Dick Harmon: In this week of Cougar Insiders podcast, we're going to give you a complete breakdown on the Arizona-BYU game. We'll talk a little bit about recruiting and what impact this game had and can have and should have on recruits that are watching BYU's program very closely. We'll also be predicting and breaking down the Cal-BYU game, BYU's first home game of the season. It'll be that and more on this edition of the Cougar Insiders podcast.
Hi, this is Dick Harmon, along with Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney, two compatriots from the Deseret News, and we're back from the University of Arizona and a football game there. We're gonna be talking about the upcoming game against the Cal Bears, BYU hosting them for the first home game. But first of all, we've got to break down this game, and Jeff Call, we were both there. We saw firsthand something that none of us in this room predicted, that BYU would go down there and win that game. A lot of hype about their Heisman Trophy candidate, Khalil Tate, a lot of people in the national media, us included, we did not think BYU would go down there and be able to stop him from outscoring BYU's offense. But coming away from that game, I thought BYU took it to them, punched them in the mouth. Very impressive by BYU's offensive line. They had two redshirt freshmen starting in that game. And they were pretty dominating.
Jeff Call: They were, and you know, I kind of thought, I think I've said this before on a previous episode that I thought the key to the season for BYU to really turn things around or at least be competitive this season was to be strong on the offensive and defensive lines. That's Kalani's mindset, that's what he wants to do with this program, and Game 1 was the perfect example of that. I mean they dominated pretty much on both sides of the ball, especially the offensive line. I mean those guys were impressive, and like you said, they were playing with guys that either had never played before at this level, or never played before with BYU. Tristen Hodge is another guy — a starter that transferred from Notre Dame — and they just manhandled Arizona in every way you could. They imposed their will and it was so impressive to see that. And then on the other side of the ball, what BYU did with Khalil Tate was so impressive. Corbin Kaufusi kind of acted like a spy in containing him on the outside, and they just made him look like an average quarterback. We kept looking around going, where's this Heisman Trophy candidate we've been hearing about, that's been hyped up, that's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And that guy wasn't there. And a lot of it you have to give the credit to BYU's defense for the game plan and how they contained him.
DH: We had to feel for Tanner (Mangum). Tanner came into this game with a lot of people questioning why he was the starter after hearing so much about Zach Wilson, had a great fall practice, and yet I don't think there was a lot of spectacular things that Tanner did. But he didn't hurt himself. He didn't throw any interceptions. There were no turnovers. He was a game manager. At one point in the third quarter, he had nine straight completions, which completely took the game into control. I would say Tanner Mangum has to be the happiest guy on Earth.
JC: Yeah, he's back to smiling again, which we didn't see a whole lot from him last year. He's a typically pretty upbeat guy and he played great. I mean, I thought that, like you said, he didn't do anything that would you know, make you think that he was a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he did manage the game well, he distributed the ball — I thought that's something he really did well, he got the ball to a lot of different receivers. Ten different guys caught passes. And then with that jet sweep, I think that really caught Arizona off guard and, at least they didn't really know how to defend it very well because it was pretty successful. Just got a lot of guys involved in the offense. And again, that's something that we didn't see last year. Tanner didn't have a whole lot of support. There weren't a whole lot of playmakers out there, and what we saw on Saturday was a whole lot of players who showed they could be playmakers and difference-makers and get the ball up the field.
DH: Brandon Gurney, we talked two weeks ago about how important it was for BYU to get off to a real good start, that there could be a disaster waiting for them if they ended up being 0-3 or 0-4 in that. How does this change, how does this win maybe change that a little bit heading into this first home game?
Brandon Gurney: Oh, it changes so much. I mean you could see it with the players that we interviewed yesterday. Butch Pau'u, I mean it's just like a weight was lifted off their shoulders because you never ultimately know exactly how something's going to turn out. I think what's significant is the offense looked exactly like they said they wanted to look. And it looked like a BYU offense should look. The "go fast, go hard" just never really seemed to fit what BYU should be athletically. It worked by and large, but offensive line play — that's where BYU is going to get an advantage over a lot of teams is with the line play. They can get those big bodies, they can recruit them, they can develop them. I mean, we make fun of people saying oh the age thing. And we argue it's not a factor. With the line, it's kind of a huge factor.
