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‘Appreciation and gratitude’: No. 9 BYU thrilled to put lofty ranking, undefeated season on the line at No. 21 Boise State

Cougars coach Kalani Sitake expresses thanks to the Broncos and the Mountain West Conference for allowing the epic showdown to happen.

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake, right, hugs Boise State Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin following NCAA football in Boise on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake, right, hugs Boise State Broncos coach Bryan Harsin following a game in Boise on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. The Cougars dropped a nail-biter to the Broncos. The two teams will knock heads again on the blue turf Friday night.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

BYU’s football team and coaches could be forgiven for never wanting to play Boise State on the blue turf ever again, seeing as how the Cougars have never won at Albertsons Stadium when facing the perennially strong Broncos.

That’s especially true because three of those five losses were by a point each, and a fourth loss came two years ago when then-freshman quarterback Zach Wilson was stopped inside the 5-yard-line in the final seconds and BYU lost, 21-16.

“That’s still painful to think about,” junior receiver Dax Milne said Monday.

But here are the 7-0 and No. 9-ranked Cougars, undefeated and genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to play the team they consider No. 3 on their list of rivals, behind instate schools Utah and Utah State. Kickoff is Friday at 7:45 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by Fox Sports 1.

This is a matchup that was originally on BYU’s most difficult schedules in years, but dropped when the Mountain West Conference, to which Boise State belongs, briefly decided to not have a season this year. It was put back on the slate Oct. 1 when the Cougars were 2-0 and moving up the national rankings, but was worried about adding some credibility to their revamped, drastically weakened schedule.

“Yeah, it is really nice,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Monday in a Zoom meeting with nearly two dozen reporters. “From our team and our coaches and our fanbase, we want to express appreciation and gratitude to Boise State and to the Mountain West Conference for allowing this game to happen.”

The Mountain West’s Air Force, which drubbed Navy 40-7 on Oct. 3 and will play Army this Saturday, and San Diego State, which travels to BYU on Dec. 12, are also playing nonconference games in 2020 before the bowl season hits.

“There is always good stuff when you play Boise,” said BYU senior safety Troy Warner. “They are one of my favorite teams to play. We’re happy. It is going to be a fun one.”

Sitake said there is a “lot of respect between the two programs and the fanbases” and called the Broncos a rival several times in his 22-minute discussion Monday. He said one of BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe’s top priorities when he went searching for opponents was to get the Broncos back on the schedule, if possible.

“So it was nice to have Boise step up and make this game happen and to do it with their conference blessing,” Sitake said. “More than anything, just a lot of gratitude and appreciation that we have this opportunity to play this game. We are going to have a lot of fun with it and see what happens.”

After Friday’s game, the 11th meeting between the geographic rivals 381 miles apart, the only game on the Cougars’ schedule before the Aztecs visit is Nov. 21 against North Alabama, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team.

So this is a game the Cougars desperately needed, and it comes at a perfect time — although it will surely be cold, windy and perhaps even rainy Friday night in Boise, Idaho, and no fans will be allowed inside the stadium due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That No. 21 Boise State is ranked and a rival “certainly adds a new element to this game,” Milne said. “I have been part of Boise State games in the past. It is a fun atmosphere. I know there won’t be any fans in the stands, but still that energy will be there because I think everyone on that field will know just the kind of vibe and the rivalry we have had in the past.”

The Cougars are fairly healthy, the Broncos (2-0) not as much. The Cougars will wear their all-white jerseys, with royal blue trim.

Sitake said senior safety Zayne Anderson, who limped off the field with a bum ankle after the second-half kickoff against Western Kentucky, will be a game-time decision.

“It is a matter of if he has enough practice time this week and if he can perform,” Sitake said. “We are going to trust the training room to get him ready and a decision will be made on the field up in Boise.”

Other starters, such as cornerback Chris Wilcox, linebackers Keenan Pili and Kavika Fonua, and receiver Gunner Romney are probable after missing games and chunks of recent games due to illness or injury, assistants Jeff Grimes and Ed Lamb said on their respective “Coordinators’ Corner” programs Monday.

This will be offensive lineman James Empey’s third matchup with Boise State.

“There is no question that they are going to be ready to go on Friday and we are so excited to play them, man. Every year it is a great game. It is one of those challenges that everybody wants to rise to and play to, and credit to them for being such a great organization and a tough, hard-nosed team.”

Boise State leads the series 7-3, but the Cougars beat the Broncos 28-25 last year with a third-string quarterback, Baylor Romney. The schools are contracted to play through the 2023 season, take 2024 off, and then start another 10-year deal in 2025.

“They are a difficult opponent, and we respect them a lot,” Sitake said. “Part of that respect is making sure we are ready to give them our best shot because we know we are going to get theirs.”