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BYU football ‘is in a really good spot right now’ fending off COVID-19, but Cougars won’t let their guard down

Around 6,000 spectators will be allowed to attend BYU’s football game on Saturday night against Texas State in the midst of the pandemic, causing players to say their off-field sacrifices to avoid infection have been worth it

BYU football players gather during the second quarter of their Oct. 2, 2020, game vs. Louisiana Tech at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Coach Kalani Sitake said on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, that his squad is doing a good job slowing the spread of COVID-19 by making sacrifices off the field.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo

Will Watanabe only made two tackles during his career as a BYU football player, but the Timpview High product was popular with his teammates and coaches alike.

Still, none of those teammates and coaches attended Watanabe’s recent wedding, due to fears over spreading COVID-19, BYU safety Zayne Anderson said Monday in a Zoom meeting with reporters who cover the Cougars.

That’s an example of just another sacrifice everyone associated with the football program at BYU is making to ensure the special season they are putting together isn’t wrecked by an opponent that doesn’t even suit up for games.

Lost in No. 12-ranked and unbeaten BYU’s success through five games this season is the fact that players are still battling the coronavirus pandemic every day. The Cougars (5-0) began preparing Monday to host Texas State (1-5) on Saturday in front of the lucky 6,000 fans who will be allowed inside LaVell Edwards Stadium for the first time this season.

Kickoff is at 8:15 p.m. MDT and the game will be televised by ESPN.

“There are social events that other people don’t have to sacrifice (and not go), but we have to sacrifice,” Anderson said. “I just think it carries onto the field, our sacrifices. It makes football a little more important in our lives if we are sacrificing for it.”

Even as positive cases for COVID-19 continue to spike in Utah — 1,168 new cases were reported Monday — and hospitalizations reached a record high of nearly 300, the numbers in BYU’s football program have declined, coach Kalani Sitake said Monday during the same press briefing.

It is a far cry from a month ago when BYU’s scheduled Sept. 19 game at Army had to be postponed, perhaps even canceled, because of a small number of positive tests within the team and the resulting contact tracing numbers that sidelined additional players.

“I can tell you the numbers on our football program are really, really good, and the numbers in our athletic department (are good),” Sitake said. “And from what I see of everything that is going on, the numbers I visually see in the last three weeks are way different than anywhere else I see.”

Friday, hours before BYU rallied past Houston 43-26 in Texas, Utah saw its third-largest daily increase of coronavirus patients and Gov. Gary Herbert called it a “sobering day” for the state. But on Saturday, BYU announced it would allow fans into LES.

“I applaud the sports medicine department, the administration and our football team and staff for being mindful of the spread and trying to minimize it as much as possible,” Sitake said. “I can’t speak for the rest of the state, but I know that BYU football here is taking care of its business and trying to do its best.”

No, the Cougars aren’t saying they are out of the woods nor that the mysterious disease has been conquered like Navy, Troy, Louisiana Tech, UTSA and Houston. But as Anderson noted, the sacrifices they have taken and the protocols they have followed “have really paid off.”

And as Sitake also said Monday, “You can do everything right and still have issues. That’s what happened to us (in September). “But it is a learning process. We are still trying to get better and there is always room for improvement and creative ways to innovate and make sure we do a good job of handling contact tracing, the spread and wearing our masks and physically distancing, all that stuff.”

An example is how BYU handled the case of star defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga last week. Tonga, an All-America candidate and probable NFL draft pick next April, was held out of practices not because he tested positive for COVID-19 (he tested negative multiple times), but because he had at least one of the symptoms we’ve all come to know. Tonga missed the Houston game, and for awhile it looked like his absence was a big reason why the red Cougars took a 20-14 lead at halftime and 334 yards in the first 30 minutes.

“Nowadays, just going into it, any COVID symptom is really treated like COVID, so a guy with a runny nose (is treated as such),” assistant head coach Ed Lamb said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” show Monday morning. “So the challenge the rest of the season is that it is not just COVID anymore that keeps guys out for an extended period of time. It is anything that might look like COVID that we have to treat as possibly COVID.”

Sitake said Tonga will be back practicing this week, as will another player who has been ill, pneumonia-stricken offensive guard Tristen Hoge.

Starting receiver Gunner Romney (hamstring) and starting center James Empey (ankle) both left the UH game with injuries and didn’t return. Sitake said they are “questionable” for the Bobcats Saturday.

The coach did say that offensive linemen Keanu Saleapaga and running back Sione Finau practiced last week and should be making their season debuts this week.

“So we will be in a really good spot right now, starting with practice (Monday),” Sitake said.

Anderson, a starting safety, was in and out of the lineup vs. UH, but said Monday he is “feeling really good” and excited to see the defense back at full strength.

“In the middle of the season, to be healthy is a real blessing,” said the Stansbury Park product who has missed most of the last two seasons with shoulder injuries. “It is different than in the past couple of years, so it feels good.”

It also feels good to be playing football during a pandemic, said fullback Masen Wake, while acknowledging the Cougars can’t let their guard down against the unseen enemy.

“I would say outside of football, we definitely have to take precautions with what we do and what we sacrifice so we can have this season keep going,” Wake said. “It just feels normal now and we adapted. … Once we get on the field, it is just football and it is what a lot of the guys like to do and it has been really fun.”