The BYU football team holds practice at Loyola College Prep in Shreveport, Louisiana. (BYU Photo)

Cougars arrive in Shreveport with plenty on the line for Independence Bowl

It may not be the bowl destination most fans hoped for, but No. 13 BYU football has shown nothing but gratitude for its Independence Bowl bid, arriving in Shreveport, Louisiana this week for the Saturday afternoon contest.

Despite being the program’s originally contracted bowl partnership from prior to the season, BYU’s selection for Shreveport was initially received as one of the more notable surprises of the bowl announcement period in early December. The Cougars compiled a 10-2 record that led some to believe they held a real case for a New Years Six appearance or some sort of upgrade from ESPN, but ultimately no such opportunity arose.

“It’s another chance to get to do what we love,” defensive lineman Tyler Batty said of the bowl. “If you’re playing football, you have to love it a lot. For us, this is another opportunity for us to go out on the field with our teammates, our brothers, go have fun and do what we do.”

For BYU, the greatest opportunity will be to make history. A win over the University of Alabama-Birmingham would give the Cougars consecutive 11-win campaigns for the first time since 2006-07. Additionally, should the chips fall in BYU’s favor, it could possibly result in the first end of season top-10 ranking for the program since 1996.

Saying the Cougars are limping into Shreveport would be an understatement. Kalani Sitake’s squad has been ravaged by injuries all season long, relying heavily on their depth to save the day and preserve the magical campaign — most recently in the regular-season finale at USC — when past rosters would have rolled over and surrendered to such adversity.

“I think it just speaks to the youth on our team and the leadership on our team,” Sitake said. “I’ve been really impressed with our guys being game ready.”

For Saturday, the Cougars knew they’d already be without linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar along with tight end Isaac Rex, but recent efforts to get receiver Neil Pau’u and center James Empey healthy enough to play have fallen short. Safety Jakob Robinson and receiver Samson Nacua are sidelined with injuries, while quarterback Jaren Hall’s health status remains a mystery. Thankfully, the team has avoided any COVID-related issues and looks to lean on their trusted “next man up” mindset that has carried them since fall camp.

“I’ve been impressed by the resiliency and preparation of our team,” Batty said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is to trust the guys next to you. I think that’s something we’ve all learned as a unit, and we’ve built that trust throughout the season.”

Receiver Gunner Romney is expected to return from injury for the bowl in what could likely be his last game in a BYU uniform, telling reporters earlier in the week that he was “leaning one direction” on whether to stay or go. Offensive lineman Harris LaChance and safety Chaz Ah You are also slated to take the field against the Blazers after missing several weeks to injury.

In addition to Romney, running back Tyler Allgeier’s red hot draft stock is expected to pull him out of Provo after this season, and even receiver Puka Nacua shouldn’t be considered a lock to stay given his appealing measurables and film. Amid the sound of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” seemingly ringing through the Cougar locker room, Sitake is unfazed and dialed in for the immediate task ahead.

“I’m not into the narrative outside of what I can control, which is getting the team ready to play,” Sitake said. “We’re looking forward to playing another game.”

The Cougars have set up shop at Loyola College Prep for their practices leading up to Saturday, while also participating in the week’s pregame festivities which included a rout of the Blazers in an axe throwing competition between the two squads.

“We do a lot of skill practice and working on ourselves as players,” offensive lineman Blake Freeland said. “Since we have more time to look at our opponent, we’re also able to better ourselves as an individuals and work on our game as a team.”

Saturday’s matchup with UAB will be the 45th installment of the Independence Bowl, making the “Shreveport showdown” one of the country’s longest-running bowl traditions. Even while social media speculated concerning different scenarios in which BYU could crash the famed Peach or Fiesta Bowls, Independence Bowl officials paid the Cougars a visit during the Nov. 6 contest against Idaho State, something that “really impressed” Sitake.

“I’ve met a good number of (the officials), and they’re first-class, great individuals,” Sitake said. “There’s a lot of pride and tradition in that bowl game, so we’re really honored to be part of it.”

“Realizing this bowl game is the most important game we’ve ever played because it’s the next one we have is something Kalani has taught us,” Hall said.

While the Cougars are heavy favorites over 8-4 UAB — who have just one bowl victory in program history — the Blazers shouldn’t be overlooked. Their offense has averaged nearly 30 points per game on the season, led by running back DeWayne McBride’s 1,188 yards on the ground and 14 combined receiving touchdowns from Trea Shropshire and Gerrit Prince.

In addition, the Blazers rank as the 11th-best run defense in the country, holding opponents to just over three yards per attempt and 104 yards each game. UAB’s run-stopping prowess presents an interesting matchup for Allgeier, who sits 174 yards shy of breaking the BYU single season rushing record.

“I’d love to see us shut the run game down more, clean things up overall and continue to improve,” Batty said. “We need to make sure everyone’s doing their job (on defense).”

The Cougars and Blazers are set to kick off at 1:30 p.m. MST on Saturday, Dec 18. The game will be broadcast on ABC.

“We’re expecting Cougar Nation to show up like they always have, and we just want them to know how much we appreciate their support,” Sitake said.

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