DH: I mean, you take (Brady) Christiansen. Christiansen's a freshman but he's 21 or 22 years old. He's 295, 300 pounds, 6-foot-6.
BG: That's where you're going to see it is in the line play. And they have the right coach and what we saw I think was significant. I think this is exactly the type of offense BYU should be.
DH: Brandon, a lot of use of the tight ends mostly in the second half. Throwing out of the backfield to backs in the flats when people are open plane and that worked. You know, that goes back to Aaron Roderick telling me back in the summer, he said we're going to do a lot of things that you saw BYU do back in the good old days. We're going to see running backs become more of a part of the offense, and it's not necessarily carrying the ball, it's being receivers, and we saw that a lot. On defense, a 6-foot-9 spy. That completely caught them off guard. I think Arizona was not preparing for that.
BG: I mean, when we were thinking about — I mean honestly did you guys ever think oh they're gonna put Corbin Kaufusi to spy on him. I didn't. Was that even a possibility? Props to (Ilaisa) Tuiaki and the defensive brain trust for pulling that out. I mean, that's kind of a risky thing. It's very unique. I mean you could just mail it in, OK, our top safety is going to spy him. During the broadcast — they were thinking (Sione) Takitaki was spying him throughout the entire broadcast just because it's so extraordinary to have that guy do it. Corbin was fantastic. He was absolutely — he tied for the team lead in tackles from the defensive end position, he was a game changer. You saw what Bronson (Kaufusi) in a lot of his games that he changed the game, he changed what an offense was able to do. I think you saw that from Corbin Kaufusi, and that's a very positive development in that first game of the season, where he can fulfill a big role like that and see a lot of success.
DH: One question mark, Brandon Gurney, and we'll get your comment on this too, Jeff, is that we saw Chris Wilcox, who's got a tremendous amount of talent — he's very quick. But he was replaced late in the game or several times in the game by some true freshmen cornerbacks. Has he lost his job, Brandon? Or has he, in effect?
BG: It's really frustrating because he's such a nice kid and he has such good speed, he's right on the guys. But the first two long passes you're seeing the same thing as three years ago and you compare a guy like Chris Wilcox — there's just an ability guys have, you have it or you don't — and you have to wonder does Chris really have this? Can he really develop it? I mean you look at a guy like Kai Nacua, it just comes naturally. They just know how to make plays on the ball, they know how to look for it. Chris doesn't have that, and after three years trying to develop that, maybe he'll never have that. I hope he does. I'm cheering for the kid. He's a nice kid. And he did defend the long ball better late in the game than he did coming out. So yeah, give him a few more chances. And we'll see if it develops.
DH: Jeff, what did you see when the replacements came in?
JC: Well, I think that this is kind of a calculated risk for the coaching staff to move Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner from corner to safety, and they told us during the offseason that they were going to put these guys in, the younger guys in, less experienced guys in like Chris Wilcox, and see how they do and try to give them some experience. And I think this is going to be something we're going to see throughout the season. I think you're going to see (Michael) Shelton and Wilcox. We're gonna see some of these other guys come in, D'Angelo Mandell and other guys that are true freshman that will get a shot to show what they can do, kind of develop as the season goes. And they're probably gonna give up some big plays because of it. But I think for the long-term health of the program and the defense I think this is what they want to do and kind of develop these guys moving forward.
DH: Well, last year was a downer. Cougar Nation was down. It was depressing for a lot of people. Season ticket sales have been suffering because of that. There was a lot of changes in this offensive coaching staff over the offseason. A lot of switches around from positions and stuff like that. At the media availability, we had an opportunity to talk to Kalani Sitake about last year's impact on what's going on right now:
Kalani Sitake: I don't really care about last season. We care about this week, right now, the work that we're going to get done. You know, none of that last year factored into the preparation from January to now. So we're going to get ready. We won the game, we're happy. But now we're getting right back to work. You know, this is a good holiday for everybody else, but not for us. We're right back to work. Our players are ready to work, we're ready to work out today and have a good practice. And yeah, all we can focus on is trying to get this one. And it starts with the preparation today. And I think that would give us our confidence going into Saturday.
