Utah State football coach Matt Wells understands the holiday misery that BYU’s Kalani Sitake will experience this year.
As of Thanksgiving Day in 2016, Wells’ program was about to finish a three-win season with a loss to BYU, while anticipating a no-bowl December that he labels “horrible.” And now the Aggies (6-5) can clinch a winning record Saturday at Air Force, with a bowl game in their future.
As for BYU’s program, concluding a 3-9 season at Hawaii, Sitake said, “I know how to get it fixed.”
Maybe so, but I’m here to help, anyway. So what can Sitake learn from Wells’ recovery in Logan? Quite a bit.
The NCAA is allowing FBS schools to hire a 10th full-time assistant coach in January, giving Sitake some flexibility as he reassembles his staff. BYU’s lack of productivity will force him to do more than merely adding experience to the offensive staff, although that has to be part of it.
That group needs a shakeup. A demotion for Ty Detmer as offensive coordinator has to be among Sitake’s considerations. Detmer would be fine, just coaching the quarterbacks.
Wells lost one offensive coach last winter and dismissed a defensive coach. His response to a poor special-teams performance was reassigning — not firing — Stacy Collins, who now coaches linebackers. Wells essentially filled two positions with veteran coach Mark Tommerdahl, who has done a phenomenal job with special teams and was the state’s only assistant nominated for the Broyles Award.
Wells also replaced himself as offensive coordinator by hiring David Yost, who brought a fast-paced scheme from Oregon. “We had some personnel changes with the coaching staff that I think were justified, valid and instrumental in some of this turnaround,” Wells said this week.
Sitake’s tenure, with a 12-13 record, is a truncated version of Wells’ career. Wells went 19-9 in two years, then 9-16 in two seasons and 6-5 this year. After going 3-9, Wells consulted some “trusted confidants that are around the program … and some of my mentors in coaching,” he said, “really trying to get the best bead and pulse on what happened, why it happened, what are we going to do to change it, and how do we fix it and move forward?”
His discoveries included some validating elements and other “things individually for me, to try to be a better head coach,” he said. That meant turning over the offense to Yost. In Sitake’s case, that might mean getting more involved with the defense.
Ultimately, the players determine what happens on the field, starting with their work in the offseason. The Aggies missed a bowl game for the first time in six years, and that was “a wake-up call to a lot of us,” said linebacker Chase Christiansen.
Wells and his staff promoted a bunch of new players to starting positions over veterans in August. USU later replaced senior quarterback Kent Myers with redshirt freshman Jordan Love, who spoke of “a different vibe” around the program this year. In addition to those personnel moves, Wells cited “a resolve amongst the core group of guys to not have a season like last year, because that December was horrible.”
Partly due to a tough September/October schedule, a consequence of independence, Sitake’s team lost confidence and fell into a six-game losing streak. Utah State was blessed to have winnable games continually appear, just when the Aggies needed them.
As a unanimous pick to finish last in its division in the Mountain West media poll, USU succeeded by beating the teams it should have beaten: Idaho State, San Jose State, BYU, UNLV, New Mexico and Hawaii. To their credit, the Aggies removed any doubt in the second halves of those wins, responding well after every loss. Wells’ players “just didn’t let [defeats] define the season or let that completely burst us, emotionally,” he said.
That will be Sitake’s task in 2018, when BYU likely will be underdogs vs. Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State and Utah on the road. So pick any six of these seven games: California, McNeese State, Utah State, Hawaii, Northern Illinois and New Mexico State at home and UMass on the road. With six wins from that group, BYU would become bowl eligible.
The 2017 Cougars’ legacy is they’ve made that seem like an accomplishment.