Provo • BYU football coach Kalani Sitake admires Wisconsin more than any other program in college football with the possible exception of the University of Utah, where he worked for 10 years as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator.
The Badgers “are always going to be strong up front and represent the state of Wisconsin really well,” Sitake said Monday as the Cougars began preparation for Saturday’s showdown with No. 6 Wisconsin at historic Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. “They are just tough guys and I love that. So I admire it, yeah. That is what we are trying to get to.”
BYU’s season opening win over Arizona offered proof that the Cougars are making strides in emulating the tough, hard-nosed, physical Badgers, but Saturday’s 21-18 loss to Cal showed they still have a long way to go. Wisconsin pummeled BYU 40-6 last year in Provo, racking up 495 yards and holding the Cougars — who were without injured quarterback Tanner Mangum — to 192 yards.
The Badgers’ superiority in the trenches was on full display, and afterwards Sitake called it a “good clinic” and said that is the type of team BYU aspires to be. Sitake said he hired defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki to be BYU’s defensive coordinator three years ago and former LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes to be BYU’s offensive coordinator last winter with that in mind.
He said that despite its recruiting restrictions, BYU should be able to hang its hat on attracting top-flight offensive and defensive linemen, much as Wisconsin has done. Wisconsin has similar restrictive academic admissions policies as BYU, a point former Utah State coach Gary Andersen made when he left the prestigious Big Ten school for perennial Pac-12 cellar-dweller Oregon State after the 2014 season.
“It has been well [documented] there were some kids I couldn’t get into school [at Wisconsin],” Andersen told CBSsports.com. “That was highly frustrating to me. I think they did what they were supposed to do [academically] and they still couldn’t get in. That was really hard to deal with.”
BYU AT NO. 6 WISCONSIN
When • Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
TV • Ch. 4
Sitake has expressed, to a lesser extent, similar frustrations with getting recruits into BYU. The latest example is former Juan Diego defensive end Chinonso Opara, who signed with BYU last winter but never made it into school and is now at Weber State.
Are the Cougars on the right track?
“We will see what happens in this game,” Sitake said. “But I think it is good for us to see the standard. I think [Wisconsin] sets the bar with a physical, hard-nosed running game. And they have a Heisman candidate [running back Jonathan Taylor] there, so it will be another challenge for us to go against another Heisman candidate and see what happens.”
Having succeeded Andersen in 2015, fourth-year Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst has managed to make it work, tough academic standards and all. The Badgers are 36-7 in his tenure and have won back-to-back Big Ten West Division crowns and consecutive New Year’s Six bowl games.
Wisconsin is on a 41-game win streak in nonconference home games and has won 20 straight regular-season games dating back to Oct. 22, 2016.
How has he done it?
“There is a lot to it,” Chryst said Tuesday. “The foundation, I would argue, has always been good players that really care. Over the years, there have been a number of really good coaches throughout the whole staff. We certainly haven’t been a part of it all. But we certainly have a belief in what’s best for Wisconsin, and those are fundamental foundation pieces.”
Chryst said the willingness to change and adapt while holding firm to certain core beliefs has served the program well.
“It is not like we have just stayed status quo,” said the 2016 and 2017 Big Ten coach of the year. “We have thought all the time that the magic is in the players who are trying to play good football. … You’ve got to stand for something and then each year it is a new opportunity for some to build on what they’ve done, and for others to start that. It is kind of a fun work in progress.”
Chryst said it hasn’t been difficult to convince his players that BYU will be more formidable than it was last year, when the Badgers won easily in Provo.
“No, I don’t think so at all. And shame on us if our players think that,” he said. “You look at how BYU has played the last two games. … When you watch the film of their first two games, that grabs not only coaches, but our players’ attention. We know we’ve got to have a good week of preparation. We know it is going to be a heckuva ball game.”
The Cougars can only hope it comes close to being that.
RELIVING THE NIGHTMARE: WISCONSIN 40, BYU 6
• Alex Hornibrook set a school single-game completion percentage record (94.7) by connecting on 18 of 19 passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns as the No. 10 Badgers rolled to an easy win
• Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor ran 18 times for 128 yards and a touchdown and Wisconsin didn’t punt until late in the third quarter
• BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum suffered an ankle injury the previous week against Utah so Beau Hoge got the start for the Cougars and managed to generate just 192 yards of offense. Wisconsin had 495 yards.