‘Biggest game of our season so far’: Mostly healthy No. 13/14 BYU braces for high-flying Houston on Friday
BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Monday that the Cougars (4-0) should be close to full strength for the battle of college football unbeatens on ESPN this Friday
PROVO — A quick review of the game film of Houston overcoming five turnovers to blast Tulane 49-31 last Thursday told the BYU Cougars all they needed to know about the next challenger to their undefeated record.
Houston (1-0) hosts No. 13/14 BYU on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the Lone Star State in a matchup that will be televised nationally by ESPN.
Let the hype begin.
“They are really, really good,” BYU offensive lineman Brady Christensen said Monday in a video conference with reporters. “It is definitely a huge game for us. We always say each game is the biggest game of the season, but this is the biggest game of our season so far.”
The good news, BYU coach Kalani Sitake and a couple of assistant coaches said Monday, is that the Cougars should be closer to full strength than they were in last Saturday’s unsatisfying 27-20 win over UTSA at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“It is definitely a huge game for us. We always say each game is the biggest game of the season, but this is the biggest game of our season so far.” — BYU offensive lineman Brady Christensen
Most notably, starting center James Empey and kicker Jake Oldroyd should be back after Empey missed the last two games with a lower right leg injury and Oldroyd sat out the UTSA game with a bad back.
Starting right guard Tristen Hoge, who has missed the last three games with pneumonia after testing positive for COVID-19 in early September, could be back as well. Fellow offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga, who has appeared in 22 games in 2018 and 2019, is close to returning for the first time in 2020.
And if things really go the Cougars’ way in practice this week, 2019 leading rusher Sione Finau might see action for the first time since an ACL tear last November that required surgery in January.
“Yeah, we should be better. We should be deeper in different spots,” Sitake said. “But regardless of what happens, whether it is COVID tests or an injury or something that comes up along the way, that is part of the game. We try to get as much depth as possible for this violent game that people get hurt in. We are looking forward to getting guys back.”
Star receiver Gunner Romney, who had four catches for 80 yards against the Roadrunners and is averaging 113.2 receiving yards per game, said Monday he is ready to go after taking a couple hard hits over the weekend that caused him to briefly leave the game.
“I feel good. It is football. You are always going to have a couple bumps and bruises. You are super sore after the game. No major injuries, just a little sore, but ready to get back into it and ready to work that off this week,” said Romney, who leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in most 40-plus-yard receptions (five), most 30-plus-yard receptions (seven) and most 20-plus-yard receptions (10).
Romney is 10th nationally in receiving yards per game and 10th in yards per catch (22.6).
“We have a lot of urgency,” said Christensen, who noted that linemates such as Joe Tukuafu (center) and Chandon Herring filled in admirably for Empey and Hoge. “We have one day less to prepare, so we have to be really urgent. Even on (Sunday), watching film on them. We are excited. We need to be ready to go and we are excited for this challenge.”
Meanwhile, Sitake called the injury talk “distractions” and said the Cougars have to be ready for arguably the most athletic, toughest and fastest team they will see this season.
“So we will play with whoever is ready to roll,” he said. “I have been really pleased with our coaches, them putting together game plans and schemes, but also putting together a depth chart so we can get the best guys on the field who give us the best chance to win.”
Friday’s contest will be BYU’s first this season with spectators in the seats, as TDECU Stadium will allow fans. Attendance for the Tulane game was 8,164.
Of course, the game was originally scheduled to be played in Provo, but on Sept. 4 it was moved to Houston.
“After consulting with local medical professionals and team doctors regarding travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, UH approached BYU to move the game to TDECU Stadium” and the Cougars consented, a UH news release said.
Asked Monday about the switch, which looms even larger now since both squads are undefeated, Sitake said he didn’t know all the details but wasn’t dismayed.
“All I know is we wanted the game, so we are looking forward to getting out there and playing the game against (coach) Dana (Holgorsen) and his team. … We have to anticipate them being way better than what we saw (vs. Tulane) and then hopefully we can be way better than we were in our fourth (game).”
Also Monday, BYU announced that its game at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Oct. 24 against Texas State will kick off at 8:15 p.m. MDT and be televised by ESPN. It is not known yet whether any fans will be allowed for that fourth home game of the season.