BYU football points to increased energy and better mentality in three-game winning streak

After dropping two straight earlier in the season, the Cougars have been playing much better and vaulted themselves back into the Top 25.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Gunner Romney (18) pulls in a long pass as he’s pressured by South Florida Bulls defensive back TJ Robinson (2) in game action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the South Florida Bulls at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

BYU tight end Dallin Holker looked back at an earlier point of the 2021 season as a “wake-up” call for the Cougars. He was talking, of course, about the two-game losing streak at the hands of Boise State and Baylor that knocked them out of the Associated Press’s Top 25.

“When we lost those games, it was tough on us,” Holker said.

So the Cougars regrouped. They started finding ways to get back to the team that had won five straight to start the season. The team that turned heads all over the country more often than usual.

Those efforts have borne fruit. No. 14 BYU is riding three-game winning streak going into Saturday’s road game against the Georgia Southern Eagles (3-7, 2-5 Sun Belt Conference), who have lost four of their previous five games but are coming off a win over Texas State.

The Cougars didn’t point to anything too complicated when discussing the reasons things have turned around for them in the last few weeks. Coach Kalani Sitake said this week that the team has simply tried to improve on what hasn’t been working.

Sitake has also been trying to help the players think differently about losses.

“They can be hard on themselves,” Sitake said. “I think it’s important for me to get them focused on improvement rather than feeling embarrassed or upset about the loss. I think you get over it by just getting to work and focusing on the next opponent and finding ways to get better.”

BYU has gotten better. In the last two wins against Virginia and Idaho State, the Cougars have scored an average of 62.5 points. Wide receiver Gunner Romney is now fully healthy and looks faster than he’s looked all season, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday.

And while the team will be without Neil Pau’u for Saturday’s game, BYU is confident that its core of wide receivers will get the job done. Georgia Southern this season has allowed opponents 294 passing yards per game while averaging only 153.6 itself.

But Roderick said it won’t be about specific schemes or game plans against the Eagles. It’s going to be about preparation and having the right mentality after coming off a bye week.

Defensive back D’Angelo Mandell pointed to an aspect immeasurable on a stat sheet as an explanation for how well the Cougars have been playing of late.

“Those two games that we lost, we were lackluster in energy and bringing it every quarter,” Mandell said. “So that’s what we were trying to do each and every practice these past few weeks — just being energetic, celebrating the small things. When guys make plays, just to be there and get them excited.”

Linebacker Ben Bywater said the team got “humbled a little bit” after losing to Baylor. Tight end Issac Rex said the Cougars had grown sick and tired of what it felt like to lose.

But now BYU is seemingly back on track.

“Honestly, I’m just glad that we’re back to a winning mentality and we’ve played well,” Rex said. “We have to keep that thing going this week because we’re playing a good opponent.”