Justen Smith kicks against USF. (BYU Photo)

‘Just’ for kicks: BYU football heads north for Wagon Wheel showdown against USU

Gavin Fowler knows he has a great job.

The former Cougar defensive back currently serves as a graduate assistant at BYU to supervise the team’s elite kicking specialists, a group that includes prodigious punter Ryan Rehkow and All-American kicker Jake Oldroyd.

“They make my job easy,” Fowler said of the kicking corps. “They’re really talented, they’re really deep, they’re too good. They’re all really coachable, humble and work really hard.”

Although continued back issues have kept Oldroyd sidelined in all but one game this season, another Cougar kicker — redshirt freshman Justen Smith — has stepped up to fill the void.

“As we work with (Jake), we have someone like Justen who we can count on,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We’re hoping to get Jake back as soon as possible, but in the meantime, Justen has done a good job filling in.”

Smith has been perfect on nine extra-point attempts this season, along with a 40-yard field goal in the opener against Arizona to provide a late insurance score. He’s booted six touchbacks on kick-offs and even made a tackle on a return attempt. More than anything else, Fowler credits Smith for being consistently dependable and just “doing his job.”

“A really important quality of a specialist is being low maintenance, and Justen is very low maintenance,” Fowler said. “It doesn’t matter who’s snapping the ball, holding the ball, or how many reps he gets. The conditions don’t matter to him. Justen knows exactly what’s expected of him and he gets it done every time.”

Smith, a longtime competitive soccer player, didn’t pick up kicking until his junior year at Brighton High School. The Sandy native committed to play for BYU after just one prep season and was named First Team All-State by the Deseret News as a senior. Kicking runs in Smith’s genes, with his father Courtney kicking both at Ricks College and BYU as a member of the legendary 1996 Cotton Bowl squad.

“All growing up, (my dad) wanted me to be a kicker, but he didn’t want to force it on me and let me choose for myself,” Smith said. “He was a big influence. I grew up a big BYU fan, and this was always the place I wanted to be.”

While appearing in one contest in 2020 against UTSA — which he described as a “surreal experience” — Smith said having more kicking opportunities this year with fans back in the stands has made living his lifelong dream feel all the more legitimate.

Kicker Justen Smith attempts an extra point against USF on Sept. 25. Smith is a perfect nine for nine on extra-point attempts this season. (BYU Photo)

“This year it really started to kick in that I’m here playing in Provo at LaVell Edwards Stadium,” Smith said. “Once you get on the field and focus on what you need to do, everything around you disappears, the sound drowns out and people aren’t there.”

Although he’s grateful for the chance for more reps, Smith laments Oldroyd’s injury and hopes to support his teammate the best he can. Coaching each other is pivotal for the specialists, with Smith saying that he’s tried to follow Oldroyd’s kicking form and “emulate his game” as he’s followed his feedback.

“I really feel for Jake, he’s one of my best friends so to see him go down and be hurt is hard, but at the same time I know he trusts me and wants me to do this,” Smith said. “I’m excited to be out here and have his back through it all. It’s been really cool to see how Jake has handled being hurt. He’s been by my side the whole time.”

It may be a complicated situation, but Fowler has seen resilience and maturity from Smith in embracing his unexpected responsibilities.

“He’s been so good and steady mentally,” Fowler said. “Obviously he was planning on being the backup to an NFL kicker in Oldroyd, so he doesn’t know how much he’s really going to play, but he goes out there and nothing fazes him. He’s perfect for the culture we want to create within the position group.”

While his last field goal attempt came too low and was blocked by USF — which Fowler called “a fluke” — Smith held himself accountable and immediately owned up to the misfire.

“When he came off, he didn’t blame anybody, but he pointed a finger to himself and promised to adjust and be better,” Fowler said. “He holds himself to a high standard and is never one to deflect blame. He’s been really rock-solid in practice this week so I’m not worried about him at all.”

Oldroyd’s recovery timeline may be unclear, but Smith is prepared to maintain his approach and hold down the fort as long as the team requires. “I’m going to stay ready, stay locked in and help my teammates the best I can. The best thing I can do is make all my kicks and put my team in a good spot on kickoffs.”

“When your specialists are rock solid like our guys are, it can be such a strength to the team because when they go out there the rest of the team knows they’ll execute and the team buys into that trust,” Fowler said. “They’ve earned the respect of their teammates and they’re great teammates in return. They really serve as a glue for the rest of the team.”

