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‘What a moment’: Plenty at stake for BYU, head coach Kalani Sitake, in season opener at Navy

Cougars and Midshipmen haven’t met since 1989, but there are plenty of connections between the programs that tangle in a hastily arranged Labor Day showdown on ESPN

SHARE ‘What a moment’: Plenty at stake for BYU, head coach Kalani Sitake, in season opener at Navy

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

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Four nights after they were supposed to play at rival Utah some 50 miles to the north of their campus in Provo, the BYU Cougars find themselves more than 2,000 miles to the east for their much-anticipated opener to the season that almost wasn’t.

At first glance, the stakes for a matchup with the U.S. Naval Academy on Monday (6 p.m. MDT, ESPN) don’t appear to be nearly as high, seeing as how the Cougars and Midshipmen don’t have much of a history. A lot of connections, yes, mainly because Navy’s head coach — Ken Niumatalolo — is one of the most prominent members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the East Coast, but little history. 

There’s no animosity here, like that which exists between BYU and Utah, or Navy and Army — the other service academy the Cougars will meet on Sept. 19 up north in West Point, New York. These teams are only playing for the third time, and haven’t met since a Ty Detmer-led 31-10 BYU victory in 1989 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, a rather bland edifice in Maryland’s capital city that seats 34,000 but won’t have any fans, or the boisterous Brigade of Midshipmen, in attendance due to fears over spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus.

There will be plenty of eyeballs on the game, however, coming as it does at the end of Labor Day weekend and on the last Monday night before the usual Monday Night Football takes over, the NFL’s version.

That’s what makes the stakes unusually high for a football independent such as BYU. This is the national attention the school craved when it left the Mountain West Conference to go it alone in 2011, and it arrives a few months after it appeared BYU would be on the outside looking in when the rivalry game was canceled because the Pac-12 to which Utah belongs decided, temporarily, it was only going to play league contests.

“We are just excited to play the game,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “I haven’t really thought about all that other stuff. I know it is getting a lot of attention. … We just want to get things back to normal.”

For Sitake, there’s not only the matter of beating one of his coaching idols and a fellow former resident of Hawaii — he and Niumatalolo are both from the tiny town of Laie on Oahu’s North Shore — but perhaps showing his employer it made the right choice back in 2015 when Bronco Mendenhall bolted for Virginia. Before Sitake got the BYU job, it was offered to Niumatalolo — with stipulations — but the longtime Navy coach turned it down.

He has continued to win at Navy with his triple-option offense that BYU brass wasn’t eager to see instituted in Provo, while Sitake is a middling 27-25 entering his fifth season. Sitake is fond of saying games are won by players, but this one, as hastily arranged as it was, has to be at least a little bit personal for him.

Other ties between the programs: Niumatalolo’s son, Va’a, who played linebacker for Sitake and graduated from BYU, is on Navy’s coaching staff, as is former BYU running backs coach Joe DuPaix (slotbacks coach). Linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa played in 13 games for Navy in 2018 before transferring to BYU last year.

Also, Sitake (Tongan) and Niumatalolo (Samoan) are the only two head coaches of Polynesian descent in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“What a moment for those guys, and the Polynesian community and for the community of the North Shore of Hawaii, too,” said BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb.

The Cougars are a slight favorite, despite the loss of their best player, tight end Matt Bushman, to a season-ending injury last Monday. That’s a bit odd to some, because BYU is on a two-game losing skid dating back to 2019, and then-No. 23 Navy upset Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl and finished 11-2. And Navy’s at home, fans or no fans, while the Cougars flew in Sunday and pushed their usual day-before-the-game walkthroughs and meetings to Monday morning because they don’t even meet together on Sundays to talk about football, let alone practice, for religious reasons.

Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson, who is 8-8 as a starter entering his junior season, said BYU will have to generate its own energy. 

“The stadium is going to be empty,” Wilson said. “It is probably going to feel like a scrimmage. That is really the time you just dial in and don’t worry about that other stuff. You just execute. I think that’s the biggest thing you gotta focus on.”

BYU revealed via Twitter Saturday it will wear its all-white jerseys with royal blue trim.

What’s not known is how the Cougars and Wilson, both wildly inconsistent last year, will fare against a well-coached program built on discipline and toughness. Navy’s offensive prowess running the triple-option is well-known; BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said just as impressive is the Mids’ aggressive defense, “not the traditional defense you usually see out of a service academy team.”

Sitake said Navy “should be ranked,” based on last year’s performance and coaching continuity. What it doesn’t have is an established quarterback. All-everything QB Malcolm Perry, who made the initial 53-man roster of the Miami Dolphins on Saturday, leaves a void that Navy hopes to fill with senior Dalen Morris. The former fourth-stringer will be making his first college start.

“We know exactly what Navy brings to the table,” Sitake said. “They are a dangerous team. I keep reminding everyone that they finished ranked last year and won a lot of games and are an efficient team. They control the ball really well and make a lot of big-time plays.”

Yes, ball control is a Navy calling card, much like rival and run-oriented Army displayed Saturday in a 42-0 blasting of Middle Tennessee State. Wilson and company can’t do their thing if they are watching three-fourths of the game from the sidelines.

“They do a great job of getting their players to play to their strengths,” Sitake said. “We will have to play to ours to compete against a really quality team that is in my mind a ranked team. … We are looking to go into their house and try to disrupt them.”

Lack of animosity or not.