A month into the pandemic-revised 2020 schedule, BYU keeps rolling with the punches

FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 file photo, BYU's Dax Milne (5) runs after the catch as Navy linebacker Austin Talbert-Loving (31) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Tommy Gilligan, File)

It may not seem like it, but the BYU football team is a month into a 2020 season that almost didn’t happen.

No. 22 Cougars have played only two games, but have been through more adversity and challenges than a pre-pandemic season would have presented in that time period. And now they have yet another challenge: getting ready for an opponent in four days.

The Cougars were one of the few teams in the nation that kicked off a fall camp early and held nearly five weeks of camp and team practices before opening the season at Navy. Due to a small outbreak of COVID-19 cases among the football team, the following game at Army was postponed.

The change in plans meant BYU had two consecutive bye weeks and went 19 days between games. On Monday, the Cougars started preparing for their next opponent on Friday: Louisiana Tech. BYU coach Kalani Sitake said his guys are excited for the challenge and has watched all the film on La. Tech.

“Skip Holtz is a great coach — he’s been there for a number of years,” Sitake said. “So, they have their identity, their culture, everything’s in place. I’m looking forward to the matchup against a really experienced team.”

Holtz is in his eighth season at La. Tech and has led the Bulldogs to six straight winning seasons and six straight bowl victories, most recently against Miami in the Independence Bowl.

Sitake, in his fifth year at the helm of BYU football, has had three winning seasons and three bowl appearances (winning two).

While Sitake believes the Bulldogs have a set identity already, the Cougars are constantly working on theirs.

“It’s like the concept of nicknames — you never make up your own,” Sitake said. “The same thing with identity. I think you let your opponents dictate what the identity was when they face us.”

However, junior wide receiver Dax Milne believes the first month of the season, on top of the previous changes brought on by the pandemic, have shown a big part of who the Cougars are. BYU has shown grit and perseverance.

“So far, I think I’ve learned that we’re all pretty mentally tough, overall,” Milne said. “Being able to handle what’s going on outside of our facility, and just all the distractions, I think it says a lot about our team as far as mental toughness and being able to just still focus up and perform when we need to.”

The new-found attitude even helped Milne rebound from what could have been a costly mistake against Troy on Saturday.

After Troy failed to score in the opening drive, Milne muffed the punt, which was recovered by the Trojans. But instead of dwelling on the mistake, Milne went on to have a career night with 140 yards and one touchdown on seven receptions.

The experience served as a rollercoaster of emotions for Milne, not unlike how the season has been for the Cougars.

“I don’t know why I muffed the punt, but it just happened,” Milne said. “And I just attribute the type of game I had to my teammates and my coaches, because as soon as I came off the field, everyone just told me that they had my back and don’t worry about it. … I just trusted everyone and I told them I’d make it up to them. Fortunate enough, I did.”

Whether the Cougars have four days or weeks to prepare for an opponent, each week has proven to be different regardless.

Besides working on a depth chart and figuring out practice, Sitake said there’s the added stress of testing, results, contact tracing, social distancing and creating a low-risk environment. With changes happening every week, the Cougars have had to be more flexible and cross trained players to play multiple positions.

The resulting depth will be a key part of how BYU continues to move forward as each week presents a new challenge.

“That does add a few change-ups that you don’t plan on, and a little bit different than what most coaches would do,” Sitake said. “We usually do that in spring, where we cross train quite a bit, but now it’s just part of every-day football, in college football, in the year 2020.”