As clock ticks toward Big 12 inclusion, BYU is making most of its Power Five opportunities
Steady diet of Power Five foes this season providing Cougars valuable experience
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake has big plans for the Big 12.
“I have 123 guys on the roster, and I’d like to have 123 possible starters,” Sitake said. “That’s the goal and if we can develop that way and have that mindset, I think we should be pretty good.”
Most programs are thrilled with a strong two-deep roster. During this successful, but injury-plagued season, Sitake believes BYU needs to be three-deep for the future.
“This is the toughest schedule in school history and it’s just a taste of what it’s like to be in a P5 conference,” said offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. “I went through this experience at Utah when we went from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 without any preparation. Our players have been slowly building up to this. This year is the most P5s we’ve played (six) and most we’ve beaten (five). The competition level has been very similar to what it will be like in the Big 12.”
2021 case study
So far, 2021 has been an interesting case study as the Cougars prepare to join the ranks of college football’s elite. BYU is 5-1 against P5 programs with a chance to go 6-1 later this month at USC.
The steps for success were put in place the moment Sitake stepped foot on campus.
“I’ve had a sense of urgency to learn as much as I can and get our team in position where we can compete against this type of schedule, not knowing that we were ever going to the Big 12,” he said. “We knew back in 2016 the opportunity to play more P5s would be there in the years to come, and we had to get our guys ready.”
BYU has learned some valuable lessons along the way, including the fact that if a player is in uniform, he better be prepared to take the field. This season is no exception.
Linebacker Ben Bywater is a freshman from Olympus High in Salt Lake City. He is playing because Keenan Pili was lost for the season due to a knee injury in the third game against Arizona State. Despite his youth and inexperience, Bywater is the team’s leading tackler as the Cougars enter the 10th game of the year.
Walk-on defensive back Jacob Boren, from Highland High in Salt Lake City, earned his first start at Washington State and tied Bywater with a team-leading five tackles.
Freshman John Nelson, from Salem Hills High, was called on to support a much-maligned defensive line and logged 1.5 sacks last week against Virginia.
“Sometimes a third-stringer may not see an opportunity to play, but against these physical teams their time comes quicker than they can imagine,” Sitake said. “We are already playing with third-stringers.”
Freshman Connor Pay, from Lone Peak High, will make his third start of the season at center on Saturday for injured All-American James Empey. Pay will still be at center when BYU kicks off play in the Big 12.
“He is super smart and playing these games and facing good nose guards and defenses is giving him great experience in building for the future,” said offensive line coach Darrell Funk. “I think he can be as good as he wants to be. He’s gonna get stronger and quicker.”
Even with youth filling in for veterans, the Cougars mustered up enough strength to control the line of scrimmage in wins against No. 18 Utah, No. 19 Arizona State, Arizona, Washington State and Virginia.
Last Saturday against the Cavaliers, BYU started two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior on the offensive line. Sophomore, and former linebacker Tyler Allgeier, ran behind them for 266 yards and five touchdowns and Jaren Hall, another sophomore who began the season with just two career starts, threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns, and was never sacked.
“I think they are getting a feel for the competition level, especially when we have had two or three P5 teams in a row,” said Funk. “It’s great prep for the Big 12. You just know there is not as much room for error. We are preparing for everyone the same way — we don’t fear anyone and we respect everyone.”
During BYU’s five P5 victories, the offense averaged 442 yards and 32.8 points. Defensively, against the four Pac-12 programs, the Cougars allowed just 17.3 points per game.
The eye-opener for Sitake and his staff was the 38-24 defeat at Baylor, the only Big 12 team on the Cougars’ schedule. The Bears dominated both sides of the ball. Baylor’s ground game averaged 6.4 yards a carry while holding Allgeier, the nation’s third-leading rusher, to just 2.2.
Not everything was disappointing against the senior-heavy Bears. BYU’s passing game made a case that it is already Big 12-ready. Hall attacked the league’s top-rated pass defense for 342 yards and a touchdown.
“We just keep improving every day. You can only control what you can control, and you only have the day that’s in front of you,” said Roderick. “We talk about it every day about using each day to get better.”
Baylor is No. 12 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, and the Bears are contending for the Big 12 championship. BYU, No. 15, will get another measuring-stick opportunity next fall when the Bears come to Provo. In addition to Baylor, the Cougars will face Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Stanford in their final preparatory season outside the Big 12.
“These last three years we have played a lot of P5 teams, and the guys have really battled. It’s been a good experience for us,” said defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. “Depth is a big thing. When we get banged up and start getting down to guys who don’t have a lot of experience it can get hard. We have got to build our depth.”
“When I took this job, I was clear with Kalani about wanting to recruit the best quarterbacks we can get and stack that room as deep as we can,” Roderick said. “Every year we are going to stack that room and may the best man win. They love the competition. It’s nice to have these three guys and we will push to bring in more. Jaren knows he can’t slip up because Baylor is right behind him, and both of those guys know how good Conover is.”
Hall will make his 10th career start against Idaho State. He is on the heels of three straight games with over 300 yards passing and engineered 734 yards of total offense against Virginia without a turnover.
Renaissance in Provo
BYU is in a renaissance period where the Cougars have won 18 games since the start of the 2020 season. LaVell Edwards Stadium is full. The students are again choosing football over the library on Saturday nights, eager see a new dance move or two from Sitake during pre-game warmups.
“I never said it would be good. I just said I would give you all my effort,” Sitake said of his dancing. “But I’ll do whatever I can to bring a smile to the face of our fans, especially the ROC (student section).”
BYU has become a mainstay in the national polls and remains a consistent draw for road venues and television ratings. In addition, the big fish (Big 12) that they have dreamed about catching since the second the Cougars went independent, is firmly on the hook.
“I feel really good about where it’s going. I think we’ve been fortunate and blessed with so many wonderful things coming our way,” Sitake said. “I’ve been fortunate to coach these young men that love what the school stands for and love who they represent.
“It’s a great time. It’s a great moment, but I think all the credit goes to the fans. It’s important the fans get what they deserve — for us to do our best and make them happy and a lot of that has to do with winning.”
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.