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Why facing the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium is ‘dream come true’ for this generation of Cougars

BYU is a slight underdog against the No. 25 Ducks Saturday in Eugene

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Baylor Bears defensive lineman TJ Franklin (9) brings down BYU Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall tries to elude Baylor lineman TJ Franklin at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. The Cougars take their show on the road Saturday for a matinee at No. 25 Oregon.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

EUGENE, Ore. — A lot of youngsters, especially in the West in the 1990s and 2000s, grew up dreaming of playing college football for or against the USC Trojans.

In the past decade or so, however, it seems that another West Coast program has moved to the forefront in the hearts and minds of the current football-playing collegians: Oregon.

That seems to be particularly true for this crop of BYU Cougars, who will face the Ducks at 1:30 p.m. MDT Saturday at Autzen Stadium in an early season game with big implications for both programs. No. 12 BYU (2-0) is looking to validate last week’s 26-20 double-overtime win over Baylor and keep its dream alive of playing in a big-time bowl game in its last season of independence; No. 25 Oregon (1-1) will try to restore some Pac-12 pride after the league went 0-5 against the Cougars last year, and its own self-confidence after getting drubbed 49-3 by now-No. 1 Georgia in its opener.

“Yeah, as a kid, it was a super cool program to look at, because they got all the cool jerseys and the nice facilities and the Nike (sponsorship). Growing up you would always watch Oregon and as a kid you would have a dream to play there every now and again.” — BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar

“Everybody knows about Oregon, watched Oregon growing up, thought about what it would be like to (wear) those jerseys,” said BYU backup running back Miles Davis, who is from Las Vegas. “It is a dream come true to play them.”

Yes, the uniforms. They are what BYU players mentioned the most this week when they were asked the first thing that comes to mind about the Ducks. Of course, the players inside those uniforms — some of the most highly recruited athletes in the country, in many cases — have the Cougars’ full attention, too.

“Yeah, Autzen has got a great rep (as a terrific place to play),” said BYU linebacker Ben Bywater. “I am excited; the big games are what you play for. No one wants to play little small teams that no one shows up to (watch). So, prime-time football, Saturday at 1:30 p.m., it is going to be big time. I am ready to rock and roll.”

Said safety Malik Moore: “Oregon is obviously a good team. But we are going into the game like it is another game. We don’t go into games fearing anybody. … But whenever I think of Oregon, I just think of the cool uniforms.”

The Ducks will be wearing what they call their “nightmare green” color on their helmets, jersey tops and pants — with yellow trim. Also a Nike school when it comes to uniforms, BYU will wear royal blue helmets, white jersey tops and bottoms, with royal blue trim.

“Yeah, as a kid, it was a super cool program to look at, because they got all the cool jerseys and the nice facilities and the Nike (sponsorship). Growing up you would always watch Oregon and as a kid you would have a dream to play there every now and again,” said BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar. “But for me, it was always BYU because my dad (Dana Wilgar) played here and whatnot.”

The Cougars haven’t just prepared for Auburn transfer quarterback Bo Nix and company, they’ve prepared for a loud, raucous crowd at Autzen Stadium, which wasn’t quite sold out midday Friday but carries the reputation as one of the toughest places to play in all of college football.

“This is just a great opportunity,” said BYU receivers coach Fesi Sitake. “I am excited as a coach and a fan. But I am more excited for these players to experience a cool atmosphere in one of the great venues in the country. It will be a fun one.”

Sitake, cousin of head coach Kalani Sitake, said the Cougars spent the week simulating the crowd noise with speakers cranked to high during practices, but there is only so much coaches can do. Of bigger concern, he and cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford said, is Oregon’s talent and speed.

“It will be a huge challenge for my guys.” Gilford said, alluding to cornerbacks D’Angelo Mandell, Kaleb Hayes, Gabe Jeudy-Lally and Jakob Robinson. “But my guys always are up for it. They look forward to it. I have a veteran group, with the four that play. They all work hard, watch a ton of film. They are all looking forward to the challenge.”

Despite BYU being the higher-ranked team and its five-game winning streak over Pac-12 teams, Oregon is a four-point favorite, which accounts for that home-field advantage. But it is also a nod toward the kind of talent, athleticism and speed in green on Saturday.

“It is still Oregon,” BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said. “We are excited to go into a hostile environment and battle and have another tough, physical game. It is gong to take everything we’ve got to win this one. Our boys understand it and know it, and we have got to show up.”

Hayes, the cornerback who went 0-2 against Oregon as a member of the Oregon State Beavers, said the talent is similar, and that rankings and reputation don’t matter.

“I don’t really care about rankings, to be honest with you,” Hayes said. “I think that is a loser’s game when you think about rankings, stats, all that. … I feel like rankings are just hype. I am not really a hype guy. I am not really a hype train dude. I just play football. … It is tough to win. I don’t really chirp about rankings.”

Another storyline to the first Oregon-BYU matchup since the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl — a 38-8 BYU win — are the health of BYU receivers Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney and defensive end Tyler Batty. All three are game-time decisions, and all three will be missed if they can’t play.

“We just gotta follow this wave of confidence. It was great to beat Baylor last week, but we have another tough opponent this week so we gotta play like we know we can play and treat this as a whole new week and have a short-term memory and play physical and just take it one drive at a time like we did vs. Baylor,” said BYU defensive lineman John Nelson.

As for the notion that the game is some sort of referendum on BYU’s recent success against the Pac-12 and its move to the Big 12 in 2023, BYU’s head coach spent the week downplaying that idea.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Sitake said. “Our team doesn’t think like that. We are just happy to play another game. So, I am not going to go into all the side stories and stuff like that. We are going to be focused on this game, this opponent, this week, and what we see on film.

“What we see is a really talented football team, with a really quality (coaching staff). They are starting to get things (together). You could see if from Week 1 to Week 2. And we are expecting their best coming this Saturday.”

And that obviously includes the uniforms.

Cougars on the air

No. 12 BYU (2-0) at No. 25 Oregon (1-1)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

Autzen Stadium

Eugene, Oregon

TV: Fox

Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM