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BYU’s big moment: How the Cougars went from a shrinking schedule to the national TV spotlight

BYU football players kept the faith, trusted athletic director Tom Holmoe, and he delivered an eight-game schedule (so far) that begins Monday night at the U.S. Naval Academy on ESPN

SHARE BYU’s big moment: How the Cougars went from a shrinking schedule to the national TV spotlight

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson prepares to take a snap during fall camp in Provo on Aug. 27, 2020.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

PROVO — July 10 is the day the debate really heated up in a certain house near BYU’s campus, a house lived in by BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and receivers Brayden Cosper and Dax Milne, among others.

Following what the Big Ten did the day before, the Pac-12 announced that sweltering second Friday in July that it, too, would play conference games only in 2020, thereby adding rival Utah, Arizona State and Stanford to the list of teams dropping off BYU’s schedule that also included the Big Ten’s Minnesota and Michigan State.

Five games gone — arguably BYU’s best five games — in a 24-hour period.

“I remember during quarantine, we would always go back and forth, like kinda debating whether or not we were going to have a season,” Milne said. “Sometimes it actually looked like we weren’t, and a lot of us were pretty bummed, especially Zach.”

A sense of despair swept through the athletic training facilities — BYU players were allowed to begin working out on campus on June 1 — and players began to wonder if all the hard work they were putting in was “even worth it,” Wilson would say later.

Fast forward to Monday night, the conclusion of Labor Day weekend, when a sports world hungry for college football tunes in on ESPN. 

“I remember during quarantine, we would always go back and forth, like kinda debating whether or not we were going to have a season. Sometimes it actually looked like we weren’t, and a lot of us were pretty bummed, especially Zach (Wilson).” — BYU receiver Dax Milne

Independent BYU, which was supposedly going to be harmed the most by conferences going to league game-only scenarios, gets its big moment on the national stage. Talk about a fourth-quarter rally.

The Cougars and Navy will clash at empty Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, in the first big game of the condensed 2020 season. The third-meeting between BYU and the Midshipmen, hastily arranged overnight in early August, is expected to be one of the most-viewed regular-season college football games ever.

“We are super fortunate, super blessed to be able to play,” said BYU running back Lopini Katoa. “It is almost surreal because of all the uncertainty leading up to it.”

Said Milne: “We are all super happy that we are able to show out for the west side of the country.”

So how did BYU get here? 

Before they struck the pay dirt of national relevancy — at least for one night — the Cougars went through what most have described as a roller coaster of emotions.

They said they clung to hope because every indication they were getting from their coaches was that BYU administrators were determined to try and play in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, even while every other program in the state of Utah, and then the West, pushed their seasons to the spring. They were told athletic director Tom Holmoe was furiously working on multiple plans to restore the games the Cougars lost.

Rumors of a potential BYU vs. Alabama matchup in September, perhaps the opener, had gained steam in mid-July. The Deseret News confirmed those talks were serious.

But on July 30, more heartbreak came for Cougar fans. The Southeastern Conference announced a 10-game, conference-only schedule, stripping another Power Five opponent from BYU’s slate — Missouri — and killing BYU’s dreams of a Cougars-Crimson Tide kickoff to the season.

No Power Five opponents remained.

“It took a lot of mental and emotional strength to just put our heads down and continue to grind,” senior safety Troy Warner said. “Those were crazy times.”

The Cougars opened fall camp Aug. 3 without an opponent on their schedule until Oct. 2, when Utah State was expected to visit. Some players wondered aloud about the need to practice for a game two months away.

BYU Cougars football coach Kalani Sitake talks with his players after a football practice in 2020.

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake addresses his team during practice Aug. 27, 2020, in Provo.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

“With all the uncertainty and things that are happening, our only goal is to try to be ready for whatever happens,” head coach Kalani Sitake said on Aug. 4. “My job is to get the team ready, not to do schedules. That’s Tom’s job, and I trust him on it.”

Two days later, Holmoe delivered. Navy became, at the time, the seventh opponent on the schedule. The contest was arranged hours after the Midshipmen learned they wouldn’t be hosting Notre Dame on Labor Day weekend because of ACC scheduling restraints put on the Irish.

“I brought up BYU (as a replacement for Notre Dame) because I felt like they fit everything that we were looking for, and then Chet (Gladchuk) went to work,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose son Va’a played for and graduated from BYU. “Lo and behold, I got a text a couple hours later saying, ‘It is on.’”

For BYU, it gave the Cougars an opening-weekend game, and a worthy opponent to prepare for during those dog days of August.

“I think the guys are breathing a sigh of relief,” Sitake said of the matchup. “It’s a cool opportunity for us to play Navy.”

But the anxiety wasn’t over.

The picture clouded again for the Cougars on Aug. 8, when the Mid-American Conference became the first FBS league to cancel its fall season. BYU’s late-October game at the MAC’s Northern Illinois was out the window.

Two days later, the Mountain West Conference said its teams would postpone their seasons to the spring. More rivals were off the Cougars’ schedule: Utah State, Boise State and San Diego State.

For BYU, only two opponents remained from its original “dream” schedule before the pandemic hit: Houston (Oct. 16) and North Alabama (Nov. 21), an FCS program whose conference canceled league games but allowed members to play up to four nonconference games this fall.

BYU’s offensive line should be solid again in 2021, new OL coach Darrell Funk said on May 28, 2021.

BYU interior linemen await the snap during practice session Aug. 27, 2020, during fall camp in Provo.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

Friday, BYU and Houston announced their game, originally scheduled to be played at LaVell Edwards Stadium, will be played at Houston’s TDECU Stadium due to the red-clad Cougars’ travel concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holmoe kept plugging away. 

On Aug. 13, BYU added a Sept. 26 game with Troy of the Sun Belt Conference, pushing the tally to four and giving the Cougars a home opener.

“It has definitely been a roller coaster, but it has been the same goal the whole time — to take things day by day and just keep expecting and hoping to play someone,” said senior safety Zayne Anderson.

Fellow independent Army, which also desperately needed games, was added on Aug. 19. The Cougars and Black Knights will meet for the first time ever on Sept. 19 at Michie Stadium in West Point, New York, a serendipitous find for Holmoe because Army runs a triple-option offense similar to Navy’s.

In subsequent days, Western Kentucky, North Texas and the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) were added to give the Cougars eight games. Holmoe has said he isn’t finished looking for games, and hasn’t ruled out additions after the season starts Monday.

“Could add games as season progresses,” Holmoe tweeted. “Some of the conferences have left dates open at the end of the season in order for the possibility of makeup games from those postponed.”

Offensive lineman Clark Barrington said maintaining a sense of optimism, even while the future looked bleak, was the key.

“For sure, it has been crazy,” he said. “There have been lots of emotions along the way. But our staff, our coaches, our players have done a really good job to have a positive outlook on things, and just look to this future season and have ingrained in our minds that we knew it was going to happen. And when it did happen we knew we would be prepared to play and do the best we could.”

On a night when the national spotlight might never shine brighter on BYU.