BYU’s Kalani Sitake is more optimistic than nervous as he enters what could be the most critical month of his head coaching career

Coach starts his third season at the helm Saturday night at Arizona, the first of four Power Five opponents BYU will face in September

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake and his players celebrate after targeting was not called on Brigham Young Cougars running back Brayden El-Bakri (35) during the game at LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday, October 28, 2017.

Provo • As he enters the most important month of his three-year head coaching career, BYU’s Kalani Sitake insists he’s not nervous, worried about his future, or dreading an absolutely brutal opening schedule that begins Saturday night at Arizona against a Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Kahlil Tate.

Instead, the coach with the 13-13 overall record says he is ready to seize the moment and get the ship turned around and headed in the right direction like it seemingly was when the Cougars went 9-4 in his first year.

“We have done a lot of different things to get ready for this moment,” Sitake said Monday. “So we will see what happens. I love our fans and appreciate their support. I know they have high expectations, and my job as a coach is to meet them.”

The Cougars are double-digit underdogs for the 8:45 p.m. MDT kickoff at Arizona Stadium, where the Wildcats have won 17 straight home openers. Also on the docket this month: next Saturday’s home opener against California, then trips to preseason No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 6 Washington sandwiched around a home contest against one of the better teams in the FCS, McNeese State.

In other words, if the Cougars want to emerge from September with a winning record, they almost certainly have to hope history repeats itself and they defeat the Wildcats for the second time in three years, having knocked off Arizona 18-16 in the opener two years ago at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., in Sitake’s debut.

There was a certain buzz around the program, even after the Cougars fell 20-19 the following week at Utah. But all the goodwill and energy that Sitake restored to a fanbase that had grown a bit weary of Bronco Mendenhall’s staid approach evaporated after last year’s collapse. Another win over the Wildcats would go a long way in restoring those positive vibes.

Are the Cougars ready?

“It’s really not going to be up to the coaches,” Sitake said. “The players, we will prepare them, and we are coaching them and getting them ready. But on Saturday the players have to go out and execute. … The coaches have to take a backseat and watch the boys play. That’s the fun part about this game.”

Throughout preseason camp, the coaching staff has stressed the importance of a strong start on offense and making plays that give the offense confidence early in the game, something that didn’t happen in Game 2 last year when the Cougars never crossed the 50-yard line against LSU. It is one of the reasons they chose senior Tanner Mangum to get the start at quarterback over Zach Wilson.

An early turnover in hostile territory could potentially be devastating for a team with a fragile psyche. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, handpicked by Sitake to get the offense righted after it was among the worst in the country last year, has worked wonders in that regard, according to most reports. But there’s nothing like some actual in-game adversity to test a team’s mettle.

Mangum “proved himself to be more consistent in terms of his decision-making,” Grimes said. “He sort of separated himself that last week, week and a half. He was more consistent in terms of handling situations, getting the checks right, making decisions, and his completion percentage was slightly better. But they both did a great job and we are comfortable with both of them playing.”

Traditionally, BYU has started slowly when it has broken in a new coordinator. Ty Detmer’s offense put up just 18 points two years ago. Robert Anae’s offense in Mendenhall’s first game put up just three points in a 20-3 home loss to Boston College in 2005 and Brandon Doman’s offense scored just seven points in a 14-13 win at Ole Miss in 2011. Anae returned in 2013, but the Cougars fell 19-16 at Virginia in the first game of his second stint.

Another slow start offensively could spell doom, especially if the Cougars can’t contain Tate.

“I just expect [the Cougars] to do what they have been doing all fall camp, and all spring ball,” Sitake said. “The way it was trending, I think it is going to be really good. We will just see. Show up on game day. That’s going to be the key. We can simulate as much as we can, and now the real deal is up and we have to be ready to roll. Our players already know it and we have high expectations of ourselves. I am not going to make any statements now. We just want to win the game, and it is going to take all three phases — defense, offense and special teams — to get it done.”

And avoid a repeat of 2017.


At Arizona Stadium

Kickoff • Saturday, 8:45 p.m.


Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

Records • Season opener

Series history • Arizona leads 12-10-1

Last meeting • BYU 18, Arizona 16 (Sept. 3, 2016)

About the Wildcats • Coach Kevin Sumlin takes over the program in the wake of the Rich Rodriguez scandal with an 86-43 career record as a head coach. … Quarterback Kahlil Tate is a Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for 1,411 yards last season. Tate had gains of 40 or more yards 11 times in 2017. … They have won nine of their last 10 season openers, the lone loss in that stretch two years ago against BYU. They have won 17 straight home openers at Arizona Stadium.

About the Cougars • They are trying to bounce back from a 4-9 season in which they averaged just 17.1 points per game and allowed 24.7 points per game. … Tight end Matt Bushman, a Mackey Award Watch List honoree, returns home after playing prep football at nearby Sabino High School. Bushman led BYU in receiving last year. … The Cougars were 118th in total offense last season, averaging just 325.2 yards per game, prompting some changes on the offensive coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes will unveil his offense for the first time.