Jaren Hall throws a pass against Boise State. (Addie Blacker)

BYU football looks to bounce back against Baylor in future Big 12 preview

It’s funny how much can change in a week.

Just seven days ago, BYU football seemingly sat at nirvana. The team was 5-0, ranked in the top 10 and anticipated the return of starting quarterback Jaren Hall after a two-week injury absence.

A demanding stretch of Boise State, Baylor, Washington State and Virginia was on the horizon, and while everyone knew it would be an extended test for the Cougars, there was plenty of confidence in Kalani Sitake’s crew. Fans shrugged off the cold and rain to pack LaVell’s house for the second sellout of the season against Boise State, with students already lined up around the stadium before 6 a.m. The experts on ESPN’s College Football Gameday even unanimously picked the Cougars to trounce the Broncos in their pregame predictions last Saturday.

Then, the Cougars actually played Boise State. And they lost.

A top 10 team that had yet to be defeated was taken down by an unranked rival at home. Everything the Cougars had done up to that point in the season to put themselves in the national spotlight — avoiding turnovers, red zone efficiency and overall discipline — were nowhere to be found. Boise State came well-prepared and executed its game plan, but in reality, BYU really just gave the game away by its own mistakes.

While still ranked No. 19, the hype around the Cougars has fizzled out a bit. The scrappy unit that always found a way to win proved vulnerable at the worst possible time. For Sitake and company, whose mantra for the program is “love and learn,” the time to really sit down and learn has arrived.

“If we don’t learn from it, it’s going to be even worse,” Sitake said. “Last week was disappointing, but we will learn from it. It’s humbling and a good opportunity to focus even more.”

Despite the loss, the Cougars still stand at 5-1 at the midseason mark. They’ve been better than most had expected beforehand, but it’s become clear there is still plenty to be tightened up and improved upon in the back half of the schedule.

“What better time to learn than after a loss?” center James Empey said. “You only get so many chances to play football. You work all year round for just a few weeks during the fall, and you just can’t let any of them slip by.”

Next up for the Cougars is a road trip down south to face Baylor, another 5-1 squad widely considered one of the most underrated teams in the country and quite possibly BYU’s toughest opponent all season.

I think if we use this game as a wake-up call, bring everything back into perspective and start doing what we know we can do, we can finish out a great season,” receiver Gunner Romney said.

The Cougars will reunite with former offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes andoffensive line coach Eric Mateos, who left Provo this past season to fill the same positions at Baylor. The pair has had tremendous success in Waco thus far, and with plenty of background knowledge of BYU’s roster and tendencies in their arsenal, Saturday should present quite the series of coaching chess matches.

“They’ve had an impact on their team and program, just like they did here,” Sitake said of Grimes and Mateos. “They know our personnel, they know our team, and that’s college football. That happens.”

The Bears present quite a handful for the Cougars, with quarterback Gerry Bohanon having yet to throw an interception this season with a stellar 168.4 passer rating. The talented backfield trio of Abram Smith, Trestan Ebner and Taye McWilliams has combined for 1,179 rushing yards on 7.3 yards per carry, and each of their three leading receivers averages more than 17 yards per catch. Even more talented is the Baylor defense, holding opponents to 20 points or fewer four times this season with an eye-popping eight interceptions thus far.

“I think the biggest thing (to combat Baylor) is just playing stout, playing our brand of football, being physical, being tough and just sticking to that,” defensive end Tyler Batty said. “As long as we do that, we’ll be OK looking forward.”

For the Cougars, that brand of football must include consistency on both sides of the ball, with BYU often alternating between domination and hopelessness quarter by quarter.

“We need to put a whole game together,” Empey said. “We need to find ways to overcome adversity and continue to play as a team.”

The trip to Waco — BYU’s first since 1983 — will be the first of many upcoming road battles with Baylor, as the two teams are set to become Big 12 conference foes in 2023. With both coaching staffs familiar with each other and a special season on the line for BYU, Saturday’s showdown with Baylor could very well ignite an upcoming conference rivalry, but Sitake isn’t necessarily worried about trying to make an impression on their new neighbors.

“I just try to make sure our guys are playing fundamentally sound football,” Sitake said. “I think we bring a unique brand of football. We’re gonna have a lot of fun playing and embracing the opportunity to be in there and in front of that fan base.”

The Big 12 may not be their home for a few more years, but Saturday against Baylor is the next step to prove that the Cougars belong in a power conference and can shake off last week’s letdown against Boise State.

I don’t see (Boise State) being a major hiccup for us,” Batty said. “We’ll implement everything we can to make sure that we’re 150% ready to go and make sure we’ve cleaned up the mistakes from the past week.”

The Cougars and Bears kick off at 1:30 p.m. MDT on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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