DH: You know, in the rest of the story segment, Jeff, a lot of people, including people in this room and on the national level, did not think BYU would go down there and win that game. In a lot of ways it was a big disrespect to BYU and their tradition that they could not turn the season around, the program around in the course of eight months. A lot of people did not believe that. Some people still do not believe that. But there were signs that this is a whole new program, whole new attitude and other energy and stuff like that. What do you make of this Arizona game? Is there a statement behind that? Is there another part of the story? What's the untold part?
JC: Well, I think part of the untold story may be, or something that I noticed during that game was you know, we heard all the hype about Khalil Tate, Heisman credentials, and what he did, especially in October last year, just running all over people. You've got to give a lot of credit to, obviously the new offensive staff deserves a lot of credit for what they've done, but the defense kind of flew under the radar a little bit. It was overshadowed by the offense during the offseason. But I was really impressed with what Coach Tuiaki and his staff were able to do. It seemed to me almost like that Arizona's coaches figured, OK, we're going to use this first game, we're going to prove that Khalil Tate is a throwing quarterback, we're going to give him as many opportunities to do that, work out some kinks, and be able to show that he can do it. And BYU wasn't gonna allow that to happen. And I think you have to give, again, a lot of credit to BYU's coaches. They outcoached Arizona. They flat-out outcoached them. And like we talked about, the way they used Corbin Kaufusi was brilliant, and it worked out great, and Khalil Tate struggled going downfield. He wasn't very accurate, and BYU got pressure on him and I wouldn't be surprised if other teams moving forward look at BYU's film and the game plan they used against Khalil Tate and they used that moving forward. It'll be interesting to see how he does the rest of the season.
DH: You know we have a sponsor for the next portion of what we're doing right now. This portion of the Cougar Insiders podcast is brought to you by Cougarfan.com. Cougarfan.com is the latest news about your favorite Cougar team from lacrosse to women's soccer, and the latest from the football or basketball teams. Cougarfan.com gives you the inside look at all things BYU. And of course, what would a fan site be without a message board. Leave your hot takes or Cougar rumors all at Cougarfan.com. Thank that sponsor. And Brandon Gurney, the internet speaks. What do we know from the internet? What can we talk about?
BG: Oh, a lot of hot takes, a lot of happiness. Man. It's been a long time since BYU fans were happy and excited. Wow, it's actually fun to watch BYU football again, you know, and I think what fans invariably do, and I saw a lot of posts, a lot of discussion, a good discussion about it, is where does this win rank in the independence era? And you have to consider — I think there's three primary games — the two wins against Texas 2013, 2014. The win against Nebraska in 2015. All those wins have a common theme, which is why I am going to declare here the win on Saturday was the biggest win in the independence era. Because all those teams, they weren't as good as you thought they were when BYU beat them. BYU just trounced Texas. It was amazing, it was like, wow they can play with anyone in the nation, holy cow. And then other teams are doing that. Still nice win, right? So I don't know how Arizona is going to look for the rest of the season, so you have to just look inward and what it meant to the BYU program. Those teams that beat Texas twice and Nebraska — they knew what they were. It was a Bronco Mendenhall-coached team and it wasn't critical. This win was so critical for the validation of everything that's been going on for the last eight months within the program. BYU was bad last year. I think a lot of people forget just how bad that team was. And to go in against a quality opponent — Arizona's a good team. Again, I don't know how well they're going to do, but for the factor that everything worked, everything that you put into — the offensive staff, the game planning, the practice methodology that's been changed, everything worked, and it's just a huge validation and it's a confidence builder and to me, it's absolutely the biggest win for those factors.
DH: Well you make a good point. And, Jeff, if you look at this game, the buildup to it was that BYU had no chance and that Arizona was a dark horse in the Pac-12, that they would be challenging probably for the South title, that they had this great player that could do anything — you know 9 yards a carry last year, four straight Pac-12 offensive player of the week honors and that. And then afterwards, BYU beats them, surprises people, shocks people. I mean, Reese Davis on ESPN said BYU had no answer for Tate. But now afterwards, it's like, well they weren't any good anyway. Arizona's just always been sloppy, they're bad, and stuff like that. How does BYU get respect from this one?
