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National attention places target on Cougars' backs, but BYU will stay humble and hungry

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi (53) celebrates a sack as Brigham Young University (BYU) hosts the University of Utah, NCAA football in Provo on Thursday Aug. 29, 2019.

BYU football is back in the national conversation. But coach Kalani Sitake is hoping to keep his players away from the hype.

Following the Cougars' third dominating performance, BYU found itself ranked No. 15 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and Amway Coaches Poll on Sunday. The Cougars also received a vote for the College Football Playoffs.

Bill Connelly of ESPN.com and the creator of the S&P+ ratings picked BYU as his No. 4 contender for the CFP. Connelly also selected No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State.

With plenty of season yet to play, Sitake is taking it one week at a time and turning his focus to BYU’s next opponent: UTSA.

“We don’t worry about it before the season,” Sitake said, “so why worry about it during? And, so, just trying to keep our team focused. … just trying to stay humble as a team and then stay hungry on things we want to accomplish. We have a lot to prove still.”

Quarterback Zach Wilson also had a big weekend.

The Draper native was named the Walter Camp FBS Offensive Player of the Week and the College Football Performance Awards National Performer of the Week, along with being named one of the Manning Award Stars of the Week for the third consecutive week and a Davey O’Brien Award Great 8 list honoree for the second week in a row.

Wilson scored a total of five touchdowns (two passing, three rushing) and completed 24 of 26 passes for 325 yards to lead BYU to a 45-14 victory over Louisiana Tech.

On Sunday, Wilson had the sixth best odds to win the Heisman Trophy in the updated Vegas odds.

But on Monday morning, when Sitake saw Wilson walking through the hallways, the starting back had already moved on to the next game.

“Stop patting him on the back — we get enough of that already,” Sitake said. “We celebrate and dance in the locker room after we win. After we leave, it’s back to business, create the film and get better.”

However, there is no denying — BYU is in the midst of a special season.

While the biggest concerns of whether the Cougars would play or not came before the season started, BYU derailed a bit when a small outbreak among the team forced the postponement of the Army game.

Even though the Cougars had been trying to emulate as much of a bubble environment as possible going into the season, seeing the game postponed served as a wake-up call for the players.

The situation made it clear how important it is to stay on top of the necessary precautions because a game could be canceled at any time.

Senior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi said the Navy incident, when players tested positive following the game in Annapolis, served as a shock to the team.

The situation was different than previous seasons, but it’s the new reality of college football.

Luckily for the Cougars, Sitake said the last two weeks of testing has resulted in the best results among the team since testing started.

“Guys have bought in now completely to the procedures and in kind of what we’re wanting to do,” Kaufusi said. “Guys know how special of a team we are, so they’ve really bought into that as well as, 'hey, we’ve got a good team. We’ve got a special thing going. Don’t ruin it for others, don’t ruin it for yourself — let’s keep this thing going.”

Healthy once more and moving up the national ranks, the Cougars could have a target on their backs the remainder of the season. But Kaufusi believes the team will be able to get through it by staying humble and keeping the mindset of getting better each week.

“The target is definitely going to get bigger and it’s going to be on our backs, but we can’t really focus on those things and focus on what people are saying about us,” Kaufusi said. “Coach [Eric] Mateos likes to call it poison. It’s just that — poison. You just got to stay away from it, don’t let it get to you and find ways to get better.”

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