If nothing else, BYU’s foray into college football independence has enabled the Cougars to play more Pac-12 teams than ever before during the past 12 seasons, and get wins against the likes of Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon State and USC.

There is one Pac-12 school that Big 12-bound BYU has never defeated, however.

That would be the Stanford Cardinal.

For all the recruiting battles the Cardinal and Cougars have engaged in over the years — most of them won by Stanford, much to BYU fans’ chagrin — the two private schools have met only twice on the football field, and never during BYU’s independence. Stanford edged the Cougars 18-14 in Provo in 2003 and drubbed BYU 37-10 in Stanford Stadium in 2004.

“Every week it is a different story and so, in this one, it is just us trying to do something that a BYU program has never done before, and that is beat Stanford.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

Stanford is still scheduled to visit BYU on Aug. 30, 2031, but a four-game series calling for BYU-Stanford games in 2025, 2026, 2028 and 2035 was canceled last June in response to BYU’s schedule being limited in 2023 and beyond when it is in the Big 12.

So in essence, Saturday’s regular-season finale at Stanford Stadium (9 p.m. MST, Fox Sports 1) marks the Cougars’ last chance in quite some time to get a victory over the Cardinal. Their chances are decent, considering bowl-bound BYU is 6-5 and has won two straight, while Stanford is 3-8 and has lost four straight.

Then again, folks who have watched BYU’s last nine games — when the defense started getting shredded by the likes of Oregon, Liberty, Arkansas, East Carolina and even Utah Tech in the first half last week before the Cougars took a 52-26 win — know nothing is a sure thing with Kalani Sitake’s 2022 crew.

“You see a lot of surprises happening in college football (including) some things that people weren’t able to predict,” Sitake said Monday. “That is what makes it so fun to watch. Every week it is a different story and so, in this one, it is just us trying to do something that a BYU program has never done before, and that is beat Stanford.”

Settling a current Pac-12 score

After BYU fell 41-20 to the Pac-12’s Oregon on Sept. 17, the Cougars are looking to even their season record against Pac-12 schools to 1-1 and take that momentum into their own Power Five league. But Sitake said the focus isn’t on getting one last victory against the league BYU has wanted to be a part of for years before the Big 12 came calling.

“Our focus isn’t on that stuff,” Sitake said. “It wasn’t even on the conference (record against the Pac-12) last year, too.”

Of course, the Cougars went 5-0 against the league last year, beating Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, Washington State and USC. BYU’s next scheduled game against the Pac-12 is the rivalry renewal at Utah on Sept. 7, 2024.

“We know we are going to be on the road, and it is going to be their Senior Day, and so we are going to get their best shot,” Sitake said after Stanford lost the most important game on its schedule, 27-20 to Cal in the Big Game. “… I plan on giving them our best shot as well. I would like to see it be done for 60 minutes, from beginning to end, and then we will just live with the results.”

Several of BYU’s future games against the Pac-12 were canceled after the Big 12 invite came, most notably a 2023 return to USC. Scheduled games against Arizona in 2026 and 2027 are still on the books, for now. BYU and Utah are scheduled to meet each season from 2024-28. The 2020 game at Rice-Eccles Stadium that was postponed due to COVID-19 has been moved to the 2030 season.

A recruiting rivalry

Off the field, BYU and Stanford have developed a little rivalry, at least in the eyes of BYU fans, because the Cardinal have recruited the state of Utah well, and have drawn some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the faith that sponsors BYU — to Palo Alto.

Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, a fringe candidate to replace Bronco Mendenhall before the job went to Sitake, is a Latter-day Saint and often the Cardinal’s point man in recruiting Latter-day Saint players.

Current returned missionaries on Stanford’s roster include quarterback Tanner McKee, inside linebacker Levani Damuni (Ridgeline High), linebacker Spencer Jorgensen (Provo High) and defensive back Scotty Edwards (Olympus High). 

A different path

Does Saturday’s game represent a chance for BYU to win back some of those recruits?

Not really, Sitake said, before expressing praise for the coaching job David Shaw has done at Stanford and for how McKee has conducted himself as a high-profile church member in the Bay Area.

“Stanford is not the only (school) that recruits LDS kids. There are a lot of good football players out there that happen to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they definitely have got some,” Sitake said. “So I think it is more about the fit and the program and the school and the education.

“I wish we could take all the recruits that are members of the church. But we can’t. So there are great ones that can go to different places,” he continued. “I think for us (the game) is just a matter of us playing our game and doing our best, and not really any added motivation than what we have going on right now.”

