Amherst, Mass. • BYU is on a roll, any definition. The Cougars have won four straight, they’ve locked down a bowl berth and helped score their coach a contract extension.
But here the Cougars are, once again, in the Eastern time zone, set to play UMass on Saturday at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, and we probably don’t need to remind what happens to the Cougars when they venture east. But we will anyway.
• On Sept. 28, the Cougars lost 28-21 to a Toledo team that is currently 6-5 and tied for last in the Mid-American Conference’s West Division.
• On Oct. 12, BYU fell 27-23 to a South Florida team that is 4-6 overall and languishing in fourth place in the AAC’s East.
The Minutemen are terrible. They’re 1-10, playing their final game of the regular season, and probably eager to get it over with. But at this point, BYU is taking absolutely nothing for granted. Not given their checkered history two time zones away from LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Beyond that, UMass has proven capable of beating the Cougars.
Defensive back Troy Warner remembers when the Minutemen visited Provo in 2017 and upset the Cougars 16-10. It reminded him, once again, that regardless of records or stats, any team is capable of getting a win on any given day.
“I view them as a bunch of guys that are DI athletes, have potential and can go out and make plays," Warner said. "They’re athletic and we just have to go in and do our job.”
BYU also has come a long way since those trips to Toledo and Tampa, when the Cougars struggled with third-down conversions and their run defense. BYU followed the South Florida loss with a season-saving win over No. 20 Boise State in Provo. The Cougars rediscovered their playmaking chops that night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and they haven’t looked back since.
“The players have been focusing on each other, growing close as a group,” Sitake said. “That hasn't changed. The guys have been really hard workers and understand what it takes to be successful. That's all I can ask for as a coach.”
The Cougars’ run defense remains problematic. FCS Idaho State rushed for 157 yards, and Bengals running back ripped off chunks of 31 yards and 54 yards.
However, Sitake said they are contnuing to work at it, and the Cougars are getting better in that area, even if it’s not readily apparent.
“It’s not hard to [see the improvement] if you really look into everything, and the expectations we have for our team and the progress that we’re making — mistakes are part of the deal,” Sitake said. “But that’s what you work on and try to find ways to get better. I see our team getting better in a lot of different areas.”
BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, however, says there remains much room for improvement after the Idaho State win. The offensive line gave up a good amount of yardage on “inexcusable” pre-snap penalties, he said. The Bengals used a lot of tactics along the line that the Cougars hadn’t seen this season — and didn’t respond well.
BYU will need to clean up those easy mistakes to close out the season on the right foot.
Grimes says he wants his offense to make the next step and become a more consistent team — not just a team that steps up in big games. The Cougars need to focus on the little things.
What he wants is for BYU to be "the team that shows up the same way every single Saturday, and plays with a certain amount of consistency; we have to practice with a greater level of consistency,” Grimes said. “The devil is in the details.”
With just two games left in the regular season, Cougar running back Sione Finau said he and his teammates don’t want to get ahead of themselves. The Hawaii Bowl invitation is in hand, but there is Saturday’s game and what figures to be a rugged regular season finale at San Diego State on Nov. 30.
The goal, Finau said, is to "finish as strong as possible. “Go out and have a good year for the seniors.”
BYU AT UMASS
At Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, Amherst, Mass.
Kickoff » Saturday, 10 a.m. MT
TV » FloSports/NESN
Radio » 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143
Records » BYU 6-4; UMass 1-10
Series » BYU leads 2-1
Last meeting » BYU 35, UMass 16 (Nov. 10, 2018)
About BYU » The Cougars are on a four-game winning streak since snapping their three-game skid. … QB Zach Wilson made his return last week and threw for 187 yards and two touchdowns, while giving up one interception. … Senior wide receiver Micah Simon has at least one reception in every game during 2019 and a total of 494 yards on 39 receptions.
About UMass » The team is coming back home after their sixth-straight loss, at Northwestern. … QB Randall West has thrown for 733 yards and four touchdowns with five interceptions on 68% passing. … Running back Bilal Ally has rushed for 726 yards on 140 carries for 6 touchdowns in 11 games. … The Minutemen will be celebrating their seniors in the last home game of the season.