JC: Well, I think it's by coming out Saturday and showing that they can still do more things and show more things. I think Arizona is a program that over the years has a few up years, mediocre years and some bad years. Coming into the season, Arizona was hyped up about as much as I've heard in quite a while, and a lot of that's because of Khalil Tate. And I think this game specifically, BYU coming off such a bad season, I think we tend to underestimate a little bit, especially in college football, how things can change in a short period of time. Some coaching changes, having guys healthy, things like that can really — you know, we tend to maybe over-exaggerate or we tend to look at the recent history and a recency bias, I guess, and I'll admit I didn't think there was any way BYU was gonna win this game. Because I thought it was going to take a long time for the offense to get going, for them to find themselves. But they came up with the right game plan, they had the right people in the right places, the right mentality, the stuff that we've been hearing about for months during the offseason about the culture, about establishing a dominance starting with the offensive line, and we've been hearing that for months and months and months and now they finally went out and proved it. And so yeah, moving forward starting Saturday, they've got a chance to play and beat another Pac-12 team, and if they can do that then I think BYU is on their way to maybe establishing themselves as overcoming the damage they did to themselves, to the program brand last year.
DH: Now let's talk a little bit about recruiting. We were down in the desert just a little bit north of where we were in Tucson, up into the Phoenix area. Jacob Conover, the quarterback who is committed, a four-star quarterback had quite the night and, Brandon Gurney, let's talk to you about this recruiting weekend, prospects and how they did
BG: It's — wow it's a positive thing. A lot of these guys, and I've mentioned before, take a guy like Chase Roberts — a guy who's firmly committed, and he believes he's firmly committed, but a guy that's going to have a lot of other opportunities. He's already scheduled some other trips and all that. And I maintained if BYU laid an egg again this year like they did last year, these guys are going to start looking elsewhere. There's no question. But I think with a win like that, this confirms to guys like that that BYU is largely the program that they committed to. Yeah, they can beat these teams, that they can do it. It's a huge thing. It is a big thing. The only thing bigger would be beating Utah. I can't tell you how big of a thing that is as far as the local recruiting scene goes. You saw a bump before Kalani lost his first game to Utah. You were able to still recruit and that, but these wins — recruits really react — I mean these are teenagers. They're emotional. They see wins, they get high. They want to play for that program. So absolutely a big deal on the recruiting front.
DH: And Jacob Conover — if you haven't had a chance — the Deseret News' Brandon Judd went down there with a video crew and he did a great story down there with some tape and interviews of Jacob Conover. I think he had, was it three or four touchdowns in that game that they had. A very good performance for him.
Let's break down the Bears. BYU will be hosting the Cal Bears from the Pac-12, another Pac-12 team. An opportunity to go 2-0 in the Pac-12 without even being a member of that conference. California is improved. Two years ago, they were one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12. They made a coaching change, they were a little bit better this past year. They've got a returning quarterback in Ross Bowers, who's a 3,000-yard passer. All of their offensive linemen returned. Jeff Call, they've got receivers Kanawai Noa, Vic Wharton and Demetrius Robertson. Robertson had 50 catches as a freshman, 67 last year. And I think offensively, they might pose some problems for BYU in a more organized way than we saw out of the Wildcats.
JC: Yeah, so it's an interesting, kind of different challenge this week. So obviously for months during the offseason everyone knew, BYU knew they needed to prepare for Khalil Tate. And they knew exactly who they were going to get, they had tons of film on him and things like that. This week we're in a situation where Cal has three quarterbacks — they used three quarterbacks last Saturday and they don't seem to have a determined starter. So now the challenge for BYU's defense is OK, we've got to prepare for possibly two or three different guys. And like Arizona, they've got a lot of talent, a lot of athletic ability and speed, and so that's something that they're going to have to have to deal with. On the defensive side, Justin Wilcox, like you mentioned, Cal's coach. He's a defensive guy, a defensive guru, and he's really you know, for years Cal's had this reputation of being, under Sonny Dykes, soft and mostly an offensive team. Throw up a lot of points but can't stop anybody. And now Cal has kind of established themselves more as a team that — defensive-minded, and they've got some pretty good defensive lines. It's gonna be a good test for BYU's offensive line and it'll be interesting to see how that goes this week.
