PROVO — BYU looked like a totally different football team in the two overtime periods at Tennessee last Saturday, outscoring the Volunteers 13-10 after a lackluster performance in regulation — aside from Zach Wilson’s 64-yard strike to Micah Simon in the final 20 seconds that led to Jake Oldroyd’s game-tying field goal.
Can the Cougars carry that same crisp, inspired play into Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. showdown with No. 24 USC at LaVell Edwards Stadium? If recent history is any indication, Cougar fans shouldn’t count on it.
When it comes to facing Power Five conference teams such as the Pac-12’s USC in the Kalani Sitake era, BYU has played much better away from their home at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains than in Provo.
“I don’t know,” Sitake said Monday. “We are working on it.”
Sophomore offensive lineman Brady Christensen called it a “good question” and then offered, “If we knew the answer, we would probably figure it out.”
Sitake, 21-20 overall in his fourth season, is 6-11 against P5 opponents, but just 1-5 against the so-called big boys at home — the 28-21 overtime win over Mississippi State in his first season, 2016, the only breakthrough at home.
BYU enters Saturday’s nationally televised contest (ABC, Ch. 4) having lost four straight home games to P5 opponents: twice to archrival Utah, once to then-top 10 Wisconsin and last year to a very beatable Cal team, 21-18.
Sitake said the key will be to “simulate the playing style” that BYU displayed in the overtimes against UT. The Cougars played as if they had nothing to lose.
“I think the effort has always been there (at home),” he said. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with the matchups or whatever, but we are looking forward to playing better at home against USC this weekend.”
It wouldn’t be questioned if BYU also played poorly on the road against high-profile opponents, but the Cougars have generally acquitted themselves well in those games under Sitake. They are a respectable 5-6 against P5s away from LaVell Edwards Stadium in his time, including a 1-2 record at neutral sites.
Sitake said he’s altered the Cougars’ routine before home games and taken other steps to correct the problem but didn’t want to reveal them.
“We are not just relying on hope as a way to play better at home,” he said. “So there are a lot of things we are doing differently in the program that we haven’t done before, and I am looking forward to seeing them work.”
They worked in the first half against Utah two weeks ago, as the Cougars mostly outplayed the Utes in the first 30 minutes and trailed just 9-6 at the break. The second half was a disaster for the home team.
Christensen, the Freshman All-American from Bountiful, said nerves and trying too hard to please the home crowd has something to do with it.
“There is always a lot of anxiety before games,” he said. “That’s just common, a lot of nerves, and then when you are playing at home in front of these great, great fans, you can feel nervous. I think we just have to get past that and play our best and have fun, really.”
Junior defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga let out a big sigh when he got the question.
“I don’t know exactly,” he said. “We love playing at home. We love playing anywhere, actually. … We have a mindset that we have to be perfect in front of our home crowd. When we play (road games) and we make mistakes, we shrug them off and build off it. I think we just need to get away from that mindset and just play ball and have fun at home.”
Several veteran players compared how they played in a 40-6 loss to Wisconsin at home in 2017 with how they played in last year’s 24-21 upset win over the Badgers in Madison. Granted, the Cougars were without their starting quarterback, Tanner Mangum, in Provo.
“I don’t think it is like, a super-trend that we play better on the road than at home,” Simon said. “I feel like we always have to be prepared for anything at home or on the road. It just kinda starts with practice and continues to execution throughout whatever adversity we get hit with.”
The Cougars (1-1) handled their first bout with adversity against Utah well after former Cougar Francis Bernard’s interception return for a touchdown, driving for a field goal the next time they got the ball. But the floodgates opened in the second half, and they seemed to lose their confidence as the crowd got antsy. Saturday in Knoxville, spirits stayed high even though they trailed 13-3 at halftime.
According to radio broadcaster Greg Wrubell, BYU has trailed in 13 of Sitake’s 21 wins, and seven of the last eight. So he’s been able to rally the troops, just not as much at home.
“For me, as a head coach, it is about making sure that we perform at our best,” Sitake said. “That’s the key. I don’t think we have done it yet. My job is to make sure on Saturday afternoon that we play our best. We are getting better, but this would be a really good time to play our best in all three phases and give our fans something to remember.”
Because, frankly, good memories for them have been in short supply at home lately.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake says his team has a great opportunity this weekend to test itself against a national brand in USC. pic.twitter.com/aiJhRd082a— Jay Drew (@drewjay) September 9, 2019
Cougars on the air
No. 24 USC (2-0) vs. BYU (1-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM / 102.7 FM