BYU’s football team enters the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel game against struggling Utah State on Thursday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium with a No. 19 national ranking and an acceptable 3-1 record despite some early-season injury issues.

In short, the Big-12 bound Cougars are in a much better position than the disappointing Aggies (1-3) with two-thirds of the season still in front of both teams.

But BYU coach Kalani Sitake is not a happy camper these days. In fact, he’s frustrated that his team is not playing up to its potential. Only quarterback Jaren Hall, who has completed 72% of his passes for 1,164 yards and nine touchdowns, with just one interception, has met or exceeded expectations.

“I would have to say the surprise for me is that we are not playing consistent football. I talk (a lot) about playing at our best. I had this expectation that we would be a lot further along, with the amount of veterans that we have on this team.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

“I would have to say the surprise for me is that we are not playing consistent football,” Sitake said Monday. “I talk (a lot) about playing at our best. I had this expectation that we would be a lot further along, with the amount of veterans that we have on this team.”

Sitake credited the Cougars’ first four opponents — South Florida, Baylor, Oregon and Wyoming — as he always does, but referred early and often to his team’s lackluster start, and his own shortcomings, in a frank and thoughtful discussion with reporters last Monday.

“We can still be a lot better as a team, and that’s my job,” he said. “I am not criticizing anybody else except for myself. There is a huge emphasis for myself (to get the Cougars playing better).”

Clearly, the Cougars have yet to hit their stride in any of the three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams. Which brings us to the 91st meeting, and perhaps the final in quite some time, with Utah State, which obviously has its own shortcomings to worry about.

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“I just want to see our team play better, and play a good football game and maybe play at our best,” Sitake said. “I don’t think we have seen it yet, and I don’t think it has been clean enough for all 60 minutes. So I am looking forward to getting that done this Thursday. That is going to be a huge emphasis for us.”

Fresh in Sitake’s mind was the 11 penalties his team committed in the 38-24 win over Wyoming; he was also unhappy with the sluggish start that allowed Wyoming to jump out to 3-0 and 10-7 leads.

“We have to get in a rhythm,” he said. “There were moments where we were in a great rhythm and there were moments when we weren’t. I would just like to be in a great rhythm the entire game.”

The Aggies won’t be a willing participant in that regard, even if they are coming off back-to-back losses to Weber State and UNLV. Utah State always, always, always gets up to play the Cougars, and won the last rivalry game played in Provo, 45-20 in 2018. 

“Yeah, everyone is dangerous when they are in this position, right?” Sitake said. “They are the same team (that won the Mountain West title in 2021) and coached by the same guys. They give great effort. … But I am not really too much about what Utah State is doing. I am more worried about what we are doing, because I can see some things that we can definitely improve on. I am frustrated.”

Coincidentally, that embarrassing loss to the Aggies at LES turned out to be a turning point, of sorts, for Sitake’s program. Zach Wilson replaced Tanner Mangum at quarterback the following weekend against Hawaii, delivered a 49-23 win, and the rest is history.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake watches the end of the game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake watches the end of the game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, as his Cougars fall to the Ducks. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

With Wilson nursing a fractured hand, Hall and Baylor Romney quarterbacked the Cougars to a 42-14 win over USU at Maverik Stadium in 2019, and the teams didn’t meet in 2020 due to the pandemic. BYU won 34-20 last year in Logan behind Tyler Allgeier’s 218 rushing yards.

But Allgeier is in the NFL now, and BYU’s running game hasn’t come close to picking up where it left off in 2021.

“I am frustrated that we haven’t played our best game yet and we haven’t seen it consistently,” Sitake said. “There is no excuse for it. … We don’t have a lot of time to figure it out. We have got to get this thing going now.”

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Are the Cougars overplaying the threat that USU poses in 2022? Not if you ask defensive coordinator Ilasia Tuiaki, who was USU’s running backs and special teams coach in 2009-10 and its tight ends/fullbacks coach in 2011 before moving on to Utah.

“I coached at Utah State for three years. I know what this game means to those players and those coaches and that community,” Tuiaki said. “We are going to get their best shot and we gotta make sure that we are playing at a really high level against an offense that has really been dangerous.”

BYU’s defense has only forced two turnovers in four games, a stat that Sitake and Tuiaki find unacceptable. Max Tooley had a pick-six against USF and Ben Bywater picked off a deflected pass against Oregon.

Meanwhile, USU starting QB Logan Bonner has thrown eight interceptions, most in the country. Utah State has coughed the ball up 12 times, ranking 129 out of 131 FBS teams in that ignominious category.

Despite all that, Sitake says his team hasn’t been playing well enough to overlook anyone, even if that showdown with Notre Dame in Las Vegas looms next week.

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“We know what we need to fix as a team from within, things that we need to do so we can play at our best,” he said. “The game of football demands that you respect what is in front of you, and that you approach it the right way. So that won’t be happening from us. There is no overlooking anything. You see it in college football all the time, all these crazy, wild games, and things that are happening.”

Offensively, the Cougars should be closer to full strength because senior receiver Gunner Romney is expected to make his 2022 debut after suffering a lacerated kidney the first week of fall camp. Sitake said on his coaches show Tuesday night that receiver Puka Nacua (lower leg injury) might have been ready if the game were Saturday, but probably won’t be Thursday.

BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said USU’s defense has some outstanding playmakers.

“They play really hard. They create a lot of chaos. It is a team that really gets after it,” Roderick said. “They gave us a heckuva game last year and I expect to get their very best. I know what they are capable of. They probably haven’t had the season they wanted to so far. But I think they are a lot better than their record shows.”

Cougars, Aggies on the air

Utah State (1-3) at No. 19 BYU (3-1)

Thursday, 6 p.m. MDT

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LaVell Edwards Stadium

Provo, Utah


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