Spend just a few minutes talking to BYU football players and coaches the past few days and what is motivating the No. 13 Cougars to play well against UAB in the 2021 Independence Bowl becomes readily apparent.
The 10-2 Cougars want to become the first BYU team to post consecutive 11-win seasons since the 2006 and 2007 teams both went 11-2 under coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Simple as that, receiver Gunner Romney, defensive end Uriah Leiataua and offensive lineman Clark Barrington said Monday as the Cougars practiced in Provo for the final time this season.
The Cougars will fly to Shreveport, Louisiana, on Tuesday and continue preparations to face the 8-4 Blazers on Saturday in a game that will be televised nationally by ABC.
“Getting to 11 wins is huge,” said Romney, a fourth-year player from Chandler, Arizona. “This has been one of the hardest schedules that BYU has ever played. We have played and won against the most Power Five teams in BYU history. Cementing our legacy would be awesome, and to get 11 wins would be an amazing thing. … It would be unheard of. I think it would be really cool to go out with a bang.”
The Cougars are touchdown favorites, but to a man they are saying they have tons of respect for UAB, which finished second in Conference USA’s West Division standings to conference championship game winner UTSA.
“I don’t think we are looking down on UAB. I want to make sure that everyone knows that our team is focused on who our opponent is,” Leiataua said. “That’s pretty much how we feel about it.”
It will definitely be Leiataua’s final game as a Cougar. Meanwhile, Barrington, who was named an All-American last week by a couple of different outlets, said he is returning for at least another year.
Romney said he is “leaning a little bit one way right now” but is sticking to his goal of waiting until the season is completely over to decide for sure. He didn’t say which way he is leaning.
He did say Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 1:30 p.m. MST, still means a lot to the Cougars, although they were all hoping to land in a New Year’s Six bowl game after they knocked off USC 35-31 on Nov. 27 in Los Angeles to improve to 5-0 against the Pac-12 and 6-1 against Power Five opponents.
“Everybody on this team kinda feels slighted a little bit by the bowl selection committee and so I think, really, that is the No. 1 source of motivation, is to go out and, you know, finish strong and show teams we deserve to be up there, and to help maybe future BYU teams and show people that we shouldn’t be slept on,” Romney said.
Romney, who was only able to play in nine games because of a knee strain, and missed the USC game, said all the Cougars were initially “frustrated” by the perceived snub, but coach Kalani Sitake quickly got the team out of the doldrums.
“It is hard to work the entire season with that as one of your goals, and then to get so close and come up a little bit short, it is frustrating, for sure,” he said. “But I think everybody has done a great job of kind of turning that frustration into motivation. These last couple of weeks of practice have been really intense, really amped up. There have been fights breaking out because it has been so competitive.”
Romney said coaches have had the first-team offense face the first-team defense, a rarity for most college teams once preseason training camp ends.
“It is getting really competitive (in practice),” Romney said. “People are ready to go out and play another game against someone else. So I think people have kinda channeled that frustration into motivation.”
To get to 11 wins in 2006, the Cougars had to beat Oregon 38-8 in the Las Vegas Bowl; to get to 11 wins in 2007, they had to beat UCLA 17-16, also at Sam Boyd Stadium in Vegas.
They won 11 games or more three straight years from 1983-85, going 11-1 in 1983, 13-0 in 1984 (and were crowned national champions by The Associated Press) and 11-3 in 1985, even while losing 10-7 to Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl that year.
“Being great and picking up (an 11th win) is what motivates all of us,” Barrington said. “We want to be great, and that will just prove to everybody that we are great, if we can get that 11-win season. That’s our goal and we are going to strive for that.”
There’s no question that the Blazers will be motivated, BYU’s players said, because they know how they felt when they were unranked and were facing a ranked team with a bigger national profile than them.
“You know they are going to be stoked,” defensive end Tyler Batty said.
Said Barrington: “Our focus at practice has been just like we were every other game. Maybe it was a little disappointment at the beginning, but we understand if we don’t show up, we are going to get beat. So we need to practice and play hard and do everything we have been doing all year just the same.”
Barrington said practices have been just as heated, physical and intense as they were last year before BYU beat UCF 49-23 to get to 11 wins. There were also questions about BYU’s motivation in 2020, as the Cougars were close to an NY6 bid before losing to Coastal Carolina in their only setback of the pandemic-depleted season.
“I think they’ve been the same,” he said of the practices, all held indoors because of the wintry Provo weather and also because when the grass at the outdoor practice field gets wet, it gets extra slippery. “In each and every game, whether it is a bowl game or the first game of the season, we are doing the same things out there.”
Leiataua was a member of the 2017 BYU team that went 4-9 and became the first Cougars squad to miss a bowl game since 2004, Gary Crowton’s last year.
“Kalani did a great job of boosting everyone’s morale, and just making sure we are all grateful to be playing in a bowl game,” Leiataua said of the initial disappointment. “So the fact that we are even playing in a bowl game is a blessing in and of itself.
“It is one more opportunity to play, and we did our best and did everything we could,” he continued. “I am proud of our boys and what we have been able to accomplish.”
Leiataua said this year’s team is also proud that it played well enough to help Sitake get a new contract that will keep the popular coach in Provo through the 2027 season.
“We have the opportunity to leave a legacy,” he said. “Ever since I have been here, I have always heard about the (dominant Mendenhall teams). … Thinking about that, we can be that team. We can be the 2020 and 2021 team they talk about in the future. So I think that is what we are playing for.”
Because 11 is a lot better than 10 — regardless of which bowl game it comes in.