Provo • The numbers are not all that impressive through seven football games for the BYU Cougars, who had a bye this weekend after playing the 43rd most difficult schedule in the country the first half of the season.
But the only number coach Kalani Sitake cares about in this hoped-for season of rebounding from last year’s miserable campaign is four. That’s the number of victories the Cougars have, already matching last year’s total.
After the Cougars improved to 4-3 on Oct. 13 with a 49-23 win over Hawaii, graduate transfer receiver Dylan Collie said the program is making strides after having entered the contest with consecutive blowout losses to Washington and Utah State that brought into question whether the team was really better than last year.
“We’ve got absolute grinders on this team and no matter who is in the game, we make things happen,” Collie said. “This team has a lot of potential and we’re just going to continue to keep going up and up.”
BYU’s resurgent offense, sparked by the first start of freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, will get another stiff test on Saturday against Northern Illinois at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Huskies also had the week off and were 41st in the country in total defense entering the weekend’s games, having allowed just 351.4 yards per game.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT BYU
When • Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
Sitake said after the Cougars put up 474 yards on the Rainbow Warriors and allowed one of the country’s top offenses just 311 yards that his team is back on track.
“Going into the bye week, it makes me feel good about ourselves and how we just got over that slump of not playing good football, our style of football, these last two weeks,” Sitake said. “It’s good to get that done.”
No one around the program is feeling as good as they did after the stunning wins over Arizona and Wisconsin, however. The Wildcats and Badgers have stumbled since then, making those results in Tucson and Madison look a bit less impressive.
Still, the physical style of play that went lacking in the losses to Washington and Utah State returned, Sitake said, and that bodes well for the remainder of the season. The Cougars rushed for 280 yards on Hawaii and held the visitors to 63 yards on the ground.
“We were sound up front, and we knocked them back on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” Sitake said.
Defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi said the Cougars absorbed some stern butt-chewings from their coaches in the week leading up to the Hawaii game, then delivered one of the better performances of the season in the trenches.
“For us to come out and respond the way we did was amazing,” he said. “You can’t really coach physicality. You can tell someone to be physical, but it is all about just bringing it. Everyone has to find that fire for himself.”
Kaufusi’s cousin, sophomore Isaiah Kaufusi, has seemingly replaced the oft-injured Butch Pau’u in the starting linebacker lineup and delivered a big game as well. He credited the offense, with Wilson providing that boost of energy, for helping the defense thrive.
“When the offense is rolling like that it takes some pressure off the defense and we play more freely and make more plays,” Isaiah Kaufusi said.
Redshirt freshman center James Empey acknowledged the offensive line struggled against the Huskies and Aggies but rediscovered its rhythm against UH.
“We have a long way to go and it was far from perfect, but when you can move the ball on the ground it makes playing offense a lot easier,” Empey said. “So that was more like BYU football.”
Aside from road games at Boise State and Utah, the schedule lightens a bit for the Cougars, as it usually does after the middle of October. They enter the next stretch having been out-gained 1,046 to 979 on the ground and 1,430 to 1,331 through the air. Opponents have racked up 137 first downs to BYU’s 128.
“We need to stay with what we are, and that’s a physical football team,” Sitake said.
BYU’S STAT LEADERS THROUGH 7 GAMES
Rushing • Squally Canada (71 carries, 334 yards, five touchdowns)
Passing • Tanner Mangum (112 completions, 1,042 yards, five touchdowns)
Receiving • Aleva Hifo (21 catches, 225 yards, one touchdown)
Scoring • Skyler Southam (5 of 8 field goals, 20 of 21 PATs, 35 points)