Tampa, Fla. • The coaches would never say it, but BYU’s game Saturday against South Florida has become a pretty critical milestone for the Cougars.
BYU is coming into the game well-rested, off a bye-week, but has dropped its last two games. At 2-3 almost midway through the 2019 season, the Cougars will be fighting the rest of the season to remain bowl eligible.
BYU coach Kalani Sitaki chose to frame it another way. Namely, that there’s an urgency to win each week.
“The ‘make it or break it’ for me is that we need to play our best and we need to see improvement — that’s what I control,” Sitake said. “I’m saying it to you, but I should be looking in the mirror. This is stuff that I’m urgent to get fixed and I think the players deserve it and the fans deserve it. So, I’m looking forward to making that happen.”
Before the season started, the front end of the schedule looked pretty difficult with four consecutive Power 5 teams to start with. The back end looked to be more manageable. The middle? That’s where the Cougars are now, and they’re finding the terrain difficult after consecutive losses to nationally-ranked Washington at home and Toledo on the road.
BYU has lost Ty’Son Williams for the season due to an ACL tear, suffered during the Washington game. Emmanuel Esukpa has since taken over the starting running back job, and rushed for 61 yards on 12 carries against Toledo.
In that same game, starting quarterback Zach Wilson fractured his right (throwing) thumb and had surgery a few days later. He will be out until late November, at best.
Redshirt freshman Jaren Hall took over in the last minute against the Rockets, but his true test will come on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, home of USF and the Tampa Bay Bucs. After that, the Cougars will have two big tests in Boise State and Utah State.
BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes says there’s always a sense of urgency each week, but what may look like pressure from the outside is seen as opportunity in the BYU locker room.
“That’s how I see it as a coach — I think that’s how our team sees it,” Grimes said. “For us, it’s another opportunity to play and score points and show what we can do, but we don’t look about it in terms of pressure or if you’re insinuating a must-win scenario or anything like that. We don’t talk like that, we just talk about winning one game at a time.”
One way wide receiver Aleva Hifo believes BYU can turn things around is by finishing its drives, even if it only leads to a field goal instead of a touchdown.
BYU currently ranks 69th in third down conversion (37.7%) and is 120th in the country in fourth down conversions (25%).
Another issue Hifo said the offense struggles with is pre-snap penalties, and when the team starts committing those mistakes it causes the players to start doubting themselves and miss their assignments.
There’s also been a chip on the offense’s shoulders. Over the last few years, Hifo has heard people talk about how the defense is more productive. The offense wants to flip that mentality: help out the defense by staying on the field as long as they can.
“Going to this next game, it’s nothing different,” Hifo said. “We need to execute. That’s the complete bottom line, that we need to execute and [make] sure that we’re extending drives and not just having 3-and-outs so that we can keep the defense on the bench and making sure that we control the game.”
BYU AT SOUTH FLORIDA
At Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Kickoff » Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
TV » CBS Sports Network
Radio » 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143
Records » BYU 2-3; USF 2-3
All-time series » First meeting
About BYU » Cougars are coming off a bye week in which it worked on game planning for USF and getting redshirt freshman Jaren Hall ready for his first career start at quarterback. … BYU is facing a Charlie Strong-coached team for the second time, previously beating Texas 41-7 in 2014. … The two programs have never met, but BYU is 0-6 in games in the state of Florida.
About USF » Bulls are coming off a 48-22 win at UConn. … Strong is in his third year at USF, with a career record of 19-11 in that span. … Bulls QB Jordan McCloud has thrown for 552 yards on 42 of 75 passing for seven TDs and four interceptions, while rushing for 144 yards on 39 carries and adding three scores.