DH: Brandon Gurney, what does BYU have to do in this home game? We don't know how the crowd is going to be, the crowd's been down, season tickets have been down, but with a win like that you might think that the student section should be packed. There should be a lot of enthusiasm among students to show up for this game, and people might be buying some tickets where they may be let them go so the energy level should be there. But what does BYU have to do on the heels of a win at Arizona to come out and really get the job done in front of their home crowd?
BG: Kalani said in his interview that it's going to get tougher against Cal. And usually that's just coach-speak but I believe that's the truth. I don't believe that Arizona was really prepared well for what BYU showed them. I think they underestimated the opponent. I don't think they had a good game plan. I think Cal's gonna have a much better game plan going in. Nothing really that blows you away — beating North Carolina 24-17 at home — it's like all right, good, so what, you know? But they did win and not a lot of passing yards. You look at these quarterback stats — they look like they're going to struggle throwing the ball, which might be a really good thing for BYU. Not exploiting BYU deep and all that. And for the second week in a row it looks like that very well might be the case. I don't believe Cal's going to pose as big a test as Arizona did offensively, but I think defensively they're going to be much better.
DH: They've got a lot of speed in their secondary, they've got a pretty good defensive line. They're pretty stout up front, they're going to pressure Tanner Mangum. They're going to give him I think a little bit more different looks and come after him and Tanner needs to manage that. I think at times in the game against Arizona he managed it very well, and other times he kind of got happy feet, kind of got loose, and he didn't give enough time to make a play work when maybe if he just held on just a minute or two — or not a minute but a second or two longer then he would have found somebody and made the play.
Anyway, final word. Jeff Call, final word of the of the segment here this podcast.
JC: Well again, looking ahead to Saturday I think the next challenge for this offense is the fact that this is a different situation where there's now stuff on tape. We now know what Jeff Grimes' offense looks like. Now how many more wrinkles will they have? I don't know. I would expect some. I would expect BYU to show some new things. Maybe other guys will be involved that we didn't see on Saturday — maybe Gunner Romney, maybe Beau Hoge if they're healthy and ready to go. Add a couple more weapons to the repertoire of the offense. So again, this is something where BYU is going into a situation where they're gonna be at home, they've got some momentum. I mean they were never this high at any point last year. I mean, they're starting kind of fresh and have a chance to build some momentum. We know how tough this September schedule is. This is a chance to get a win, a game that they should win because they're at home. And I believe they've got the talent to do it.
DH: Brandon Gurney, they have a chance to be 2-0 and that's saying a lot from where they ended last year. Your final word.
BG: Yeah, you now expect BYU to win. Going into the season you thought this might be a toss-up game, but you absolutely expect BYU to win this game. I think it's going to be lower scoring. I think it's gonna be 23-16 BYU. I'm just not sold on Cal offensively. I think they're figuring out a lot of things. And I think BYU will take advantage of that. I thought the linebacking play was outstanding for BYU last game. Takitaki switching to linebacker? Absolutely the right decision.
DH: When Butch Pau'u is healthy, that makes a huge difference.
BG: And I think they're going to limit what Cal does. I'd be surprised if Cal was able to score more than 20 points.
DH: My final word is BYU is trying to play kind of a power game. They're putting two tight ends in on some sets to run the ball. They're trying to push the ball down the field with running backs, with jet sweeps. They're trying to own that line of scrimmage and impose their will on opposing defenses. I think they continue to do that, they try to do that, and I think if they are able to do that in the fourth quarter, the altitude — we've seen the University of Arizona, I don't think their conditioning was very good. I don't know how Cal's is but sometimes Pac-12 teams, except for Utah and maybe Washington and Stanford, have been seen as maybe teams that are just not very strong and tough. UCLA showed that this past week. And I think if BYU gets into the fourth quarter and is ahead or with the lead and controlling the line of scrimmage, that will be huge.
Hey, thanks for joining us on this edition of the Cougar Insiders podcast. We invite you to subscribe to this podcast. Find it wherever you look for podcasts. You can also send us an email at Cougarinsiders@DeseretNews.com. We appreciate your following us and please join us next week.