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Why Kalani Sitake believes there is still plenty of room for improvement for 3-0 Cougars

Having soared to a No. 15 national ranking, BYU will host South Florida on Saturday without top defender Keenan Pili, who suffered a torn ACL in the 27-17 win over ASU

Brigham Young running back Lopini Katoa, center, runs under pressure during game against Arizona State in Provo.
BYU running back Lopini Katoa, center, runs under pressure during game against Arizona State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. BYU has the chance to go 4-0 with a win Saturday against South Florida at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Kalani Sitake is far from satisfied.

That was the sixth-year BYU football coach’s message Monday as the 3-0 Cougars reconvened for the first time since Saturday night’s big 27-17 win over No. 19 Arizona State, a win that pushed BYU up to No. 15 into The Associated Press Top 25.

“We feel like we can still play better,” Sitake said via Zoom in his weekly press briefing. “We can still get our team in a better position to have more efficiency, and be playing at our best. So that is going to be the focus this week: executing well and having everybody know their assignments, doing things the right way on and off the field, and making plays.”

The Cougars, the only team in the country to have played, and defeated, three Power Five teams this season, will seemingly be getting a breather this week, but Sitake isn’t buying that line of thinking. BYU plays host to 1-2 South Florida on Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“We have a very athletic, passionate team that is coming into our home this weekend,” Sitake said, complimenting USF coach Jeff Scott for building the same type of culture in Tampa, Florida, that existed at Clemson when he was as assistant coach there.

Under Charlie Strong, the Bulls beat BYU 27-23 in 2019 when Jaren Hall made his first career start and the Cougars blew a two-score lead in the fourth quarter.

“What we see on film is a lot of athleticism, a lot of speed,” Sitake said.

As for his team, what Sitake saw on film from the upset of ASU was plenty of correctable mistakes, mostly mental, and a lot of great effort and determination, evidenced by the play running back Tyler Allgeier made after Hall threw an interception to ASU linebacker Merlin Robertson.

“There is a high sense of urgency from myself, and the team,” Sitake said. “The team wants to get better this week, and they want to play better. It was nice in the locker room hearing the players talk about South Florida even after our win against Arizona State.”

A couple of BYU turnovers — the first giveaways this season — kept the Cougars from scoring before halftime and almost — almost — cost them the lead before Allgeier’s iconic play that will go down in Cougar lore as one of the best in program history.

“We need to keep it rolling, but I do need to see improvement in a lot of areas and that’s not just on the players, that is on myself and the assistant coaches. We need to play better,” Sitake said. “We need to see lots of improvement. I was really pleased with some of the improvement we saw from Week 2 to Week 3, but we have got to make a bigger jump from Week 3 to Week 4.”

Also Saturday, adversity hit the Cougars for arguably the first time this season. Star linebacker Keenan Pili, the leading tackler on the team with 31 takedowns in three games, suffered a torn ACL and is out for the remainder of the season.

Pili will have surgery in a couple of weeks, Sitake announced Monday.

“We are still going to need him as a leader, as a captain, so we are going to need him leading our team still,” Sitake said. “He has a purpose and a role for us. It has just changed. So we are going to rely on some of the depth at linebacker to step up.”

Former Olympus High star Ben Bywater filled in after Pili left the game Saturday and is now listed as the starter at the Mike linebacker spot. Brighton High product Drew Jensen and former Corner Canyon High star Josh Wilson are listed as the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Bywater’s backups.

“It is not just going to be (Bywater), it is going to be a bunch of guys that we need to play more,” Sitake said. “When you are playing against a high-tempo, no-huddle type of team like USF, you are going to need more than just the 11 starters on defense. We are going to have to dip into the depth because we want our players to be fresh and we want to play where everybody is clicking at 100%”

Sitake said coaches “feel really comfortable” with Bywater leading the way and feel good about the entire linebackers group. He said Morgan Pyper and Jackson Kaufusi could see more playing time, too.

“That whole group is going to have to step up,” he said. “We might change a couple things that Payton Wilgar does, and look at a couple things that Payton and Max (Tooley) can do with their experience, and maybe move guys around.”

Pili also led the team in solo tackles (14) and was tied for first in quarterback hurries and sacks (1.5). He was second in tackles for loss (3.5). He will be missed.

Starting cornerback D’Angelo Mandell said the most important thing to worry about now is Pili’s mental well-being.

“I know how important the season was to him, and everything like that,” Mandell said. “Obviously, we need to adjust and do things we need to do, and guys will need to step up, but honestly, I am just more worried about Keenan, because injuries like that are tough. I know injuries are hard. I have experienced it, too. So, I just hope he is doing all right.”

Sitake said everyone else who left the very physical ASU game due to injury — cornerback Isaiah Herron, defensive end Tyler Batty, defensive tackle Atunaisa Mahe and quarterback Jaren Hall — should be available Saturday.

“Health-wise, we should be full force with the exception of Keenan Pili,” he said.

Kicker Jake Oldroyd didn’t play for the second time in three games. Special teams coordinator Ed Lamb said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” program that Oldroyd’s back problems are not structural and it is a “soft tissue, muscle spasm thing” that is keeping one of the country’s best kickers out of the lineup.

“We expect him back every week. It just didn’t work out (Saturday),” Lamb said. “I have full expectation of him having a great season, a great career, and having a chance to play in the NFL.”

Lamb called fill-in Justen Smith “a young Jake Oldroyd” and said “the game is not too big for him.”

At stake for the Cougars on Saturday is the chance to start a season 4-0 for the second-straight season. Remarkably, that has never happened before.

“We need to make sure we are ready to play our best and keep our focus on these guys,” Sitake said. “There is a huge drive to play better this weekend, especially against this team.”