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Kalani Sitake on rivalry with Utah: ‘Wishing bad things on good people is not good for the soul’

Cougars enter Saturday’s game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo with plenty of respect for the Utes, who have won nine straight games in the series dating back to 2010

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and BYU coach Kalani Sitake hug after game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2018. Utah won 35-27.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and BYU coach Kalani Sitake hug at the end of the game after Utah defeated BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City in 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU players and coaches opened rivalry week on Monday by heaping praise on No. 24 Utah and expressing respect for the Utes and the program that former BYU player Kyle Whittingham has built in Salt Lake City.

No surprise there. That’s BYU coach Kalani Sitake’s way, and has been since he replaced Bronco Mendenhall in 2016 and lost his first rivalry game in heartbreaking fashion when Taysom Hill was stopped short of the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt.

“We love sharing the field with great opponents,” Sitake said. “We have a ranked, talented team coming into our house and we are looking forward to defending our stadium.”

Kickoff is at 8:15 p.m. MDT Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo and the game will be televised by ESPN with Dave Flemming and Rod Gilmore on the call, the same duo who called the Cougars’ 24-16 win over Arizona last Saturday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

Sitake’s news conference Monday alternated between reliving the win over the Wildcats and looking ahead to the showdown with the Utes, who have had two extra days to prepare and heal up after walloping Weber State 40-17 last Thursday.

“Yeah, I am looking forward to playing the Utah game, and I know our players are,” Sitake said. “We didn’t get the game last year (due to COVID-19), so we are excited to have it back this year. … We love having the fans there and are excited for the game. Our guys know that there is a lot of work to be done in the next few days to get ready for this week and the prep so we can be at our best and perform at our best against Utah.”

Trouble is, the Cougars almost certainly won’t be at full strength in their quest to stop the Utes from winning a 10th-straight game in the rivalry, which would be the longest streak in the series. Both teams have had nine-game winning streaks in the past.

Sitake said BYU star receiver Gunner Romney is “doubtful” after sustaining a left leg injury in the first quarter of the Arizona game. Romney was on the sidelines on crutches most of the second half.

“The good news is he is not out for the year,” Sitake said. “We will see how he goes day to day over the week. It has been tough on him. Doubtful for the game, but you never know what could happen in the next four to five days. We will see what happens.”

Sitake said other players who were “banged up” in the game came back and finished and should be available Saturday.

Of course, that doesn’t include cornerback Keenan Ellis, who lost consciousness after a violent collision in the first quarter and was taken to a local hospital for observation and testing. Sitake said Ellis was recovering well Monday and will go into the concussion protocol.

“Highly unlikely that he will play this Saturday, but we are just glad to get him back and get him healthy and we will work on getting him back to full speed,” Sitake said.

Sitake did not address the status of receivers Puka and Samson Nacua, brothers who did not line up on offense at all Saturday night. However, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said “just their health” is the reason they didn’t play and added that the transfers are “almost ready” to play.

Roderick said receiver Neil Pau’u was the offensive player of the first game, while defensive player of the game honors went to linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar. Linebacker Drew Jensen and receiver Chris Jackson were cited for their play on special teams.

Sitake, Roderick and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki all acknowledged in various interviews Monday that the Cougars will need to step it up a notch to stay with Utah.

“The guy that stands out to me the most is their linebacker,” Sitake said of the Utes’ defense. “Devin Lloyd is a big-time playmaker. They are big up front, a very physical team in all three phases.”

Sitake said the fact that the rivalry divides households, tests allegiances and has people who root for both teams when they are not playing each other “makes it a lot more fun” and enjoyable if people keep in mind that it is just a game.

“Bragging rights are the key here, so we are looking to try to find ways to make our fans happy as a coaching staff and as a program and a team,” he said.

As for losing nine in a row to their rivals, the Cougars said the same things that they said back in 2019 before falling 30-12 in Provo in a game delayed more than an hour by lightning and heavy rain. Utah outscored BYU 21-6 in the second half that year.

“I don’t think you can sit there and hype things for the players,” Sitake said. “They obviously know there is a streak going on and things like that. So you address it and you give them the challenge to go out there and find a way to break it.

“We are not going to hide from it or shy away from any of that stuff. We want to play this game and we want to be aggressive and we want to do whatever we can to make sure that we change some of the things of the past.”

Sitake said the streak is “more on us as coaches” than it is on the players, who were involved in only two of the losses in the streak.

“Every year is a new year,” said center James Empey. “Every game is a new game and we have a chance to go out this Saturday and play. We are looking forward to it and not taking anything for granted.”

Defensive lineman Tyler Batty called it “definitely one of the most anticipated games each season, each year,” and referred to it as intense and exciting.

“It is pretty much everything you could want in a football game, right?” he said. “It is what we are out there to do, compete at the highest level and give it our all.”

How does starting quarterback Jaren Hall deal with the losing streak?

“Just short memory,” he said, having played as a utility player on offense in the 2019 game.

Reminded that Whittingham referred to the game as “the instate game” in an interview during Pac-12 media day in July, Sitake said it will always be important to BYU.

“In the rivalry, I have been on both sides, and I have had family that have been on both sides, so there are really good people all over this place, especially in the rivalry games,” said Sitake, who in the past has said he hopes Utah wins every game on its schedule but one. “And I think it does really good things for the soul to wish good things on people. I want to beat Utah, I really do.

“But afterwards, I wish them success and hope they do well. Wishing bad things on good people is not good for the soul.”

Let rivalry week begin.