The Baylor challenge looms large for Kalani Sitake and his No. 21-ranked Cougars. In BYU’s last hurrah as an independent, this stage is made for the moment.
An independent can’t win a conference championship. Its hopes, dreams and fame have to come from playing successfully in games like the one Saturday against the defending Big 12 champs, a top-10 football team.
Next week at Oregon doesn’t matter, nor does the upcoming trip to Las Vegas against the famed Notre Dame Golden Domers or even Arkansas.
What matters is what’s next. And up Saturday is a great opportunity to get Baylor in Provo in LaVell Edwards Stadium at 4,500 feet.
In Waco last year, BYU came to Big 12 territory in pretty good shape offensively, but the defense that had faced and succeeded against Arizona and Arizona State had begun to break down with injuries. While the “team” went on to win over P5 teams Washington State, USC and Virginia, it was a bit of smoke and mirrors on defense.
That will be the focus for BYU’s defense — being more stout, more physical, more capable of handling Baylor’s experienced offensive line and run attack.
After the last game with the Bears, BYU coach Kalani Sitake told the team it simply needed to get bigger and stronger in the offseason. It’s been a goal of Sitake’s since he took over from Bronco Mendenhall in 2016.
“Even after the bowl game last year, I remember Kalani coming up to me and saying that I needed to be bigger and stronger,” said Cougars defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea. “That went for the whole O line and D line. We did need to get bigger and stronger and I think we have done that. Josh Larsen is strong, he is one of the strongest guys on the team. Caden Haws is strong. On both sides of the ball, everybody looks better, feels better and is playing better.”
If BYU players failed to enlarge their personal space and add muscle, it will surface in the next two weeks.
Blake Freeland, the All-America candidate at offensive tackle for BYU, knows the best way to measure that improvement is go right at Baylor’s defense in a pushing match.
“I remember they are a really good defense. I think this year we need to run the ball better than we did. That starts up front. I think we have a lot to prove just going up against a good defensive line.”
For the Bears, they know the Cougars return a veteran offense led by quarterback Jaren Hall.
Baylor head coach Dave Aranda said on Monday the thing that stands out about the Cougars is the number of veteran, experienced players the Cougars put on the field and the fact that they play very physical, with size.
“It’s an old-school style of football,” said Aranda. “It’s pretty cool and it will be a challenge for us.”
Sitake said Aranda’s program is the standard in the Big 12, which means Saturday will be a measuring stick for where his program is one year from having to play a Big 12 schedule.
He’s excited for the challenge.
Since everyone is excited for the challenge, what do we have here?
Well, BYU has an opportunity to advance in the rankings and gain confidence in what is the nation’s 13th toughest schedule. The Bears want to validate its top-10 standing.
This game will be won in the trenches, where big bodies will collide over and over again. It will be rough, it will be tough, it will be strenuous and take a lot of energy.
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Baylor’s blockers include four of five starters returning for offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and his OL coach he brought from BYU, Eric Mateos. This group is the foundation of the entire team, led by Conner Galvin, the Big 12 offensive lineman of the year who is in his fifth year at left tackle — Baylor’s version of BYU’s Freeland.
The return of Grimes and Mateos will be an interesting challenge for BYU’s defense. They’re both gurus, hog Yodas. They made a big contribution to BYU football in the several seasons they were in Provo in Grimes Part II with Sitake.
On the other hand, the Bears defense will face a much more savvy offensive leader in Hall, who has plenty of weapons to really challenge the Baylor defense. If BYU can establish the run early, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick will be able to deploy a tight end and receiver attack that will give Baylor a few headaches.
“He’s a great play-action quarterback,” said Aranda. “He’ll be one of the better ones we play this year. He’s impressive in the decisions he makes, the throws he makes and the throws he doesn’t make.”
If you can believe Las Vegas, the Cougars are a slight favorite to win this game. Part of that reasoning may be that the Cougars are at home and Baylor’s offensive line is blocking for some talent in Taye McWilliams, but they’ll miss Abrams Smith, who hurt BYU big time a year ago.
Craig Williams could be a dangerous runner for the Bears. BYU must slow down McWilliams and Williams or it will be a very long night.
Baylor’s receivers are not tremendously experienced outside of sixth-year senior Gavin Holmes.
Look for Grimes to load the box with six or seven blockers and go right at BYU’s defensive line.
As for the Cougars, look for plenty of 12 and 13 personnel with three tight ends in myriad formations as Roderick will also put plenty of blockers in position to wrestle Bears.
This will be trench warfare at its best.
Cougars on the air
No. 9 Baylor (1-0) at No. 21 BYU (1-0)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM