When it comes to preparing to meet UAB in the 2021 Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl, were the events of last week a distraction, a motivation, or none of the above for the No. 13-ranked BYU football team?
That’s the question facing the 10-2 Cougars this week as they move toward Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. MST showdown with the 8-4 Blazers at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana. The game will be televised on ABC.
Last week, a feeling of uncertainty filled the air in the Indoor Practice Facility on campus, as the Cougars practiced indoors as winter storms hit the Wasatch Front with the knowledge that interest in head coach Kalani Sitake was being shown by Oregon to fill its coaching vacancy.
“Every day has been the same thing as we approach it as a team. It is just about focusing on this game and realizing it is the most important bowl game we have ever played because it is the one we have next.” — BYU quarterback Jaren Hall
Friday, BYU put an end to the mystery by signing Sitake to a “new, unprecedented” deal that keeps him in Provo through the 2027 season. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
Will all the hullabaloo help or hinder the Cougars this week?
“I mean, it gives you a lot more energy in the building, obviously,” said quarterback Jaren Hall. “But for us, I feel like it won’t affect us that much, because that’s how we’ve been approaching it since we found out we were going to Shreveport.”
Hall, who has thrown for 2,583 yards and 20 touchdowns, with five interceptions, said neither Sitake nor any of the other coaches mentioned a new contract that would benefit not only Sitake, but also his assistant coaches and support staff, was in the works.
“He has kept so much focus on this game because that is just the type of man he is,” Hall said. “He invests everything he has in us as players and making sure he prepares us to play the best we can.”
The Cougars practiced or lifted weights every day last week. They will fly to Shreveport on Tuesday, check into the Hilton Shreveport that afternoon, then practice in Louisiana on Wednesday.
“Every day has been the same thing as we approach it as a team,” Hall said. “It is just about focusing on this game and realizing it is the most important bowl game we have ever played because it is the one we have next.
“Kalani has been pumping energy into us and the other coaches have done a great job of continually harping on the importance of this next game,” Hall continued. “I think as players we are taking it and running with it. I think the energy will stay the same because that is how we have been talking about it over the course of the past couple weeks.”
Receiver Puka Nacua, who transferred from Washington last spring, said the coaching carousel that happens every December doesn’t affect or distract players as much as some people believe.
“We show up to the facility and practice, and we got finals coming up, so as much as there is a lot of stuff going on, it was never a concern for us in the locker room knowing this was the season we had and our coaches were still up here on the third floor and still coming to practice with us,” Nacua said.
“We love that guy. So I wouldn’t say it was a distraction for us. It has been pure enjoyment ever since hearing the good news.”
In Friday’s news conference with athletic director Tom Holmoe sitting by his side, Sitake said the announcement won’t take away from the excitement of playing one more game together.
“I hope you know how much I love (BYU fans) and how much our team loves them and how excited we are to perform in this bowl game next week,” Sitake said. “We are focused on the game and having a wonderful time at the Independence Bowl.”
The BYU-UAB first-time matchup will be the sixth bowl to kick off this season, and the fourth on Saturday.
On ESPN’s College GameDay show Saturday, all the panelists picked BYU to win, but Lee Corso said the Blazers would cover the seven-point spread.
The Cougars remain shorthanded on both sides of the ball, as receiver Neil Pau’u and center James Empey are not expected to play on offense and a half-dozen guys who started the season on defense are no longer available, guys such as Keenan Ellis, Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar.
The Blazers should have more fans at the game, too, considering Shreveport is only a six-hour drive from Birmingham.
“More than anything, I just want the fans to know how much I love them,” Sitake said, expressing confidence that despite the distance and cost that the Cougars would be well-represented. “I am looking forward to this. Let’s get this thing rolling.”