Madison, Wis. • After he had chest-bumped dozens of players and fellow coaches and danced in a jubilant BYU locker room in a clip that was shown on virtually every Saturday night college football highlight show in the country, coach Kalani Sitake opened his postgame news conference with a simple statement.
“Well, that was fun,” the third-year coach said after the Cougars shocked No. 6 Wisconsin 24-21 to end the Badgers' 41-game home nonconference winning streak and, quite possibly, their College Football Playoff aspirations.
Associated Press Top 25 voters rewarded the Cougars (2-1) for their victory as BYU was ranked No. 25 in the poll released Sunday afternoon.
Sitake does not like big-picture questions — he is more of a stay-in-the-moment guy — so he wasn’t really interested in talking about where BYU’s biggest win since the 14-13 upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in 2009 ranks in his coaching career, or what it will do for the program.
“We need to get this win over with and move on and get to the next game because we can’t just sit on this win,” he said. “We can’t let it effect the preparation for next week.”
Mind you, next week’s game is against McNeese State, an FCS team that improved to 3-0 Saturday with a 20-10 lightning-delayed win over Nicholls in Lake Charles, La.
What the landmark victory does for BYU largely depends on what Wisconsin does in the Big Ten, and how the Cougars fare against No. 10 Washington in two weeks, much-improved Utah State on Oct. 5, perennial nemesis Boise State on Nov. 3 and rival Utah on Nov. 24.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Sitake said.
But for one day, at least, BYU was the talk of college football, along with the struggles of the Big Ten. It has been a long time since the Cougars had national relevancy, but there they were, celebrating as a road non-conference victor at Camp Randall Stadium in front of more than 80,000 fans for the first time since UNLV surprised the Badgers in Madison back in 2003.
“There is a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of effort, a lot of sweat, and a lot of grinding,” said senior quarterback Tanner Mangum, who entered the game needing a solid, mistake-free effort to keep his starting job. “It is really rewarding, but we have to stay humble in victory. … This definitely gives us a lot of confidence, though.”
The word uttered over and over again by Mangum, Sitake, and defensive star Sione Takitaki, who had 13 tackles and a sack, was fun.
“I think we play better when we let loose and have fun and don’t put a lot of pressure on them,” Sitake said when asked to give some context to the win.
The Cougars played without three injured starters — fullback Brayden El-Bakri, receiver Neil Pau’u and linebacker Butch Pau’u — and safety Dayan Ghanwoloku was injured in the second quarter and missed the second half. Defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga played with a heavily wrapped cast on his left hand.
“Man, the guys played hard,” Sitake said. “I was really proud of them, and we had to use a bunch of them.”
• Sitake’s offseason emphasis on beefing up the offensive and defense lines is paying off.
The coach said the game ball went to BYU’s strength and conditioning staff, headed up by Nu’u Tafisi, and for good reason. The Cougars ran for 191 yards and held Wisconsin to 204 rushing yards, a season-low for the Badgers.
“I just love watching our offensive line go to work and create holes for our running backs to run through,” Mangum said. “An all around good team effort, good team win.”
• These are not LaVell Edwards’ Cougars.
BYU is still considered a pass-first program by national observers, but that hasn’t been the case for several years now. The Cougars won in Big Ten territory despite passing for just 120 yards, and 31 of those came on a trick play, receiver Aleva Hifo’s touchdown toss to Moroni Laulu-Pututau. Sitake has borrowed from his other mentor, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, and turned the Cougars into a run-first outfit.
• New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes is earning his large salary, whatever it is.
Aside from BYU’s last possession in which he called for a pass on first-and-10 when the Cougars were trying to run out the clock and a keeper by the less-than-mobile Mangum on second-and-10, Grimes called a magnificent game. The aforementioned trick play — dubbed “Bucky” in practice last Monday — was the coup de grace.
Player of the game
Squally Canada, running back. The senior lacks the breakaway speed BYU fans enjoyed seeing from Jamaal Williams, but his vision and patience has clearly improved and he picked up 118 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 carries.
“Maybe we should have given [the ball] to Squally a little bit more,” Sitake said.
Runner-up: Aleva Hifo, receiver. The junior accounted for 108 yards with his rushing, receiving and passing.
Unsung player of the game: Senior linebacker Adam Pulsipher filled in for the injured Butch Pau’u and posted eight tackles.
Play of the game
Canada’s 46-yard run in the fourth quarter after Wisconsin tied it at 21-21 with an 82-yard touchdown drive. Hifo’s TD pass to Laulu-Pututau made all the highlight shows, but Canada’s cutback run regained BYU’s momentum after UW’s TD and set up Skyler Southam’s game-winning 45-yard field goal.
“All week, coach [Ryan] Pugh said there was going to be a cutback [opportunity],” Canada said. “He said, ‘We may only get one cutback, but it is going to be a big cutback.’ That was the cutback I needed. I wish we could have scored on that drive, but we put up three points. I wish we could have got a touchdown. But it did the job, so I am happy.”
BYU debuts and firsts
Former defensive tackle Keanu Saleapaga made his first start as an offensive lineman at left guard. Sophomore Zac Dawe recorded his first sack. Southam’s 45-yard field goal was the longest of his career and Takitaki made a career-high 13 tackles.
Having won their 25th game against a Power Five team since 2003, the most of any non-Power Five team in that timespan, the Cougars take a step down in competition this week. They will host McNeese State at 4 p.m. MDT on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The game will be televised by BYUtv.