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Why, for many reasons, Troy game looms so large for Kalani Sitake, Cougars

After a canceled game with Army and extra time off, BYU really needs to show consistency when it hosts Troy on Saturday in its home opener

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A masked-up Kalani Sitake looks on during fall camp in Provo. The Cougars will take on Troy in their home opener Saturday night, with Sitake looking for a consistent outing from his team.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

PROVO — This week isn’t as easy as one would expect for BYU head coach Kalani Sitake.

His No. 18-ranked Cougars are favored by two touchdowns over Troy on Saturday, a team that beat Middle Tennessee 47-14 in a game Sitake says “wasn’t even that close.”

It’s not that Sitake’s confidence has wavered after running Navy out of its own shipyard in the season opener. It’s not that he’s now got a veteran quarterback and experienced team behind him.

It’s the fact this is a season like none other.

It’s that this COVID-19 challenge forced him to cancel a game and endure a three-week hiatus. He had to blow up practices into small segments. He’s had to help some players actually seek other apartments to move into, even if they had leases and contracts. He must put players in hotel rooms on the road without a roommate. He has had to maneuver through a contact tracing protocol that impacts his players although some may not have even tested positive. And those tracing rules could change next week or the next.

And it’s also about recognizing the elephant in the room: consistency.

Has BYU moved past a trend of beating the likes of USC, Tennessee and Boise State, only to lose to Toledo and Hawaii? Sitake really, really needs to not have any kind of letdown this week after one of the strangest spring, summer and September football experiences in his lifetime and school history.

Sitake says the early indication is, his guys will be consistent.

He watched his players make the most of a season opener that Pac-12, Big Ten and Mountain West teams are still waiting to experience.

“Guys have got to play,” said Sitake on Monday.

“You know, there’s still a deep level of appreciation for this game coming this weekend. So I think there’s a lot of excitement. Still, the momentum is that the guys are just willing to get out there and want to play. These guys are excited to practice today.

“I’ve seen the gratitude of these young men in the way they carry themselves every day, and I don’t see it changing at all throughout the whole year. I mean, these guys consistently  appreciate everything. They don’t take things for granted and that’s part of being honest and loving, including in practice.”

“I’ve seen the gratitude of these young men in the way they carry themselves every day, and I don’t see it changing at all throughout the whole year. I mean, these guys consistently appreciate everything. They don’t take things for granted and that’s part of being honest and loving, including in practice.” — Kalani Sitake

Sitake said he is relying on experienced, veteran players who know what it is like to take a week or two off and then return to work, and work hard.

He says he believes in his team’s leadership, players who are pushing and encouraging the team behind the scenes when coaches are not present.

In that regard, maybe this team, with this schedule, is indeed capable of slaying some ghosts in 2020. And it begins with Troy in the home opener.

There’s a challenge in almost starting over for Troy after taking a week off from team practices and Sitake said it will be hardest for the youngest. But he’s got veterans and depth — although he never envisioned his depth would be tested by a virus and the threat of quarantines.

He claims his veterans are ready.

“They’re kind of used to being on the field and I think more than anything they want to get to play every week. The guys aren’t gonna play every week. But I lean heavily on the leadership of this team and the experience that we have in so many different positions. 

“Those guys who are leading position groups are leading this team. So I feel like we’re in a good spot. I mean, obviously, we’d love to keep playing every week and that’s the plan from here on out. We just had a little hiccup last week. 

“I think the guys are champing at the bit. They’re ready to get back on the field and with it being the home opener they’re really excited to play in front of the fans.”

But, Troy is capable of ruining it.  

Troy, said Sitake, is a fast, athletic, disciplined, well-coached, assignment-sound team with speed.

Troy is a school set in the heart of SEC country where the storied programs of Alabama and Auburn roam. It’s Deep South football in a religion-type territory.

It’s a program that went into Lincoln and beat Nebraska in 2018 and the year before pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Division I history, a 24-21 win over LSU in Baton Rouge. That was the year before LSU won the 2019 national championship.

Button up, it’s a long-awaited home opener in Provo.