Independence Bowl loss ‘a step back,’ but Kalani Sitake vows improvement from BYU football

Sitake talked about the team needing to get deeper and for him to make sure subs are ready to play.

(Matthew Hinton | AP) BYU head coach Kalani Sitake walks the field after a weather delay for Independence Bowl NCAA college football game against UAB in Shreveport, La., Saturday.

Shreveport, La. • For the entire time after the BYU football team learned it would be playing the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the Independence Bowl, the Cougars touted how well-coached the Blazers were.

But the Cougars were the No. 13 team in the country, and the Blazers didn’t even have the best record in their own conference. Fans on social media expressed disappointment that BYU didn’t get a better bowl game against a more prestigious opponent. Even a couple of the players on the team said it was difficult not getting picked for a New Year’s Six game.

Still, all signs pointed to the Cougars running away with the game — well, before the game at least. Then the Blazers came out and scored the first two touchdowns of the game and took advantage of poor defense and a costly turnover to upset BYU. Maybe UAB actually did want it more than the Cougars, who spent all bowl week saying how hungry they were to win.

The result lent itself to a question: For a BYU team that has won 21 games in the last two seasons and is headed to the Big 12 Conference, does losing to UAB slow down the program’s positive momentum?

“If we choose it to,” coach Kalani Sitake said when asked that very question. “The momentum is caused by us. We keep the momentum going.”

But the potential significance of losing the Independence Bowl, at least from a perception standpoint, wasn’t lost on Sitake.

“This is a step backwards, I get it,” Sitake said. “Nobody likes to lose.”

Then Sitake appeared to speak directly to the fan base with what he said next.

“But, we’ll learn,” Sitake said. “I promise you we’ll learn from this and we’ll be a better team because of it. It all depends on how we approach it. We have a lot of guys coming back and a lot of really good talent — new talent — coming to our program, too.”

Sitake recently signed an extension that will keep him with the program through 2027 — barring any unforeseen circumstances, of course. His team dealt with injuries to several key players all year, including against UAB when quarterback Jaren Hall sat out due to an injury in his right leg.

While injuries are part of any season in a sport like football, Sitake did say the team can get better at finding ways to mitigate their impact on winning.

“I think the best way for us to improve is just to make sure that second [and] third stringers are ready to roll and that they have this mindset to sub in a game, find a way to perfect their craft and really master their position,” Sitake said. “It comes down to them doing it, but it also comes down to me and the other coaches putting them in that position, giving them the autonomy to find ways to improve.”

Provided the team is healthy next year and players like Tyler Allgeier and Gunner Romney decide to run it back, the Cougars could have another successful season in 2022.

“Today just didn’t work out well for us. It’s OK. We lost a game. But it would be worse if we lost a game and we don’t learn from it.”

At first blush, the Cougars need more reliable depth on defense. Missing starters on that side of the ball really hurt them at times this season, and that bore out especially against UAB.

Sitake acknowledged the team has to get deeper across the board going forward.

“We knew going into the season that we had to rely on our depth,” Sitake said. “We knew that going into six years ago that we had to improve our depth. And our depth was really good. Just not good enough.”

Defensive lineman Tyler Batty said it was difficult at times this season to handle the constantly changing lineups on that side of the ball. But it seemed as though he felt confident about the defensive outlook next year.

“We have a lot of talent,” Batty said. “We have a lot of guys that can make plays. I think overall, looking towards next year, it’s just cleaning up the little things.”