Provo • Although it played well in all three phases of the game Saturday in a 35-16 victory over UMass, BYU’s football team still has a lot of improvement to make if it wants to finish the season on a high note, coach Kalani Sitake said Monday in his weekly press briefing.
Namely, the Cougars have to find a way to start games better. They have fallen behind by double-digits in each of their last two games, and have been outscored 62-31 in the first quarter of games this season.
“We need to start faster,” Sitake said. “Whatever we can do to start faster, we need to keep working on that.”
Slow starts have been a problem all season. The Cougars (5-5) thought they had the early-game lethargy issues resolved when they took a quick 21-0 lead over Hawaii on Oct. 13, but that turned out to be an anomaly.
They fell behind 14-0 at Boise State and 10-0 at UMass. Running back Matt Hadley and linebacker Sione Takitaki both said Monday that the Cougars are thinking too much early in games.
NEW MEXICO STATE AT BYU
When • Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN2
“It is not that we are not prepared, I can tell you that much,” said Hadley, who has taken over as the Cougars’ starting running back in the wake of injuries suffered by Squally Canada and Lopini Katoa. “Our coaches do a great job preparing us. There is this little funk that we’ve gotta kick and figure out how to maybe not think so much and just go out and play. That’s probably something we need to focus on.”
Both units are to blame, said Takitaki, who had a career-high 14 tackles against the Minutemen.
“I think we just need to attack it more in practice, because the coaches have emphasized that really well, Monday through Friday,” he said. “But once we get out there on Saturday during game time we just need to get right into it.”
The Cougars (5-5) can probably afford to sleepwalk early Saturday when they host struggling but rested New Mexico State (3-7) at LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m. MST, ESPN2), but not on Nov. 24 in the rivalry game at Utah. Not if they hope to end their seven-game losing streak to the Utes.
Of course, nobody in Provo on Monday would even dare to talk about that game, right?
“These guys have been pretty good about that,” Sitake said. “That’s how football works — you focus on one game at a time. All the coaches say that. All that matters is New Mexico State, and that we keep progressing, keep growing. I have seen a lot of momentum building up for our team, and especially after this last week, and I expect it to continue this week. I imagine our guys will be focused on what matters the most, and that is New Mexico State on Saturday.”
It will also be Senior Night, and the Cougars will honor 25 players who will be playing in their final games at LES, most notably backup quarterback Tanner Mangum, Takitaki, Hadley, Canada, fullback Brayden El-Bakri, offensive lineman Austin Hoyt, defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, cornerback Michael Shelton and other mainstays the past few years.
There is also the matter of getting a sixth win to become bowl eligible. The Cougars realize their chances of reaching that goal they set before the season started are a lot better against lowly NMSU than the following week at Utah.
“Yeah, we are really motivated, because we want to go to a bowl game. We want to win out,” Takitaki said. “So that’s really important, getting these next few wins.”
The Cougars learned Monday morning that the Nov. 24 game at Utah will have an 8 p.m. kickoff and will be televised by Fox Sports 1 (FS1).
But first, they have to get past the Aggies in the first of two late-night kickoffs after they kicked off at 10 a.m. MST last Saturday in Massachusetts and 8:30 p.m. the previous week at Boise State.
“We will play whenever they want us to, in whatever conditions. It is football. That’s how it works, and I could care less about the kickoff time, and I think our guys feel the same way,” Sitake said. “It is another opportunity to play the game.”
And get off to a better start.
BYU’S 25 SENIORS
Punter Rhett Almond, defensive back Joshua Buhler, running back Squally Canada, receiver Dylan Collie, running back Trey Dye, fullback Brayden El-Bakri, deep snapper Matt Foley, holder and safety Gavin Fowler, running back Matt Hadley, offensive lineman Austin Hoyt, defensive back Tanner Jacobson, offensive lineman Kamalani Kaluhiokalani, defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, offensive tackle Ului Lapuaho, quarterback Tanner Mangum, kicker Andrew Mikkelsen, linebacker Butch Pau’u, linebacker Riggs Powell, safety Sawyer Powell, linebacker Adam Pulsipher, linebacker Nate Sampson, linebacker Rhett Sandlin, cornerback Michael Shelton, linebacker Sione Takitaki and defensive lineman Merrill Taliauli.