Provo • Let’s face it. The bar was pretty low.
It hasn’t been all that difficult for the 2018 BYU football team to surpass last year’s win total, which it did last week with a 35-16 win at UMass to get to a 5-5 record with two regular-season games to play.
The program has seemingly improved after going 4-9 in 2017 and revamping its offensive coaching staff in the offseason. The Cougars have also had fewer injuries after they were decimated by them a year ago. Injuries have happened, but they’ve had better depth to overcome them.
“This program is moving in a great direction because of the seniors and the leadership they are providing and their ability to relish the roles that they’ve had,” coach Kalani Sitake said this week as the Cougars began preparations for Saturday’s Senior Night game against New Mexico State at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The next step toward getting back to respectability and calling the season a successful one is achieving six wins and bowl eligibility — although it is not entirely certain that the Cougars will be invited to a bowl if they finish with a 6-6 record. It’s probable, due to their relationship with bowl-owner ESPN, but not a dead-lock guarantee if there are more 6-6 teams than open bowl spots.
Of course, the Cougars finish the regular season next week at rival Utah, where they haven’t won since 2006. So beating the Aggies (3-7) is vital to BYU’s bowl hopes.
“I definitely haven’t looked at the week after this,” said freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, who is 2-2 as a starter. “You gotta take care of business this week before moving on to the next.”
A loss to NMSU would be devastating to the program’s momentum, although stranger things have happened. Remember UMass last year, anyone?
“We are just focused on winning the next game. It is one of our team goals to obviously be bowl eligible and go to a bowl game and win that bowl game,” said senior safety Tanner Jacobson. “But we have to figure out what we can do against New Mexico State and then go from there.”
The Cougars should be able to move the ball and score points on the Aggies, who have one of the worst defenses in Division I college football. They are allowing 42.3 points and 490.6 yards per game.
Sitake acknowledged that going to a bowl game is essential for the program to make strides after it missed out on one last year for the first time since 2004.
“Just the amount of practices that you get from being bowl eligible, that’s something that really helps a program out, especially when you have a lot of young guys and inexperienced players,” he said. “It gives you another spring ball-type of deal. For us, that is an important part of building a program. Right now, we just gotta win that game, and we will find out the rest later.”
New Mexico State’s offense is decent, and can be explosive at times with redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Adkins emerging after a rocky start. The Aggies are No. 39 nationally in passing offense, averaging 260.5 yards per game.
“They like to sling it around and take some chances,” Jacobson said.
It should be a good test for BYU’s defense, which ranks No. 24 nationally and has carried the program the last few years as Sitake has worked on rebuilding it.
“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,” Sitake said. “I imagine our guys will be focused on what matters the most, and that is beating New Mexico State on Saturday.”
Said linebacker Sione Takitaki, one of 25 seniors who will be honored before the game: “We are really motivated, because we want to go to a bowl game. We want to win out. That’s really important, getting these next few wins.”
And making progress, as modest as that might appear.
NEW MEXICO STATE AT BYU
At LaVell Edwards Stadium
Kickoff • Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN2
Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 5-5, NMSU 3-7
Series history • BYU leads 2-0
Last meeting • BYU 50, NMSU 14 (Nov. 24, 2012)
About the Aggies • They are coming off a bye week and are the third team coming off a bye to face BYU this season, joining Northern Illinois and Utah State. … Coach Doug Martin is in his sixth year at the helm and has a 49-104 career record. … QB Josh Adkins has completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 1,590 yards and seven touchdowns with six interceptions. RB Christian Gibson is averaging 6.4 yards per attempt on 70 carries. DL Roy Lopez has recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
About the Cougars • They will honor 25 players on Senior Night in their final home game of the 2018 season. … They are 27-8 in games played in November since 2009. … Longtime radio color commentator Marc Lyons will be honored during the game as he makes his final broadcast from LaVell Edwards Stadium. A former BYU quarterback, Lyons has been in the broadcast booth 38 seasons. … They are 24th in the nation in total defense, giving up just 329.2 yards per game.