In July, Stanford got a commitment from Walker Lyons, the No. 5 tight end recruit in the country, who is a Latter-day Saint and whose father Tim Lyons played for BYU. American Fork defensive end Hunter Clegg, a four-star pass rusher, also recently committed to play for Stanford.

Losing McKee to Stanford in 2018 was a big blow to BYU, considering he grew up a BYU fan before departing on a church mission to Brazil. Sitake’s second season in Provo produced a 4-9 record and resulted in the firing of offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, and McKee looked elsewhere.

That same recruiting cycle, BYU signed a lightly recruited local QB by the name of Zach Wilson, and the program got back on an upward trajectory.

Making the most without McKee

BYU has had its issues this season, but quarterback play isn’t one of them. Jaren Hall has been better than the more heavily recruited McKee, statistically and in terms of delivering wins.

McKee has completed 60% of his passes for 2,634 yards and 12 touchdowns, with eight interceptions, in 11 games. Hall has completed 66% of his throws for 3,078 yards and 29 touchdowns, with six interceptions.

“In regards to Tanner McKee, wonderful family, great young man, tons of talent,” Sitake said. “He is an NFL talent, for sure. You can see how comfortable he is throwing the ball. We recruited him. We wanted him here. I am happy to see him doing well and making plays.”

BYU-Stanford game will feature historic clash of returned missionary QBs
Kalani Sitake says lackluster season adds ‘more urgency’ to program headed to the Big 12 next year

Sitake said he’s a McKee fan every day but this Saturday.

“I think he is a guy that will go pretty early in the draft. I am not an NFL expert, but you can see the arm talent, you can see the poise and the athleticism and the ability to make plays,” Sitake said. “I am just really happy for him. Obviously it will be really cool to cheer him on and see him perform throughout his career. I can’t cheer for him this weekend, but I can cheer for him from this point on as he moves on with his career.”

BYU players discuss the Cardinal

Of course, BYU’s roster includes one former Stanford player, fullback Houston Heimuli, a graduate transfer who was used sparingly on offense this season but found a nice niche on special teams. Heimuli has spent the week assuring the Cougars that Stanford hasn’t packed it in. He expects a physical, intense struggle Saturday.

“There is a lot of respect for Stanford. Very prestigious school and university, and very prestigious program and coaches that have been there and instilled greatness in the program, and so it will be good to go in there and play a great game,” said BYU offensive lineman Joe Tukuafu. “It is good to have Houston here. He tells us a lot of great things about Stanford, which is good to have that connection.”

Receiver Chase Roberts drew interest from Stanford, but an offer never came because he committed to BYU as a sophomore.

BYU wide receiver Chase Roberts runs after a catch against Oregon at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
BYU wide receiver Chase Roberts runs after a catch at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. Roberts was recruited by Stanford, but didn’t receive an offer. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I definitely talked a lot with Stanford,” Roberts said. “… I am grateful for Stanford and how they impacted me and pushed me as a young kid in high school and I am excited to go see the coaches again and all the players,” Roberts said. “I was close to some who committed there, Tanner McKee and some other guys. It is going to be awesome to be on their campus and be able to be around the amazing people that represent that university.”

Saying goodbye to the Pac-12 — for now

The Cougars are playing Stanford in late November because of an unofficial scheduling agreement BYU has had with the league since it went independent. The Cougars give Pac-12 schools a scheduling option so USC and Stanford can continue their rivalries with Notre Dame.

For instance, USC plays the Irish Saturday in Los Angeles; last year, when BYU was beating USC 35-31 in Los Angeles, Stanford was losing 45-14 to Notre Dame in Palo Alto.

BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” program that the Cougars are fired up to finish independence against a Power Five program on the road.

“We are super excited about this opportunity. They might be struggling in the win-loss (category), but make no mistake, this is a good team,” Lamb said. “They have a win over Notre Dame. Our players know all about how good (ND) is. It will be a good challenge for us.”

All told, BYU will have played every Pac-12 team except Colorado when Saturday’s game goes final. The Cougars and Buffaloes haven’t met since a 20-17 BYU win in the 1988 Freedom Bowl.

“We love playing all schools, especially the Pac-12 (schools),” linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa said. “They are great competition, and it is a great league. We are excited to play Stanford. We haven’t had a chance to play too many Pac-12 schools this season, so we are excited.”

Cougars on the air

BYU (6-5)

at Stanford (3-8)

Saturday, 9 p.m. MST

Stanford Stadium, Stanford, California

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM