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‘You just gotta tough it out’: Kalani Sitake calls out his linemen after Cougs suffer back-to-back losses for first time since 2019

BYU coach acknowledges team could use a bye week after seven straight physical contests, but that won’t happen until mid-November

Baylor running back Abram Smith dives for a touchdown against BYU during game Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Waco, Texas.
Baylor running back Abram Smith dives for a touchdown against BYU during game Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Waco, Texas. Smith and the Bears put the hurt on the Cougars, finishing with 303 yards on the ground.
Ron Jenkin, Associated Press

If there is a college football team in the country that needs a bye week right about now, it is the BYU Cougars.

Unfortunately for coach Kalani Sitake’s team, its week off doesn’t come until mid-November. After the Cougars host Idaho State on Nov. 6, they don’t play again until traveling to Georgia Southern on Nov. 20.

Obviously, that’s not optimal.

Heading into Saturday’s clash with the Washington State Cougars, BYU’s first-ever visit to Pullman, the blue-wearing Cougars need a break. Last week’s loss to Baylor — BYU’s seventh-straight game without a bye — showed they appear to be wearing out, all their crowing about improved depth notwithstanding.

Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m. MDT and the game will be televised by Fox Sports 1. BYU’s gauntlet of Power Five opponents doesn’t end in the Pacific Northwest, either. Beyond the clash of Cougars is a showdown with former coach Bronco Mendenhall and his Virginia Cavaliers.

“I will be honest, it has felt like tons of weeks without a bye. I am excited for a bye,” said BYU linebacker Ben Bywater on Monday as selected players and Sitake spoke with reporters via Zoom. “I think we are all looking forward to Nov. 13. We love football, obviously, but it will be good to let the bodies rest up.”

Bywater, who leads the team with 58 tackles — 18 more than second-place Payton Wilgar — said Sitake talked to the players after the 38-24 loss to Baylor about being bought in.

“Being dialed in, getting your eight hours of sleep, getting your meals in, your calories in, and obviously lifting,” were topics addressed by Sitake, according to Bywater. “And if you do that stuff consistently and you are dedicated to that, you can make it by without a bye week.”

Sitake agreed with the suggestion that the Cougars could really use a bye week, but he refuses to use that as an excuse for the two-game losing skid, saying every team in the country is experiencing bumps and bruises.

Basically, Sitake called out his offensive and defensive lines on Monday, urging them to become the physical lines they were when the Cougars (5-2) started the season 5-0 with wins over Utah, Arizona State and Utah State.

“We are depending on depth and talent, but sometimes inexperience shows up a little bit,” Sitake said. “It is time to grow up and get better and toughen up. We are not 100%, but neither is Washington State. Neither was Baylor. There are a lot of guys that are banged up right now. That’s what happens in the game of football throughout a season. You just gotta tough it out.”

Sitake said he would like to cut back on the physicality in practice, but can’t afford to because then the players won’t be ready for this four-week lineup of Boise State and Power Five opponents.

“I don’t know of any other way to prep for teams than to practice it,” he said. “We will practice really physically and expect that to show up in the game.”

Sitake said the Cougars had a “great week of practice” before the Baylor game, but that didn’t translate to the trenches and the Bears overwhelmed BYU with physicality to the tune of 303 rushing yards.

“We knew they would run the ball, and we couldn’t stop it on defense, and that bugs me,” he said. “I am more frustrated and disappointed with the fundamental parts of the game and the technique, rather than scheme or anything.”

That said, Sitake hinted that some scheme changes could be coming against WSU, although the crimson Cougars run more of a spread offense than Baylor did.

“It will be nice to get some other guys back and get back to normal form, which means they bring that physical mindset to the line of scrimmage,” Sitake said. “We need that on the offensive and defensive lines. That’s something I want to own. As a coach, I want to have our presence felt. Our identities on the O line and the D line need to show up for us to have a chance.”

Both lines are banged up

At least three defensive linemen — Gabe Summers, Earl Tuioti-Mariner and Jacob Palu — were injured in the Baylor game, but of those only Palu could be out long term, Sitake said. Run-stuffing defensive tackle Lorenzo Fauatea didn’t play for the second straight game but is expected back this week.

“Credit to Baylor and their line. They took it to us and we did not respond the right way,” Sitake said. “Now let’s see what happens this week and if we respond the right way.”

On the offensive line, the Cougars were without starting right tackle Harris LaChance and part-time starting right guard Joe Tukuafu. Sitake said “there is a chance” that both could play this week.

The Cougars were held to 67 rushing yards.

“Baylor might have been a better team and might have won the game, but it should not have looked like that, to me, up front,” Sitake said. “And that’s where it has got to change.”

Hybrid linebacker/safety George Udo left the game with an undisclosed injury (not the ACL that caused him to miss earlier games) that Sitake said is “not long term” but might keep the playmaker out of this week’s game.

Baylor Romney is back at QB2

Appearing on the “Coordinators’ Corner” show earlier Monday, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said quarterback Baylor Romney (concussion) should be 100% this week and will be Jaren Hall’s primary backup against WSU “if he is ready to roll” on Saturday.

Jacob Conover was QB2 in practices the past two weeks and designated as such for the Baylor game, but did not see any action. Still, Roderick said, Conover improved a lot in practices both weeks as Romney recovered from his head smacking the surface at Maverik Stadium against Utah State on Oct. 1.