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Why BYU is leaving Thursday for game at Georgia Southern, and how it’s fared back East

BYU is 6-5 in Eastern time zone games since Kalani Sitake took over as head coach, reversing a losing trend on the East Coast that began when LaVell Edwards was the coach

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh greets BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi following the Wolverines’ 31-0 win in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh greets BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi following the Wolverines’ 31-0 win in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. Games on the East Coast have been a mixed bag for the Cougars during the Sitake era.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

It remains one of the worst performances in BYU football history.

On Sept. 26, 2015, the Cougars traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to make their debut in the famed Big House, and were pummeled 31-0 by the Wolverines.

Freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum completed just 12 of 28 passes for 55 yards, the No. 22-ranked Cougars put up only 105 yards of offense and were shut out for the first time since a 3-0 loss to Utah in 2003.

Former BYU defensive end Sae Tautu remembers it well. A year later, he told reporters that players were totally unprepared for the early kickoff because of the two-hour time change — Michigan is in the Eastern time zone — and because the Cougars flew in the day before the game in what would become Bronco Mendenhall’s final season in Provo.

“We had to wake up at 6 a.m. (Saturday) our time and be at the stadium at 8 a.m. our time after the jet lag,” he told the Deseret News.

To many longtime followers of BYU football, it was reminiscent of the 2002 game at Nevada in which then-coach Gary Crowton had the team fly into Reno the day of the game, and the Cougars were upset 31-28 at Mackay Stadium by a team they had walloped by 45 points the previous season in Provo.

Between a 17-14 loss at Georgia against Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in 1982 and that embarrassing loss in front of 108,940 fans and a national television audience, the Cougars were 8-17 when playing in the Eastern time zone.

Aside from bowl game losses to Ohio State (10-7) in 1985 and Memphis (55-48, 2OT) in 2014, the Cougars traveled to the venues the day before the game.

That practice of traveling the day before the game changed in 2016 when coach Kalani Sitake took over; the Cougars began leaving for the Eastern time zone games two days before kickoff (with the exception of last year’s Coastal Carolina game, which was set up two days before it was played), and the results have been much better.

BYU is 6-5 in such games played under Sitake, including last year’s 55-3 win over Navy in Annapolis, Maryland, and the 49-23 win over Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl in Florida.

“We will do that as long as I am the head coach (because) that is what I am focused on, is getting the guys acclimated to the time difference,” Sitake said Monday as the No. 14 Cougars (8-2) prepared to make the cross-country trip to face 3-7 Georgia Southern on Saturday (2 p.m. MST) in Statesboro, Georgia.

BYU will leave Thursday for the roughly 2,000-mile trip to Statesboro, which is about an hour’s drive from Savannah, Georgia.

“A lot of that can be solved by having two nights of sleep in a new time zone. We are going to do that again,” Sitake said. “There is a lot that goes into the way we travel, and the fact that we are flying Delta will be huge for us. We will be comfortable.”

Sitake credited BYU’s administration for footing the bill for the extra night’s lodging, which isn’t cheap, and to “corporate sponsors” for making it all possible.

“We are staying at a nice hotel, a Marriott,” he added.

Players onboard

BYU players say traveling to East Coast venues two days before games is not only beneficial, it shows them that Sitake has their backs. They rave about how much the six-year coach does to help them off the field in what BYU refers to as efforts to improve the “student-athlete experience.”

Along with adjusting to the time change, the ability to adjust to the different climate is also helpful, linebacker Ben Bywater said.

“Obviously, it is going to be more humid down there,” Bywater said. “So that might affect the players. But when it comes to just traveling, the plane ride is not a huge deal. The plane ride back is not a big deal. It is just the climate that is the biggest change, for me.”

It should also be noted that two years ago the two-days-before plan didn’t help the Cougars as much. They lost to Toledo 28-21 on Sept. 28, 2019, and then to South Florida 27-23 in Tampa, Florida, on Oct. 12, 2019. They arrived on Thursday for a Saturday game both times. They did win at UMass 56-24 the following month in Amherst, Massachusetts, but the Minutemen were so bad that year the Cougars probably could have taken a red-eye to Boston and won that game.

“To be honest, it is not like a big difference, to me personally,” said tight end Dallin Holker. “I feel like the biggest difference is a longer plane ride, so you just have to do stuff to occupy yourself when you are on the plane. … I have never really felt a huge difference (when) we have been playing in different time zones.”

Cornerback D’Angelo Mandell agreed with Holker, saying, “At the end of the day it is just football. You gotta go out there and play well regardless of what time it is.”

