash next August, said Kaufusi, who made five solo tackles.

“Overall, when we put together a complete game, we will be a great team,” he said.

Bushman and fifth-year graduate transfer running back Ty’Son Williams (seven carries, 45 yards, one touchdown) were the bright spots offensively, although all six of Bushman’s receptions, for 62 yards, came in the first half.

“You can’t dwell on it too long,” Bushman said. “I mean, we still have our whole season ahead of us. We have some good teams we have to play still. We just have to be positive and win some games.”