Climb up in the rankings as an undefeated team and you get a target pinned on your back by opponents. BYU is finding this to be its reality, ranked No. 13 by The Associated Press and 4-0 heading into October.
The teams you play use it as motivation. Coaches stoke the fire, using beating a ranked team as a cattle prod in practices leading up to games.
This will be the case Friday when BYU plays Utah State in Logan. It was the case last Saturday when South Florida kept chipping away at the Cougars lead in LaVell Edwards Stadium, coming back from 28-6 and finding a reason to keep on fighting.
“We become everyone’s Super Bowl,” said one BYU coach this week.
“All we are looking at is our next game, playing a very good Utah State team in Logan,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake.
It was the case in 2001 when a 12-0 BYU team saw star running back Luke Staley get injured on the road in Mississippi then make a trip to Hawaii where the Warriors rose up and registered a 72-45 win in the regular-season finale.
Back in 1984, Robbie Bosco experienced a target on the back, the pressure of keeping a streak alive, but he remembers it as simply being fun, a team trying to be different and make its mark in history.
I asked Bosco, who is in Florida to meet with donors this week, about going undefeated and how the week-to-week pressure to keep it rolling sat with players and coaches in 1984 — a perfect season.
Bosco is currently the director of the Varsity Club in BYU’s athletic department.
“Back in the WAC, everyone wanted to beat us, be it Air Force or Wyoming or whomever, and when we were ranked high and undefeated, that just made them more anxious to knock us off,” said Bosco. “It became tougher than ever before.”
But there were two ways of dealing with it, said Bosco, QB of the 1984 national championship team.
“You could say, ‘Oh, man, they really want to get us,’ or you can look at it as a challenge, that it is the greatest feeling in the world to know everyone wants a piece of you and you go into it as a visiting team with all the noise and walking out with a W. There is no better feeling than walking out with a win, still feeling it. We kind of made it fun that way and it was a great challenge for us.”
Bosco said there were multiple BYU teams before 1984 that nearly had undefeated seasons with 11 wins and there was a feeling among his teammates that they wanted to do something different and really stick out in history.
It was a theme that kept them going. “It wasn’t really a feeling of having pressure on us to keep the winning streak alive. It wasn’t a pressure thing playing.”
In a home game against Wyoming, BYU had the ball at midfield and faced a fourth-and-10. “If we had failed to get the first down, Wyoming could have just taken a knee and run out the clock and won the game, but we never thought about that kind of pressure — to keep the streak alive — it was just a matter of making plays and I have to give credit to all my teammates, they just stepped up and made plays time and time again. That was probably the most fun, to be a part of a team that made the plays when you absolutely had to make them.”
BYU enters Week 5 of the 2021 season as one of 23 undefeated teams in the FBS ranks.
They’ve never trailed in a game this season and rank high in both red-zone scoring efficiency and red-zone defense.
From close up, Bosco gets to observe Sitake’s Cougars in how they work, and interact with each other in and out of games. He sees a team that celebrates with each other as players and coaches and is simply having fun playing the game.
“Sitake keeps telling his players to be grateful to just be able to have the privilege of playing the game and not to take it for granted and to have fun. This team has fun,” Bosco said.
“You see this team giving high-fives in the end zone and on the sidelines and they’re having a blast, but they have to take it one game at a time. They cannot afford to look down the schedule at another game or circle a game in the future.”
BYU has been fortunate to have a home crowd advantage for energy in all its games — even at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas in the win over Arizona.
This week, the Cougars get a true road game in a hostile situation in Logan’s Maverik Stadium, where they will be yelled at and the energy will lift the home team. It will be a factor and it will be a challenge.
“These road games are going to be tougher games because of the travel and being away from home,” predicted Bosco. “The key is, how do you respond?”
USU has won two of the last three meetings vs. the Cougars.
Because of the COVID-19 season in 2020, in which crowds were not allowed in stadiums, home or away, BYU has not played before a hostile crowd since the 2019 game at Tennessee, according to offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick.
That’s why BYU’s offense has warmed up outside and then gone into the indoor practice facility where noise is cranked up as high as it is allowed so the team can get used to not being able to communicate, yet have to run plays and get signals done.
“It’s a miserable hour and a half,” said Roderick.
But it is necessary.