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BYU is finally ‘in the game’ but it won’t be child’s play

Getting invited into a Power Five league required patience, but how will Cougars respond to new playground?

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake, center, stands on the sideline as his team plays Arkansas Razorbacks in Provo on, Oct. 15, 2022.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake, center, stands on the sideline as his team plays Arkansas Razorbacks in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. The Cougars begin 10 straight games against Power Five foes on Saturday.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

“Red rover, red rover, send the Cougars on over!”

At last! After being relegated to the sideline, like elementary school kids at recess longing to join the old-school game of strength, BYU is finally getting waved in.

Saturday at Arkansas, the Cougars (2-0) will attempt with all their might to break through and prove they belong. If they fail, they can try again the following week, and every week after that because they are finally “in the game.” The notion of being “one and done” is buried with the bones of independence.

The stakes, however, are different. Unlike red rover, today’s game is far from child’s play. The Razorbacks (2-0) will be the first of 10 consecutive Power Five challenges for BYU — giving the Cougars a schedule they have never faced before and a dose of reality moving forward.

In red rover, a group of peers line up next to each other and lock arms to create a wall of resistance. The approaching kid must find a weakness and then charge with all his or her might to break through it. Accomplishing the feat is exhilarating. Getting denied is excruciating.

As the Cougars study the 10 programs lined up to stop them, they see, from left to right, at Arkansas, at Kansas, Cincinnati, at TCU, Texas Tech, at No. 4 Texas, at West Virginia, Iowa State, No. 19 Oklahoma and, at the end of the line, at Oklahoma State.

Further assessment reveals some significant details. First, the bigger boys are bunched up toward the middle and right side of the line. There is no need to run toward or worry about them until later in the game. Second, the left side of the line, beginning with Arkansas, is the most vulnerable.

So, how do they break through against the Hogs in Fayetteville (5:30 p.m., ESPN2)? The answer was provided years ago during recess and is at the heart of red rover — find the weakness and attack it with everything you have.

The Razorbacks have wins over Western Carolina and Kent State, but without injured running back Raheim Sanders, who has been ruled out for Saturday’s game, they are not close to full strength. In addition, Arkansas has an SEC game at No. 14 LSU the next weekend. As human nature goes, they will likely split their focus on the Cougars and Tigers, which could play to BYU’s advantage.

Another advantage might be the Cougars’ newness. In many ways, this is a different team from the one the Hogs beat last year. The BYU defense is arguably better. The offense doesn’t turn the ball over (just one turnover in eight quarters) and the overall team health is significantly improved (including the return of receiver Kody Epps). Will that be enough to break through the red rover line at Arkansas’ expense? Who knows? But it certainly improves their chances.

KJ Jefferson is back as the Razorbacks quarterback, and he was a nightmare for the Cougars last year in Provo. Jefferson passed for 367 yards and five touchdowns with no turnovers, while he cashed in a trio of BYU mistakes for 17 points — the difference in the outcome (52-35).

Containing Jefferson will be key, and BYU will attempt to do it with a different scheme under new defensive coordinator Jay Hill. His emphasis is playing on attack instead of being attacked.

Unlike last year’s game, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick can game plan with a healthy quarterback. Playing with a bad shoulder, Jaren Hall still lit up the Razorbacks for 356 yards and three touchdowns while facing just his 11th P5 defense. Kedon Slovis, a transfer from Pitt with over 10,000 career passing yards, will make his 35th start against a P5 opponent for Roderick on Saturday.

Kansas (2-0) will host BYU on Sept. 23 (1:30 p.m., ESPN). The Jayhawks feature preseason All-Big 12 quarterback Jalon Daniels. But they too are trying to find their footing after a 6-7 season last year. The Cougars will likely be another underdog in the Big 12 opener in Lawrence, but beating them is not an unreasonable notion.

Cincinnati (2-0) and new head coach Scott Satterfield come to Provo on Sept. 29 (8:15 p.m., ESPN). The Bearcats host Oklahoma the week before, giving the Cougars a lot to look at. BYU beat Cincinnati at home in 2015 and in Ohio in 2016 and will have a full house to usher in their Big 12 home opener. It will be a challenging matchup, but a winnable game.

To this point, BYU has done exactly what head coach Kalani Sitake was hoping for — they are 2-0, far from perfect but showing signs of improvement. As for the overall athletic program, it too has done what Cougar Nation was longing for — BYU is “in the game” as a member of a P5 conference. The kid that had been left out for so long is finally being waved in. Fortunately, he’s been schooled on what needs to be done.

The secret to early success against this long P5 run is elementary, or at least comes from a game we all played in elementary school — and the assessment is in — the left side of the 10-team line is vulnerable.

“Red rover, red rover, send the Cougars on over!”

Heads up, Arkansas, BYU is coming straight at you.


BYU defensive lineman John Nelson (94) charges Dalton Wagner of Arkansas during a game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. The Cougars and Razorbacks meet again this week, this time in Fayetteville.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News