BYU showing toughness amid rugged early schedule
PROVO, Utah (AP) — Wins over Wisconsin and Arizona have breathed new life into BYU’s football program.
The No. 25 Cougars (2-1) enter a game as a Top 25 team for the first time since September 2015 when they host McNeese State on Saturday. The ranking and early success at one point seemed unlikely for a program that endured one of its worst seasons in a half-century only a year ago.
But things have changed in Provo. Players are working harder, showing more discipline, and playing with greater toughness. They have collectively embraced schemes installed by offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and it has elevated a formerly terrible offense.
Football has become fun again at BYU.
“The culture of the team is completely different and that’s probably the biggest thing for us,” senior defensive end Corbin Kaufusi said.
Playing tough September schedules has become a fact of life since BYU chose to become an FBS independent in 2011. It is a high risk/high reward proposition. Past seasons saw the Cougars get battered facing a slew of Power Five opponents out of the gate and then stagger to the finish line amid mounting injuries.
This time around, they’re on a different trajectory. The Cougars are playing physical, tough football and showing real progress in coach Kalani Sitake’s third season.
Sitake embraces rugged early schedules as a useful measuring stick of where his team can grow and get better.
“You know more about yourself when you play someone that can beat you than when you play someone you should beat,” Sitake said.
Playing McNeese State (3-0) promises to offer another useful test. The Cowboys are a Top 10 FCS team after opening with three straight wins for the fourth time in the last seven seasons.
Their early success can be traced to a knack for forcing turnovers. The Cowboys rank fourth in the FCS with nine forced turnovers and sixth with five fumble recoveries. They are also fifth among FCS teams with 14 sacks.
The Cowboys showed their disruptive potential when they forced a fumble on the opening kickoff against Nicholls State last Saturday. Linebacker B.J. Blunt recovered the ball and McNeese State scored a touchdown 10 seconds later in a 20-10 win.
“We set the tone from the get-go with the kickoff (fumble recovery) and, of course, we scored on the next play,” Cowboys coach Lance Guidry said. “The energy was unbelievable throughout the whole night.”
Other things to note heading into Saturday’s game between BYU and McNeese State:
ALL-AROUND THREAT: Aleva Hifo showcased his versatility in BYU’s 24-21 win over Wisconsin with a 31-yard TD pass, 45 rushing yards and 32 receiving yards. Through three games this season, Hifo is the No. 2 receiver (91 yards, eight catches) and No. 2 rusher (80 yards, 11 carries).
FBS SUCCESS: McNeese State posted wins in two of its last three matchups with FBS opponents. The Cowboys beat Middle Tennessee 27-21 in 2012 and then routed South Florida 53-21 in 2013.
BLUNT FORCE: Senior McNeese State linebacker B.J. Blunt earned Southland Conference defensive player of the week honors after posting nine tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and a fumble recovery against Nicholls State. After three games, he leads the Cowboys with 20 tackles, five sacks and six tackles for loss. Blunt’s five sacks rank him first among FCS players.
THIRD DOWN WOES: Third downs are posing a major problem for BYU on both sides of the ball. Through three games, the Cougars have converted 14 of 38 third downs (.368) while allowing opponents to convert 18 of 43 third downs (.419). BYU ranks 89th among FBS teams in third down conversions and 96th in opponent third down conversions.
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