“There’s a lot of things to improve on. I don’t know if I can narrow it down to one or two things. There’s probably a bunch of stuff we can do differently and better on offense and defense and special teams. But it’s a good opportunity, a good learning moment for us. The fact that we got a win was a huge positive.”
Kalani Sitake wasn’t dogging his team when he spoke those words, recapping his thoughts a couple of days after its upset win over Arizona. He was embracing the best of both worlds. The Cougars tasted victory and felt the benefits — without gorging so much that their bellies are fat and full at this early juncture.
It was perfect. Even in its imperfection.
The satisfaction, so desperately needed for a program that hit the skids last season, that had forgotten how to win games against quality opponents, was profound, but lasted for all of the short end of one day. As Sitake said it, BYU needed a win against Arizona, a win few thought it would gain, but gain it the Cougars did — in just that right way.
You saw it.
They played forceful, big-boy football, lining up powerfully on both sides, daring the other guys to stop them, flat imposing their will — in a manner that has been a mere rumor for too long at BYU.
There’s something beautiful about a tough, business-minded offensive line, the heart and soul of most good teams, again and again and again pushing a defensive front downfield, clearing space, in this case, for Squally Canada, and, when called upon, protecting Tanner Mangum from feeling much heat. That success had a duality to it, as well, being impressive, at football’s deepest spiritual roots and pragmatic in that it enabled BYU’s offense to sustain drives and carry momentum, particularly in the third quarter. That span of football that surpassed anything the Cougars attack had done in recent memory.
And BYU’s defensive linemen and linebackers managed the job of either containing Kahlil Tate or taking advantage of a coaching error by Kevin Sumlin, depending on whose version of the story you want to believe, as Tate ran hardly at all — his most effective weapon against teams a year ago.
A couple of notes here, of which Sitake is fully aware.
The first is that Arizona’s defense is not good, especially up front, nowhere near as good as Washington’s, Wisconsin’s, or Utah’s, and maybe not at the level of a few other teams the Cougars will face. So, the whole idea that BYU is going to shove its way to a dominant ground game — after 183 rushing yards Saturday — week after week is questionable. Maybe the Cougars can duplicate those results, but it feels a little optimistic. Doing so obviously makes winning much easier, and allows Mangum to effectively use play-action not only to keep defenders off-balance, but to help him get into a rhythm that was most evident ver stretches in Tucson.
It’s just that, what’s going to happen if or when the big’uns don’t own the line of scrimmage like that? Do the Cougars have another dependable option? Or do they just keep pounding away, come what may?
The second is that Arizona’s offensive game plan — limiting its ridiculously mobile quarterback and depending on him throwing deep balls — played precisely into BYU’s defensive structure. It’s what the Cougars hoped for, expected, and got.
Sitake understands. As mentioned, he has been cautious about making too big a deal out of Saturday night’s surprising — at least to nearly everyone on the outside — BYU win, other than to have it create a foundation for more focus and diligence.
He saw his team show a fighting attitude that was rare in last season’s nadir. He saw an efficient, organized, purposeful offense and a defense that seemed faster and more athletic than it had been, with guys like Corbin Kaufusi and Sione Takitaki and Zayne Anderson jamming things up like an over-crowded terminal at LaGuardia.
The effort was almost always there, from beginning to end. The smarts, though, evaporated on 10 penalties, flags that could have cost BYU had Arizona had its act together.
Which is to say, there were things to celebrate, to remind a program what the possibilities are, and there are things to fix, things that should keep the Cougars occupied and motivated to explore the far reaches of their potential, space that might not be as cramped as most of us figured.
With Cal, Wisconsin and Washington coming up in three of the next four weeks, two of those games on the road, there is little room for BYU to do anything less than what it must do to not get graded off the road.
And Sitake is properly using the urgency of those prospects, along with the feel-goods of a big first win, to push a team forward that needs that push.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.