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Steve Griffin, Deseret News
BYU linebacker Adam Pulsipher signals incomplete pass during the Cougars' win over Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

PROVO — When asked last June about the difficulty of independent schedules — particularly that they're frontloaded with Power 5 opponents — BYU coach Kalani Sitake didn’t flinch.

“If we’re going to work toward a Power 5 (conference) then we need to have a schedule that matches it,” he said, having come off a 4-9 season. “Everything (athletic director) Tom (Holmoe) and the administration has done is to get us ready to be a Power 5 program.”

The Cougars’ early-season victories at Arizona and Wisconsin have seemed to validate that approach.

“There are two trains of thought. One is, you grow from winning. The other is, you grow from knowing how to improve,” Sitake said Monday. “I’m probably more the latter. I think winning is the easier part. The hard part is getting everything lined up so you can win and be in the position to succeed. That’s the foundation we needed to set.”

Last year’s 40-6 loss at home to Wisconsin exposed weaknesses in the program and Sitake made changes accordingly. Last Saturday, the Cougars upset the No. 6 Badgers, 24-21.

If we’re going to work toward a Power 5 (conference) then we need to have a schedule that matches it. Everything (athletic director) Tom (Holmoe) and the administration has done is to get us ready to be a Power 5 program.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake

No, Sitake isn’t backing down from challenging schedules. He and Holmoe work together, seeking games against prominent programs.

“I just tell him to line ‘em up. If it’s a great team, let’s do it. If it’s in 2028, I hope I’m still here for that. It seems so long from now,” Sitake said. “I like (former Fresno State coach) Pat Hill’s approach to things — anyone, anywhere, anytime. I think that’s cool. I’m not worried about being somewhere for 50 years. I just want to get a foundation built. It’s what we enjoyed when I was here with LaVell (Edwards) — there was a tradition and it was built on a strong foundation. That’s what we’re trying to get right now.”

Steve Griffin
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates a defensive cougar stand during the Wisconsin versus BYU football game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE FEWER INJURIES MAKES: During BYU’s ill-fated season in 2017, the Cougars saw 13 starters miss games due to injuries. Several suffered season-ending injuries.

While linebacker Butch Pau’u and fullback Brayden El-Bakri were among those sidelined for last week’s win at Wisconsin due to injuries, BYU hasn’t been nearly as impacted by injuries so far this season.

Brigham Young Cougars running back Brayden El-Bakri (35) celebrates a Brigham Young Cougars running back Squally Canada (22) touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

“Hats off to our strength staff for getting our bodies to a point where we can handle as much as we’ve been going through,” said defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi. “Some of the big injuries you can’t prepare for. A lot of it has to do with the way our bodies have been trained this offseason.”

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Sitake also credited BYU’s strength and conditioning staff, trainers and players for his team’s improved health.

Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi (90) sacks Arizona Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate (14) against the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

“There’s a difference between hurt and injured. Everybody’s hurting right now. Everybody’s tired and sore. Injured is not able to participate,” he said. “Our strength room and athletic training have done a great job of keeping our guys healthy. Give a lot of credit to our players for being mindful of their health and taking care of their bodies with the right nutrition and the right rest that’s required to heal properly."