What do the players do for four hours on trips to and from Eastern time zone venues?

“A lot of guys play poker on the Delta screen at their seats,” Mandell said. “Some guys are doing homework, other guys are watching film. You just try to pass the time.”

Sitake should know

When it comes to traveling back East as a player, Sitake knows what he is talking about. He made three trips to the East Coast as a member of legendary coach LaVell Edwards’ final team in 2000 in the space of about six weeks.

The Cougars lost to Florida State 29-3 in Jacksonville, Florida, defeated Virginia 38-35 in overtime in Charlottesville, and lost 42-14 at Syracuse while logging 10,874 miles that season.

“When you go two times zones away, it makes it difficult,” he said in 2016 before a trip to Landover, Maryland, to play West Virginia at FedEx Field. West Virginia won that game, 35-32.

But Sitake’s travel strategy eventually paid off, as subsequent trips to the Eastern time zone in 2016 resulted in a 31-14 win at Michigan State and a 20-3 victory at Cincinnati. Having generational talents Jamaal Williams and Taysom Hill that year certainly helped.

“We think we’ve got it figured out,” Sitake said last year, a few days before BYU crushed Navy on Labor Day. “Getting a good night’s sleep for two nights in a row really does improve performance.”

The Cougars are 6-5 in Eastern time zone games in the Sitake era, making them 14-22 since 1980.

Next year, they are scheduled to play in the East just once, at South Florida on Sept. 3.

Big 12 changes everything

Of course, everything changes in 2023 when BYU joins the Big 12, and many of the scheduling agreements that athletic director Tom Holmoe assembled the past few years will have to be unraveled.

It will be interesting to see if a return game at Virginia with former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, set for Sept. 9, 2023, will go by the wayside. BYU is also scheduled to play at Central Florida on Nov. 11, 2023.

The Big 12 will include three Eastern time zone teams in the future: West Virginia, Central Florida and Cincinnati.

Memorable Eastern time zone games

What will happen Saturday at Paulson Stadium? Will the well-rested Cougars, 20-point favorites and coming off a bye week, steamroll the improving Eagles? Or will memories of past East Coast failures haunt the Cougars?

Here’s a look back at three other visits to that side of the country, two wins and a memorable loss:

Sept. 1, 1984 — BYU 20, Pittsburgh 14: In ESPN’s first nationally televised broadcast of a college football game, quarterback Robbie Bosco engineered a six-point win over the No. 3-ranked Pitt Panthers, which some referred to at the time as the “Beast of the East.”

Nationally renowned journalist Michael Wilbon, then a beat writer for The Washington Post, wrote that fans stayed away because they didn’t figure BYU would put up much of a fight with “a guy few fans have heard of.”

Obviously, they were wrong.

Bosco threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Adam Haysbert with one minute, 37 seconds remaining to give the supposedly rebuilding Cougars the upset win.

Bosco “looked so nervous early in the game it was a wonder he could take snaps from center,” Wilbon wrote.

Maybe he needed more sleep.

BYU coach LaVell Edwards and Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz talk at midfield following game Oct. 15, 1994.
BYU coach LaVell Edwards and Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz talk at midfield following game Oct. 15, 1994.
Mark Philbrick, BYU Photo

Oct. 17, 1994 — BYU 21, Notre Dame 14: Legendary Irish coach Lou Holtz found himself on the hotseat after the Cougars got their first and only win at historic Notre Dame Stadium on a picture-perfect autumn afternoon in the shadows of Touchdown Jesus.

Sitake was a backup fullback on the 1994 team that also included BYU athletics department official Chad Lewis, a tight end.

“We knew that LaVell Edwards hadn’t won in South Bend (Indiana),” Lewis told the Deseret News in 2012 before the Cougars’ next visit, a 17-14 Notre Dame win in 2012. “We wanted to win it for him.”

Sept. 16, 2006 — Boston College 30, BYU 23 (2OT): Eagles free safety Jamie Silva intercepted a John Beck pass that was tipped near the line of scrimmage in the second overtime to preserve No. 23-ranked BC’s double-overtime win at Alumni Stadium.

BYU forced four turnovers in the game, including two interceptions of quarterback Matt Ryan, now with the Atlanta Falcons, but couldn’t pull off the upset. BYU cornerback Ben Criddle seemingly had an interception in the end zone to stop another BC drive, but a receiver stripped the ball from his hands and officials did not review the play, like they did when Silva’s pick was initially ruled an incomplete pass.

The Cougars piled up 547 yards to BC’s 471, but missed three field goals and botched a field goal snap in the first overtime.