The 2017 football season was rough for the BYU Cougars. Injuries depleted the roster and a 4-9 record resulted in the dismissal of a BYU legend, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer.
But a case could be made that the true low point in coach Kalani Sitake’s tenure came on Oct. 12, 2019 — two years ago — when BYU lost to South Florida 27-23 in Tampa, Florida. It was BYU’s third-straight loss after the Cougars had downed Tennessee and USC in September before starting quarterback Zach Wilson broke his hand in a 28-21 loss to Toledo.
The Cougars were flatlining.
Sitake’s record at BYU dropped to 22-23, No. 14 Boise State was scheduled to visit Provo the following week and the Cougars were going to start a third-string quarterback, walk-on Baylor Romney.
To say the program responded magnificently might be an understatement.
“Just sticking to our identity and our belief in the system and staying the course,” is how Sitake describes the turnaround, which comes full circle Saturday when No. 15 BYU hosts 1-2 USF at LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN2). “The idea is to keep re-emphasizing our strengths, what our identity in our program is all about, and keep focusing on the culture.”
Coincidentally, South Florida is the program trying to turn things around, having gone 1-8 last year while BYU was going 11-1 and moving back into the national conversation. And the Cougars face undefeated Utah State next week, followed by Boise State, so the rematch again looks like a trap game for the Cougars.
They have vowed this week that they are not overlooking the Bulls this time.
“Yeah, I think there is a lot of motivation, just because of the loss they handed us down there in Florida,” said BYU receiver Gunner Romney, Baylor’s brother. “We don’t want that to happen again. This is a completely new team, but those losses where you expect to win and it doesn’t go your way, those ones hurt. So we have motivation to give it back to those guys.”
Baylor Romney might even be pressed into action again, like he was last week when he entered the game in the final minutes and threw an upset-sealing touchdown pass to Isaac Rex. Rumors persist that Jaren Hall, who made his first career start in that loss to USF at Raymond James Stadium, has not entirely recovered from the setback — he said he got the wind knocked out of him — that caused him to miss the last few plays of the 27-17 win over Arizona State.
South Florida opened with a 45-0 loss to North Carolina State and a 42-20 loss in Tampa to Florida, but gained some momentum and confidence last week with a 38-17 win over Florida A&M of the Football Championship Subdivision.
“They got athletes,” said BYU cornerback D’Angelo Mandell. “They got dudes that play hard. They are going to come at us with everything they’ve got. We better come prepared because they will be ready to play.”
Tight end Dallin Holker was on a church mission in 2019, but he’s been tutored on what South Florida can do.
“They have a lot of good players,” Holker said. “You can’t go into any game, really, thinking you are going to win easily. You have to prepare the same every week and keep your edge and play your hardest every Saturday.”
Said offensive lineman Harris LaChance: “Right now, we all have the mindset that every game, no matter who it is, is our biggest game this week.”
Sitake acknowledged that the loss to USF in 2019 marked the beginning of a turnaround in his program, while also saying the game “seems so long ago.” He said the “great foundation of so many cool things that have happened the last few years” began when he took over in 2016.
“Something we have really been focusing on as a program is to be proud of what you do, and who you do it for,” he said. “So that is it. We have a high sense of gratitude and appreciation for what we get to do.”
New BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick has never publicly confirmed it, but as the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator back then he took a bigger role in the play-calling after the USF loss in 2019. Roderick said guys who played in that game such as James Empey, Clark Barrington, Hall, the Romneys and running back Lopini Katoa have not forgotten it.
Star running back Tyler Allgeier played linebacker and had two tackles.
“There are a lot of guys who played in that game and remember how awful that felt,” Roderick said. “You gotta respect the game and respect every opponent. These guys have our attention. … We will be ready.”
Roderick said USF plays a “very unique” defensive scheme similar to what Rocky Long used at San Diego State, sort of a 3-3-5 alignment.
“It is a team that can make you look bad if you are not ready to play, scheme-wise,” Roderick said.
Defensively, the Cougars will likely see freshman quarterback Timmy McClain, who led the Bulls on five scoring drives against FAMU. Xavier Weaver leads USF in receiving with nine catches for 218 yards; Colorado transfer Jaren Mangham ran for three TDs last week.
“I see a really capable young team with plenty of great athletes,” BYU safeties coach Ed Lamb said.