The BYU football team’s season opener is here after an uncharacteristically eventful offseason.
On Sept. 3, the Cougars will travel to Glendale to participate in the Cactus Kickoff against Arizona. It’s a date BYU fans have had circled on their calendars for months, and now football is only days way.
But how do the Cougars and Wildcats stack up?
The Wildcats are coached by Rich Rodriguez (33-20 at Arizona). They went 7-6 last season, including a 3-6 mark in the Pac-12 and a 1-2 record against ranked opponents. The team averaged 34.1 points per game – buoyed by a 77 point explosion against FCS Northern Arizona – but allowed 37.7 points per game. Arizona also lost its best defensive player, linebacker Scooby Wright, who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns.
Junior quarterback Anu Solomon will likely be running Arizona’s up-tempo shotgun offense again this season. Solomon has started for the Wildcats each of the last two seasons, throwing 6,460 yards with 48 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. He also rushed for 489 yards. He’s certainly not a huge threat with his legs, but he’s mobile and can extend plays – a quality the Cougars have struggled to deal with in the past.
Joining Solomon in the backfield is junior running back Nick Wilson. Wilson was a massive impact player for Arizona as a freshman, rushing for 1,375 yards, but he was hampered by injuries last season and only made an impact in the Wildcats’ first six games. He missed four of the team’s final seven games and received just six carries apiece in the other three.
Defensively, the Wildcats will have a new face at the helm.
Marcel Yates was hired to replace Jeff Casteel in the offseason. Yates is a coach familiar with BYU, spending 2003-11 with Boise State as an assistant coach and the last two seasons as BSU’s defensive coordinator. Yates runs a 4-2-5 defense and coached 2016 second-round NFL draft selection Kamalei Correa while at BSU. His Broncos allowed just 21.9 points per game last season – good for the No. 24 spot in the nation.
Yates will aim to carry that success over to University of Phoenix Stadium on Sept. 3, but he’ll be up against a new-look BYU offense.
For the first time since 2005, the Cougars will be opening a season without Bronco Mendenhall.
Instead first-year head coach Kalani Sitake and his new coaching schematics lead the team. Defensively the Cougars will shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and offensively will change things up from an up-tempo to a pro-style offense.
With the schematic changes the new coaching staff needed to make changes among players on the roster, not the least of which being the offensive line.
With a renewed emphasis on huddling between plays, offensive line coach Mike Empey said he wanted his linemen to get bigger and stronger. In Robert Anae’s offense the linemen were thinner and had better conditioning. Empey hopes to slow the game down for linemen, so they can focus on giving maximum effort for one play before taking a break in the huddle.
But the changes are not just physical up front. Empey is also working on changing his players’ mindsets.
“We need to be tough. We need to be tougher than we are,” Empey said at Media Day. “We got to have more of an edge. To do what we need to do and to play the schedule we have, we need to constantly be trying to be more aggressive, have more of a tough guy mentality and be nastier.”
Those linemen that Empey hopes will get “nastier” will be blocking for the returning Taysom Hill – who was announced as the starter on Aug. 23 – and Jamaal Williams. While most of the buzz surrounds Hill’s return, running backs coach Reno Mahe said that the Cougars will rely heavily on the ground attack in 2016.
“(Running the ball) is one of the identities we want to establish,” Mahe said at Media Day. “We’re going to work hard on controlling the line of scrimmage and being able to run the ball.”
Mahe described Williams as the “workhorse” in the backfield, adding that he believes Williams “has the potential to be a big-time player at the next level.” But Williams won’t have to carry the running game alone, as the Cougars will feature a stable of backs in Trey Dye, Squally Canada and Riley Burt.
BYU has made a defensive shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3 man coverage scheme. The change prompted a number of position changes throughout spring ball, perhaps most notably being Harvey Langi practicing with the defensive ends and Francis Bernard making the shift from running back to linebacker.
But despite the learning curve, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said his unit will be ready.
“I think it just comes down to having players who want that opportunity,” Tuiaki said. “When our number is called, I think we’ve got players that are confident, that are tough and that want that opportunity to win the game and put the game in their hands.”
No depth chart has been officially released by the coaching staff, but Sitake has been adamant from his first day on the job that the best 11 players will see the field.
Home or Away?
The game should have been a home contest for Arizona. University of Phoenix Stadium is just a two-hour drive from Arizona Stadium (compared to a nearly nine-hour drive from LaVell Edwards Stadium), but Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said BYU fans have out-bought Arizona fans.
“Ticket sales for Arizona’s side of University of Phoenix Stadium are on the rise, but we still have some ground to make up on our BYU counterparts,” Bryne said in his weekly Wildcat Wednesday newsletter. “It’s time for Arizona fans to rally. This game is extremely important for the growth of our football program.”
The Cactus Kickoff’s opening kick will be at 7:30 p.m. MST on Sept. 3. The game will be aired on FoxSports 1.