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As wins pile up, so does No. 15-ranked BYU’s fear of another COVID-19 outbreak

Coach Kalani Sitake says the Cougars have improved their efforts the past few weeks after postponement of the Army game in mid-September because a small number of players tested positive

BYU running back Tyler Allgeier runs up the sideline in front of mask-wearing coaches during game vs. Louisiana Tech Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, in Provo. Allgeier admits there is a newfound effort to avoid COVID-19 now that the Cougars are in the midst of a special season.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

PROVO — Coronavirus-stricken President Donald Trump may have tweeted “Don’t be afraid of COVID” on Monday as he was in the process of being released from the hospital, but BYU football players said a few hours later they continue to be mindful that the contagion could wreck at any time the special season they are putting together.

The No. 15 Cougars (3-0) have mostly been diligent in avoiding the virus since last summer when they began meeting in small groups on June 1, but got their wakeup call a few days after their 55-3 win over Navy when their Sept. 19 game against Army was postponed, and possibly canceled, because a handful of players tested positive, star running back Tyler Allgeier said in a Zoom video conference with reporters.

“Oh, for sure,” Allgeier said, when asked if there’s a newfound effort to avoid the disease because the Cougars are on the verge of something special. “I would say yeah, because some (players) kinda laid off, I guess. … And it was just like, ‘Dang, a game could really be canceled, so let’s just tighten up more.’ I would say we were good, but now we have to be great at social distancing and great at everything else COVID-wise.”

The Cougars, who are No. 1 in the country in total defense (214.3 yards allowed) and total offense (585.7 yards per game), have improved their efforts the past two weeks, coach Kalani Sitake said, but stopped short of attributing the increased cautiousness to the winning streak.

“Maybe it keeps them a little bit more focused, and I am OK with that,” Sitake said. “There are a lot of factors and variables that go into the success we are seeing as a team, and one of them could be that.”

A few days after BYU’s game at Army was taken off the board, Sitake acknowledged on Sept. 14 that a “small number of players” tested positive and a bunch more were caught in the “contact tracing” protocols that meant they couldn’t safely make the trip to West Point, New York. Since then, he said, BYU’s positive tests have diminished.

“I would have to say, without getting into specifics, the last two weeks we have had great results in our testing, and the lowest numbers we have ever seen,” Sitake said. “If we keep trending that way, I think that will help us out, not only keep our guys on the field, but trying to minimize the spread. On this football team and even the support staff, we have seen the numbers really trend our way. Specifically, the last two weeks have been really favorable for us. They are better than the weeks before that.”

Because of the high number of positive tests in Utah County in mid-September, no fans were allowed in LaVell Edwards Stadium to watch the Cougars pummel Troy 48-7 and Louisiana Tech 45-14 last Friday.

As of 4 p.m. Monday, it had not been announced whether any fans will be able to watch Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. home game against Texas-San Antonio (3-1) in Provo, which was still at the moderate risk (orange) level for COVID-19.

“I would like to see our fans there,” Sitake said. “I think it would be fun to have the players’ families and fans represent. You have seen it a lot in different areas. But our guys are used to (no fans). If not, we will have to keep doing what we have been doing. We have had three games without fans. We will just have to keep the passion and the excitement going.”

The coach said everyone in the program is mainly focused on UTSA, which he called a dangerous team that could easily be undefeated. The Roadrunners fell 21-13 at Alabama-Birmingham last week, but were without starting quarterback Frank Harris, who is expected to be back this week.

The Cougars will wear their traditional home jersey combination: navy blue tops and white pants, they announced Monday.

They are also focused on staying safe and COVID-free, linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi said.

“Guys know how special of a team we are, and they have bought into that as well,” Kaufusi said. “We have got a good team. We have a special thing going. The mentality is don’t ruin it for others, don’t ruin it for yourself. Let’s just keep this thing going.”

Kaufusi, a senior and one of eight team captains, acknowledged he received a positive test the Monday before the Troy game, but subsequent tests came back negative and he was able to play against the Trojans. He made four tackles in that game and six in the La Tech game and is a valuable member of a BYU defense that has been suffocating through three games.

“Out of precaution they held me out, and then through our procedures I was able to be cleared again. I think that’s the most I will talk about that,” Kaufusi said, citing “the restrictions we have as a team and the (need) for confidentiality.”

Allgeier, who leads the Cougars with 275 rushing yards and three touchdowns, said as the season has rolled on the Cougars have taken their “precautions” game up a notch, in addition to their on-field performance.

“We really bought into that in the summer when it was like, ‘Hey, we might not have a season, but if we want to have a season we need to tighten up on social distancing and do all of that,’” he said. “I will say we got bought in during the summer and that really trained us to be as good as we are today.”

After one little hiccup in September.