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BYU has played 8 games, while Utah has yet to see the field due to COVID-19 spread in the program. What’s going on here?

Independent Cougars don’t have to adhere to as strict of protocols as Pac-12 teams do, but coach Kalani Sitake says their positive test numbers are still relatively low.

SHARE BYU has played 8 games, while Utah has yet to see the field due to COVID-19 spread in the program. What’s going on here?

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake looks on during fall camp in Provo.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

Not belonging to a conference has been a mixed bag for the BYU football team since it went independent in 2011 and has drawn favorable and unfavorable reviews inside and outside the state of Utah.

But two aspects of the Cougars going rogue almost 10 years ago is not debatable in this season of the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to having a positive net outcome for BYU.

First, not being governed by a conference has enabled BYU (8-0) to play eight games so far, as many or more than any program in the country not named Texas State (1-9), Western Kentucky (3-6) or UTSA (5-4).

Second, BYU does not have to abide by any coronavirus testing protocols stricter than the NCAA’s. So while Utah, for instance, has had to cancel two games because it was below the Pac-12 threshold of 53 available scholarship student-athletes, BYU is under no such rules, head coach Kalani Sitake acknowledged Monday in a Zoom meeting with reporters.

Along with needing 53 players on scholarship, Pac-12 teams must have at least one healthy quarterback, four healthy defensive linemen, and seven healthy offensive linemen. Similar numbers apply in the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Big Ten.

“We have something that is similar,” Sitake said, but would not divulge exact numbers when pressed by the Deseret News. Instead, the fifth-year coach who is making some early coach of the year candidate lists hinted that BYU’s are much lower.

“We need 11 to play on offense, 11 to play on defense, and 11 to play on special teams. So that’s pretty much it. ... If there is enough to put on the field, we will play.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake on the Cougars having no threshold number of available scholarship players in order to play, like Utah does

“We need 11 to play on offense, 11 to play on defense, and 11 to play on special teams,” Sitake said. “So that’s pretty much it. I am not going to go here and give you all the guys who can play different positions, because we have that, too. If there is enough to put on the field, we will play.”

Idle last week, the No. 8-ranked Cougars on Monday began preparing for Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest (BYUtv, ESPN3) with North Alabama, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team from Florence, Alabama, that is 0-3 and a 47-point underdog in Provo. BYU went seven straight weeks without having a game canceled due to positive cases and resulting high contact tracing numbers, after its Sept. 19 game at Army was canceled or postponed due to the spread of the virus within BYU’s program two days after it got back from a 55-3 pounding of Navy.

Several BYU coaches and players have said seeing that game stricken from the schedule caused them to realize just how easily the virus can spread.

“We are still learning as we go,” Sitake said.

Five scheduled games this week had been canceled as of Monday afternoon, including the Ole Miss at No. 5 Texas A&M game that the Cougars were watching closely because it had College Football Playoff implications. It was the eighth Southeastern Conference game postponed this season. Officials hope to play it Dec. 18 if A&M isn’t in the SEC championship game that day. 

In the Pac-12, the Arizona State at Colorado game was canceled due to ASU’s high number of positive cases, causing some to suggest that the Buffaloes should seek to play BYU if the Cougars could get out of their game with North Alabama.

Sitake quickly shot down that possibility Monday.

Another reason why BYU’s positive numbers might be lower than teams in the Pac-12 is because the Cougars only test three days a week, while most Power Five conferences require daily point-of-care testing. Defensive lineman Zac Dawe confirmed the Cougars are given saliva tests three days a week.

“When we first started back in the summer, we did the nasal swabs, and that wasn’t very fun,” Dawe said. “I am sure a lot of you have had the nasal swab. But we do the saliva test now, so it is pretty less (invasive and) it is also pretty quick. … We all know it is the thing we have to do so we can play. So everyone does it. We don’t have anyone miss. Guys are on it.”

A BYU football spokesperson said Monday in an email that “testing takes place multiple times per week” and the school uses Polymerise Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, which are processed in a local lab with a 30-35 hour turnaround time.

“The biggest thing that has helped the football team is the length of time they’ve been following these protocols,” said Carolyn Billings, BYU’s director of sports medicine. “The players have been together since July where they learned the importance of building these protocols into the team’s culture.”

Billings said BYU had its “challenges and issues” over the summer and at the start of the season, but players learned to be more diligent.

“No team is out of the woods yet with this virus and how it spreads, but because of the length of time we’ve had to build culture surrounding the testing and safety requirements, in addition to having to the wake-up call when we had to postpone the Army game, players have created a good routine, are making good decisions and know what’s on the line,” Billings said.

The protocols and screening process were documented in a Deseret News article in early July.

Positive cases have skyrocketed in Utah the past three weeks, as 1,971 new cases were reported Monday, along with five new deaths. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statewide mask mandate last week, and only the families of coaches and players will be allowed at Saturday’s game.

“We are still keeping up with our testing, and still following the protocol that our sports medicine department leads us with,” Sitake said. “In the meantime, we make the proper adjustments to what our state government and (local) health officials are telling us. These guys in our program and everyone here has done a good job of adapting to whatever happens.”

He said BYU’s positive numbers are low right now, but acknowledged some players have missed games due to the protocols. In September, the father of BYU offensive lineman Tristen Hoge said his son’s case was so severe that it developed into pneumonia and caused him to miss a month of games.

“Right now we are no different than a lot of other places, except for the numbers aren’t as high,” Sitake said. “Our players are being smart and trying to do everything that we can. I am not saying that no one else is smart, it is just that this thing is unpredictable. … Guys are trying to stay away (from people), social distance, wear a mask, all those things.”

The coach said a lot of his players have been cross-trained to play other positions, most notably along the lines. Defensive linemen have trained to play offensive line, and vice versa.

“There is no one team that can say they are going into each game 100% healthy, because of COVID,” Sitake said. “We have had to use our depth. We are no different than everyone else.”

Just a little luckier, perhaps. And a lot more independent.