‘Never going to have this opportunity again’: BYU has ‘huge sense of urgency’ against Kansas in inaugural Big 12 football game
Cougars will need to get their inconsistent offense going to hang with explosive Jayhawks and super QB Jalon Daniels
LAWRENCE, Kansas — When BYU was a college football independent for 12 seasons, coaches Bronco Mendenhall and Kalani Sitake often had to manufacture reasons for the Cougars to get excited about certain games and opponents.
Let’s face it — there were a lot of meaningless contests from 2011 to 2022, especially after BYU suffered its first or second loss of a given season and knew it had nothing left to play for, besides pride and bowl eligibility.
“This is it. This is our opening game in the Big 12 conference. We are never going to have this opportunity again. … So I need these guys to understand the seriousness of this situation, and why there needs to be a huge sense of urgency for us to get to a position where we can play our best.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
Saturday’s Big 12 opener at Kansas (3-0) obviously does not fall into that category. Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m. MDT at Booth Memorial Stadium and the game will be televised by ESPN. The stakes are big, as BYU is on a seven-game winning streak dating back to 2022 and Kansas has not lost a game in September since 2021.
The winner might get ranked, in addition to getting a leg up in the conference race.
Sitake doesn’t really need to pump it up, particularly because both teams are undefeated, the Jayhawks feature Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year Jalon Daniels, and the Cougars are close to 10-point underdogs. However, the eight-year head coach has chosen an interesting selling point, telling his guys all week that they will never get another chance to play in their school’s first Big 12 game, and they better make the most of it.
“This is it. This is our opening game in the Big 12 conference,” Sitake said. “We are never going to have this opportunity again. … So I need these guys to understand the seriousness of this situation, and why there needs to be a huge sense of urgency for us to get to a position where we can play our best.”
Added passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake: “The guys don’t need to be reminded, but as coaches we are always reminding them: This is the first Big 12 game ever in the history of BYU, and it will (always) be the first. So how are you going to make your mark?
“There is an added level of energy and anticipation, excitement, enthusiasm,” Fesi Sitake continued. “I have really appreciated watching these guys, how they bring it to practice each day.”
The Cougars were close to their best last week at Arkansas, stunning the Hogs 38-31 in front of nearly 75,000 in Fayetteville. Another raucous, sellout crowd of more than 47,000 is expected Saturday, with the usual heavy dose of well-traveled BYU fans, although there are growing worries that the weather could turn nasty.
Severe storms, with heavy rain, some damaging hail and wind gusts up to 60 mph, are expected to develop in eastern Kansas Saturday evening around 5 p.m.
“A low risk of tornadoes,” according to the National Weather Service in Kansas City.
Hopefully the game will be over by then. If the Cougars aren’t careful, and can’t contain the multi-talented Daniels and superb freshman running back Devin Neal, it might be over long before the fourth quarter.
Weather permitting, a bona fide shootout is expected, which should be cause for concern for Cougar fans because BYU’s offense has been wildly inconsistent through three games, and not quite what was expected when the season began.
“They have a complete defense. They have a good offense, too. So we have a challenge ahead of us, but I am confident in our team and our guys,” said BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis, the man most responsible for getting the Cougars’ offense to start purring again.
“This game is huge for the program, huge for former players, and current players, too,” Slovis continued. “Again, last week was great. Being 3-0 is awesome. But this is what really matters. Our goals are within conference play and that we take care of our games in conference.”
There is a chance for severe storms on Saturday. Storms are expected to develop in eastern KS and move east. Storms are expected mid to late evening. Hazards include heavy rainfall, winds up to 60 MPH, damaging hail, and a low risk of tornadoes. pic.twitter.com/7MFipuEvmk— NWS Kansas City (@NWSKansasCity) September 22, 2023
A lot has been made of BYU’s woeful third-down conversion rate — the Cougars are just 12 of 40, tied for 121st in the country — but the real reason for those failures is getting behind the chains on first down.
That’s generally a running down, which is another shortcoming the Cougars have to fix. If they can’t run the ball and control the clock in Lawrence and keep Daniels and company off the field, it is going to be a long day on the prairie.
“We have got to find ways to take advantage of our strengths and the things we think we can do in the matchup,” Kalani Sitake said. “That’s the whole battle of the game, is practice what we think we are good at and take advantage of. They are going to do the same, and we will see what happens on Saturday.”
They slowed Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson last week, but Daniels is far more elusive, a better decision-maker, and a better runner.
“It is a little bit like playing Air Force,” said BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill. “Assignment-sound is what we are going to have to be, and execute what we call very well. We just gotta make sure that we are not giving anything up cheap down the field.”
Cougars on the air
at Kansas (3-0)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM
Clearly, the Jayhawks — who have defeated Missouri State, Illinois and Nevada — have BYU’s full respect, even if they were less-than-impressive in that 31-24 victory over the Wolfpack last weekend.
“They are tough. They got a great culture. They are a good football team. They have turned things around over the last couple of years. They are no longer just a basketball school. They have done a great job with their program,” said Fesi Sitake. “It is our culture against their culture, it really is.”
And it is a conference game, a phrase that hasn’t been uttered about BYU since 2010.