It’s been a long and bumpy road — one that even seemed lost for a moment — but BYU football has finally arrived at its destination.
After a couple of turbulent months that threatened the Cougars’ season, in which multiple conferences and schools opted to cancel their own fall seasons, BYU will play its first game of the 2020 football season Monday at Navy in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN.
From almost having nothing, the game on Labor Day is the height of success the Cougars have had through the pandemic.
“We’re excited,” senior defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga said. “It feels good. It doesn’t feel real, but we’re super excited and ready to go.”
The ground first started shaking under the Cougars’ feet back in March, when spring football was canceled during the second week, all sports were halted and students on campus were asked to return home if possible.
Players were left on their own.
Rather than continuing team practices and using school facilities, players were provided workout plans from the strength and conditioning team and self accountable for staying in shape for a possible season.
Back then, everything was unclear.
Businesses closed down. People stayed home as much as possible. The pandemic brought on a lot of uncertainty.
For offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, the emotional roller coaster that led BYU to this moment started that day in March when practices were canceled. Grimes was with his offensive staff preparing for practice when “every few minutes, something else would happen, something else would get canceled.”
Grimes couldn’t believe the sudden changes and struggled to process the situation.
“I was honestly depressed for a few days,” Grimes said. “I love football, I love my job so much that I was missing football there for a little while. And then I kind of settled in and really enjoyed the time with my family and made the most of that, but I still felt like there was a piece of me that was missing for a while. I love my wife and my kids as much or more than almost anybody, but I was missing being around these guys and I was missing the purpose that I feel in being part of this team. I think all of these guys were.”
Players were allowed to use BYU facilities again on June 1 for voluntary workouts, but the question of whether they’d be able to play their powerful 2020 schedule still loomed.
Pre-pandemic, the 2020 schedule featured six Power Five opponents — four consecutive to start the season. But the first crack appeared in early July, as the Big Ten announced it would be moving to a conference-only season (the first P5 conference to make any such decision), thus canceling the Cougars games with Michigan State and Minnesota.
The bad news continued a couple of days later when the Pac-12 made a similar decision, costing BYU games against Utah, Stanford and Arizona State.
In a matter of days, BYU saw its schedule nearly slashed in half.
Athletic director Tom Holmoe immediately got to work on trying to salvage the season, but before he could come up with a backup plan, the SEC also moved to a conference-only model by the end of July, meaning Missouri would no longer visit Provo in October.
The following week, the Mountain West Conference canceled all fall sports. BYU’s season was down to three games, having lost Utah State, Boise State and San Diego State from the schedule.
To add salt to the wound, the following day the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled football. The news no longer directly affected BYU, but threatened college football as a whole.
That week, even the West Coast Conference announced the postponement of fall sports, canceling four sport seasons at BYU.
“We were unsure that we were going to have our own season,” senior defensive back Troy Warner said. “It took a lot of mental and emotional strength to just put our head down and grind, continue to grind, and just prepare ourselves the right way so we could be set up to be great in this moment.”
Since then, BYU has been able to pick itself back up — adding Troy, Army, Western Kentucky, University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas State for an eight-game season. And has become a beacon for the salvation of college football, particularly in the West where the Cougars are the lone football program still playing a season.
The opportunity isn’t lost on the Cougars.
Senior Zayne Anderson, who’s made his way back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him the last two seasons, has felt the last couple of months has been a roller coaster of emotions, but has allowed the team to grow.
“It’s a huge opportunity. … A lot of eyes are on us,” Anderson said. “We’re grateful for the opportunity, especially the seniors. Being able to have a season, doesn’t matter who we’re facing, we’re just grateful to play. It’s definitely been a roller coaster, but it’s been the same goal the whole time — taking things day by day and just expecting and hoping we’re playing someone. So, we’re blessed to be able to play someone on Game 1.”
BYU at Navy
At Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Md.
Kickoff » Monday, 6 p.m. MT
TV » ESPN
Radio » 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius 143
Records » BYU 0-0; Navy 0-0
All-time series » Tied 1-1
Last meeting » BYU 31, Navy 10 (Sept. 16, 1989)
About BYU » BYU faces the Midshipmen for the first time in more than 30 years with both teams led by the only two head coaches of Polynesian descent at the FBS level. … Coach Kalani Sitake, entering his fifth year at the helm, is 3-1 in season openers and BYU is 15-5 over the past 20 seasons in Game 1. … The Cougars return two of the top offensive linemen in the country — left tackle Brady Christensen and center James Empey. … Quarterback Zach Wilson earned his second career season-starting role. Last year, Wilson started in nine games and led team with 2,382 passing yards and 11 touchdowns.
About Navy » The Midshipmen are coming off one of their best years in school history with an 11-2 campaign, highlighted by a 20-17 victory over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl in 2019. … Coach Ken Niumatalolo considers the upcoming game the “all-Laie championship” as both coaches grew up in the North Shore town in Hawaii. … Navy is led by Dalen Morris at quarterback, but the senior has seen very limited action during his time with the Midshipmen, having appeared in only two games last season and not attempting a pass. … Navy will have plenty experience with their running backs, particularly CJ Williams, who rushed for 298 yards and three touchdowns on 56 carries and caught seven passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns last year.