Cougars set for first true road test against Utah State

Coming off three straight home games and the neutral-site season opener, No. 13 BYU Football faces it first true road matchup this Friday against rival Utah State.

After growing accustomed to their spacious home confines at LaVell Edwards Stadium, the Cougars will head to a much more intimate — and hostile — environment at 25,000-seat Maverik Stadium in Logan. Aside from the limited audience of 5,000 in last year’s heartbreaker against Coastal Carolina, the Cougars haven’t played in front of such a raucous crowd of opposing fans in nearly two seasons, let alone a rivalry fanbase well known for its hatred of BYU.

“We’re excited just for the challenge to play away to kind of hear the boos,” receiver Neil Pau’u said. “Utah State definitely is hostile. I think we will be more than capable of coming out with the (win) as long as we keep our composure.”

It’s a game the Aggies love to win and the Cougars hate to lose. Prior to the most recent meeting in 2019 — where the Cougars dominated 42-14 — Utah State had taken the “Wagon Wheel” two years in a row and in three of the previous five showdowns. The Aggies ended BYU’s undefeated hopes in 2014, exposed their lack of offensive competence in 2017 and embarrassed the Cougars in Provo in a 2018 blowout. Throw in two season-ending injuries for quarterback Taysom Hill at the hands of the Aggies, and it’s even more clear how intense the rivalry has become.

“I’ve been really impressed with how they utilize their strengths,” Sitake said. “They have some athletic, explosive athletes. They’ve been able to gain many yards and have explosive plays against difficult teams.”

Utah State enters Friday 3-1 and fresh off a 27-3 beatdown from Boise State, where the Aggies racked up more than 400 yards of offense with nothing to show for it. The Cougars finally had the offensive explosion they were looking for against USF, but their worn-down defense was pushed around all night, raising concerns going into Logan.

“I feel like one of the biggest things we learned (against USF) is we just can’t take our foot off the gas,” defensive lineman Gabe Summers said. “I don’t want to say we let up a little bit but we definitely can maintain that intensity. We have got to match that intensity and come out with that fire.”

With valuable defenders Tyler Batty and Isaiah Herron likely to return to the field after being sidelined against USF, Sitake feels more confident in what to expect from the defense moving forward, saying that the previous mistakes are “very fixable.”

“They just need to be a little more disciplined in their assignments,” Sitake said. “We can always improve our technique and focus on the fundamentals of the game.”

The Cougars should have an interesting decision to make at quarterback, with the status of starter Jaren Hall still unclear following an injury against Arizona State and backup Baylor Romney stepping in for a near-perfect, 300-yard showing against USF. Hall’s injury history — which includes a concussion against the Aggies in 2019 — is troubling when considering the game’s anticipated physical intensity. Romney had the offense firing on all cylinders a week ago, so getting the starting nod to keep the momentum could be the logical choice given the unique circumstances and hoping to keep Hall intact for the long run.

Unable to give a definite answer earlier in the week, Sitake said the coaches would make their choice at quarterback closer to game time.“We’ll go with the guy who will give us the best opportunity to win.”

Receiver Gunner Romney — Baylor’s brother — isn’t letting the uncertainty under center affect his mentality going forward following a dominant two weeks with over 200 yards receiving and two touchdowns. “Whoever is going to be the starter is going to be my quarterback and I will be catching balls from him. I try not to stress about it.”

The Aggie defense has surrendered an average of nearly 200 rushing yards per game on the season, giving Cougar running backs Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa a chance to log more carries and help grind the time of possession. BYU’s offensive line will lead the charge in the trenches as they have all season, as the remarkably effective group has given up just three sacks and kept penalties to a minimum, posing a dangerous threat to a Utah State defense that struggles against the run and can’t get to opposing quarterbacks.

“They’ve been the reason why we’ve won,” Pau’u said of the offensive line. “You saw in Arizona State and Utah we couldn’t get in the passing game, so we were able to run the ball, find certain lanes, and Tyler was able to hit, and that’s all created because of them.”

Listed as nine-point favorites, there will be plenty of noise ahead to get the job done, but the Cougars seem up to the challenge.

“I can’t wait for the boos and chants to come. I think it adds to the game,” Summer said.

BYU and Utah State kick off at 7 p.m. on Friday in Logan. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

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