No. 25 BYU football ready for the unexpected in season opener with USF

It’s showtime.

At long last, No. 25 BYU opens the 2022 football season with a clash against USF in Tampa this Saturday. For the Cougars, it serves as the first opportunity to prove their lofty preseason expectations have been deserved and that Kalani Sitake’s squad is for real.

We know that those preseason accolades are nothing unless we live up to those standards, and that’s what we’re aiming for,” offensive lineman Clark Barrington said.

The Cougars and Bulls are rather familiar with each other, having faced off in Provo last year and each returning more than 85% of their 2021 production. However, USF peppered its roster in the offseason with transfer portal acquisitions along with hiring new offensive and defensive coordinators, leaving BYU somewhat in the dark on what to expect.

“There is a lot of unknown still,” Sitake said. “We don’t know much about what they do on offense or on defense.. So we will have to be ready for everything and we’re preparing that way.”

Backup quarterback Baylor Romney led BYU to a 35-27 win over the Bulls last September, scoring four touchdowns in the first half before a bruising, aggressive USF comeback effort outpaced the Cougars 21-7 after halftime.

That second half was the first true red flag for BYU’s defense on the season, exposing its struggles to contain the run and extinguish longer drives that would prove fatal in losses to Boise State, Baylor and UAB.

“Last year against USF, we started off hot and kind of eased off a little bit, and that’s not who we are,” linebacker Payton Wilgar said. “We need to play BYU football and that’s four quarters of tough, physical football.. We have a chip on our shoulder and we want to build on last year.”

Additionally, the Cougars made this same trip to Tampa back in 2019, where Jaren Hall made his first career start at quarterback before a concussion ended his day early in a 27-23 loss.

Three years later, the highly-touted Hall sees his return to Florida less as a “revenge game” and as more of a chance to generate momentum for the season.

“The challenge for the first game of any season with a new opposing coordinator and players is that you never know exactly what you’re going to get,” Hall said. “You have a lot of film to pull from past years and different teams where those coordinators have been. We just have to have the mental fortitude to see what’s going to happen, accept it if it’s different, make adjustments at halftime and go play ball. At the end of the day, you have to execute your basic plays better than they do.”

Hall may be forced to play without two of his veteran weapons on offense, as receivers Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney have both been attached to injury rumors for the past few weeks. Nacua and Romney — who combined for nine catches, 221 yards and a touchdown against the Bulls last year — were significantly limited during fall camp, which coaches claimed was a strategic effort to maintain the health of their players with injury histories. However, neither Sitake nor offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick could give a definitive answer regarding the status of Nacua and Romney for Saturday, and neither player was dressed at Tuesday’s practice.

“Everything we do is very deliberate on how we approach the game and we’ll see how it works this weekend going into Saturday,” Sitake said of BYU’s revamped sports science and injury prevention efforts.

Tight end Isaac Rex was also limited throughout camp but is expected to play at USF, Roderick shared Monday. There aren’t many other injury concerns elsewhere across the roster for Saturday, as BYU projects its full defense and offensive line should be good to go.

Outside of football itself, traveling to Florida appears to be BYU’s most demanding trip of the season, with the Cougars flying across the country, jumping two time zones ahead and playing in the muggy late summer humidity that doesn’t exist in Provo. Adding to the swamp conditions, a heavy weekend rain forecast in Tampa should further complicate matters as well.

BYU will depart Thursday in order to help the players acclimate smoothly and be able to practice in the new environment beforehand. “We aren’t worried about the elements, but want to make sure we have the right guys on the field and that we’re communicating well,” Sitake said.

If the Cougars find themselves drenched in rainfall while shorthanded at receiver, new transfer running back Chris Brooks should be given a heavy workload in his BYU debut to keep the wheels turning on offense.

Brooks and the Cougars as a whole are in a similar boat— both have loads of potential with sky-high expectations, and Saturday will offer the first glimpse at how good both can be in 2022.

“It’s pretty unbelievable.. (week one) came quick, but we’ve been putting in the work in the offseason and we’re just really excited to show what we’ve done,” Wilgar said.

The Cougars and Bulls kick off in Tampa Saturday at 2 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

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