‘Huge opportunity’: Can No. 21 BYU make a statement against future Big 12 foe and No. 9-ranked Baylor?
Homestanding Cougars could enter Saturday’s showdown without star receivers Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua, who are dealing with injuries
A week after South Florida looked at BYU’s visit as a chance to make a national splash and springboard itself up the college football pecking order, the Cougars find themselves in a similar position Saturday when the reigning Big 12 champions visit LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The Baylor Bears, ranked No. 9 in The Associated Press Top 25 and winners of their last four games against ranked teams, test No. 21 BYU at 8:15 p.m. MDT in a pre-Big 12 showdown in Provo. It will be the first time a ranked BYU team hosts a top-10 team since No. 10 TCU rolled the No. 16 Cougars 38-7 in 2009.
Although BYU (1-0) is favored by a field goal — due to having home-field advantage — the Cougars are viewing the contest not as a chance for revenge after last year’s 38-24 beatdown in Waco, but more as the opportunity to make a statement that they plan to make some noise on the national level prior to joining the Power Five league in 2023.
“I think Baylor is a really good team, and we are a really good team. It will be fun to play against them. It’s a huge opportunity. We definitely respect Baylor and the program they have over there.” — BYU tight end Dallin Holker
“I think Baylor is a really good team, and we are a really good team,” said BYU tight end Dallin Holker. “It will be fun to play against them. It’s a huge opportunity. We definitely respect Baylor and the program they have over there.”
How big is this game?
The only other contest Saturday pitting ranked teams is No. 20 Kentucky at No. 12 Florida. The eyes of the college football world will be upon the Cougars and Bears, with the obvious prevailing storyline being whether coach Kalani Sitake’s program is on track for Big 12 readiness.
“I feel good about our team,” Sitake said Monday. “This will be a great test to see where we are at.”
It’s big for Baylor, too, although last year’s run to the Big 12 title and 21-7 win over the SEC’s Ole Miss in the Allstate Sugar Bowl verified the program’s turnaround under third-year coach Dave Aranda. Clearly, Baylor is back.
“It only gets harder from here,” Aranda said after the Bears crushed FCS Albany 69-10 at McLane Stadium. “And so what a great opportunity with this next game vs. BYU and Kalani and his team. They are playing at a high level, so excited for that. I think (it is) an opportunity for us again to show what we are about.”
Most of the pressure is seemingly on BYU, which can’t afford any stumbles in its last year of independence if it hopes to reach a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“Yeah, I think every single game we feel a bunch of pressure,” said BYU defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea on Monday. “In the locker room everybody is already watching film. … I think it is going to be a good game this week.”
Conversely, BYU quarterback Jaren Hall — who threw for 342 yards and a touchdown last year vs. the Bears, and ran for another score — called it “just another game” and said there is “no pressure” just because both teams are ranked.
“Letting all that stuff get to you just brings in stuff from the external that doesn’t matter,” he said. “For us, it is just another game on the schedule and a game we gotta be ready for.”
Another storyline is the health of two of BYU’s best offensive players, receivers Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua. They combined to catch eight passes for 249 yards last year in McLane. Romney missed BYU’s 50-21 win over South Florida with an undisclosed injury, while Nacua left in the first half with an ankle injury.
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday that both receivers will be a “game-time decision,” but on Friday ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported that both players are expected to miss the game, citing unnamed sources.
Perhaps signaling that BYU is preparing to play without its top two receivers, Roderick said other receivers such as Kody Epps, Chase Roberts and Brayden Cosper “are all in the mix to play with or without them, because they have earned it.”
Hall completed passes to 12 different players last week, but that was against a defense not even close to as talented as what Baylor will put on the LES turf Saturday.
“I remember (last year) they had a really good defense,” said BYU offensive lineman Blake Freeland. “I think this year we need to run the ball a lot better than we did. And I think that starts up front. We have a lot to prove, just going against a good defensive line. You gotta be able to run the rock.”
Trouble is, BYU had just 67 yards on the ground last year, on 24 carries.
“We gotta be physical and be able to run the ball and hang our hats on that and go from there,” Hall said. “Our plan is to be physical and make sure we do what we can up front.”
BYU tight end Isaac Rex told the Deseret News Wednesday that he, Masen Wake and Holker will be ready to contribute if the star receivers can go, or not.
“Whatever they want us to do, we are willing to do it,” Rex said. “Catch, block, whatever. I feel like they could use us more (with the WRs hurt). But hey, we are here to do what the coaches tell us.”
Defensively, the Cougars will be facing a Jeff Grimes-coached offense that rolled up 303 yards on the ground and 231 through the air last year. Sophomore Blake Shapen beat out Gerry Bohanon for the starting job last spring and was phenomenal last week against Albany.
“It is a tough team to deal with, and when you mix that all up with a quarterback that is accurate and has great composure, that becomes a problem,” Sitake said. “So we have to prepare for their best and hopefully we can match up against them.”
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