A year ago, home-field advantage was nearly nonexistent throughout the country.
Teams took the field in empty or nearly empty stadiums as COVID-19 raged on. While the pandemic hasn’t ended, fans are back at games, with small precautions in place.
More than a month after the 2021 season started, BYU football will finally experience its first true road game when it travels to Logan to take on Utah State on Friday. It will also be the first time the Cougars experience a hostile crowd in more than two years.
“We’ll work on communicating, [but] I don’t think that’s anything that you really focus on too much,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “That’s part of playing football, is that you play on the road sometimes. We have some guys that have played on the road and we have some guys on our team that are new to it. So, it’ll be a really cool experience for all of those guys, all of the coaches.”
BYU opened the 2021 season with Arizona at a neutral site — Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. But, with about 80% of the sell-out crowd cheering for the Cougars, it was essentially a home game for BYU.
The next three games were at home in LaVell Edwards Stadium, and the fans have not disappointed the Cougars.
“The environment was loud,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said on the Coach’s Show. “I mean, it was loud down there. I’ve been there — how many times have I been there? A hundred, as player, coach and whatever, and that may have been the loudest I’ve ever heard it in all the trips. … This is one of the loudest experiences in that stadium, and maybe ever. It was really loud.”
LaVell Edwards Stadium has welcomed more than 60,000 fans into its seats in all three games this season. The student section, known as The ROC, has particularly shown up.
During the Arizona State game, with The ROC just behind them, the Sun Devils struggled with the noise and were called for four false start penalties within a single drive.
The offensive players couldn’t hear their own quarterback, Jayden Daniels.
“The crowd noise got to us a little bit,” Arizona State offensive coordinator Zak Hill told reporters. “They weren’t able to hear Jayden’s clap and so we had to transition into a different form of snapping the football. They got to us a bit, rattled us a bit, and then it just compounded.”
After the majority of teams played shortened seasons in empty stadiums a year prior due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems they knew road game environments would be tricky to get used to again.
In just Week 1 of the 2021 season, visiting teams lost 59 of 89 games. A year ago, 6 of 9 teams lost their road games the first weekend of September.
In 2019, visiting teams lost 70 of 85 Week 1 games.
However, there were a total of 427 road game losses in 2019. So far, through Week 4, there have been 122 road game loses. That means, even though it didn’t seem to have had that big of an impact in Week 1, teams this season are on track to lose on the road at a higher rate than in 2019. (Through the COVID 2020 season, there were 281 road game loses.)
Some teams have taken to preparing for hostile crowds in unique ways.
Villanova got ready for their game at Penn State last weekend by practicing while using “a wide array of leaf blowers to simulate crowd noise and run through plays when little can be heard,” as reported by Onward State.
The Wildcats fell to Penn State 38-17 in front of a crowd of 105,790. Villanova Stadium, in comparison, seats about 12,500.
Utah State’s Maverik Stadium currently has a seating capacity of 25,100, but players say, with the way the stadium is set up, it feels like the fans are right on top of them.
Unlike Villanova, wide receiver Neil Pau’u said the Cougars aren’t doing anything different or special to prepare for the hostile crowd. He believes having played in LaVell Edwards, in front of his own rambunctious crowd, has been preparation enough.
If anything, Pau’u is looking forward to a hostile crowd.
“I love it,” Pau’u said. “The more hostile the environment, the better for me. That just kind of brings out a different competitive side to me, in my opinion. Especially up at Utah State, their fans like to talk a lot. Their players like to talk a lot. So it’s going to be a really high-intensity game. I think it just brings out more confidence and more of my swag that I like to put into my game.”
But what’s better than feeding off a hostile fan base? Shutting them up.
The BYU players remember when they did just that in 2019, the last time the programs met and the Cougars walked out with the Wagon Wheel — the trophy of the in-state rivalry — after routing the Aggies 42-14.
“It’s fun,” running back Lopini Katoa said. “They do their thing, they cheer, but a couple of years back they didn’t really have a ton to cheer about. So we’re hoping to do the same thing.”