After BYU’s disappointing 7-6 loss to Northern Illinois, head coach Kalani Sitake said he wants to see quarterback Zach Wilson “let it fly.” Cougar Insiders Dick Harmon, Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney examine what that statement suggests. They also address the Cougars’ lack of consistency in their loss to the Huskies, make their predictions for this week’s BYU-Boise State contest, and revisit the topic of independence. Where does this path lead the Cougars?
Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Dick Harmon: Coming up on this edition of Cougar Insiders, we're going to break down this loss to Northern Illinois, put into perspective what it means, what it doesn't mean, some of the challenges ahead. Kalani Sitake — he kind of had a theme this week in talking to the media and that's consistency. We'll break that down, we'll also talk a little bit of basketball and we'll give your our predictions on the Boise State-BYU game this coming Saturday in Albertson Stadium in Boise. That and much more coming up.
Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast. I'm Dick Harmon, columnist for the Deseret News, along with beat writers Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney. We're coming to you from Thanksgiving Point and we're talking BYU sports. This podcast is brought to you by the Salt Lake Stallions and what if football did not have to end this February? It doesn't. The Salt Lake Stallions of the Alliance of American Football begin their inaugural season, real professional football at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Come see some of the Utes, the Cougars and Aggies and other local players return home, all led by former NFL and college coach Dennis Erickson. Season tickets as low as $75. Call 1-833-AAF-2019 or go to SaltLakeStallions.com. Real football this spring in Utah. Call 1-833-AAF-2019 or go to SaltLakeStallions.com.
Well, gentlemen, a very, very disappointing football loss to Northern Illinois, a respectable team that I don't think a lot of people give credit for the way they play. They've stopped people all year long. They almost beat the Utes. They had a lead on the Utes in the fourth quarter, but BYU once again delivers a very disappointing loss at home with some controversial, you know, calls, an election to punt the ball with just over three minutes to play the ball at midfield, getting booed at the time. Very disappointing crowd I look up there and see the students section did not show up. This is a beautiful day. Sun was shining, weather was great. It was a perfect day for football and all around from the beginning to end, a very disappointing experience for BYU fans, for the team, for the coaches and probably administration. Jeff Call, what did you see?
Jeff Call: Well, yeah, the same thing you saw, except I think that it's not so much the loss, but I think a big part of it is how they lost. To not score a single touchdown. And granted, Northern Illinois is a very good defensive team, but to not be able to put points on the board. It kind of reminds me a little bit of last year's game at home against UMass, where Joe Critchlow is making his second start. In this case, Zach Wilson's making his second start, and it just looked like a defense was prepared for what they're going to see and they knew what they were going to do and they executed it and then BYU's offence just did not have a response.
DH: Ugly, ugly, ugly, Brandon Gurney. But I think that I put this one on — and a lot of people want to blame the coaches. But the coaches didn't have two false start penalties. Something that's been emphasized all year long, through spring, through summer, through fall practice, through every single game, that ultimately ended up costing them the game. But what's your perspective on this loss?
Brandon Gurney: I think fans are struggling to understand what BYU football is, what it's supposed to be, as opposed to what it really is. And I think the reality of where BYU is really hard for these guys to accept. And when you transpose independence, the reason BYU is independent is because they're better than teams like Northern Illinois. They don't share conferences with people like that. They're good enough where they can be independent, but are they? You're seeing home losses to UMass, Northern Illinois and just — you don't want to compare to UMass. Northern Illinois is a really good team. You get that directional school moniker up there and it's like, oh yeah, they're not very good. But they're a good team. Nothing that really happened surprises me all that much. I was surprised at how bad the offensive line play was. That to me, that was the biggest surprise. But overall Northern Illinois is the team that BYU is going to struggle to beat. The product you have right now — and Tom Holmoe said it at media day — we're in a rebuilding process. And they are and BYU's 4-4 right now. You kind of sit back, take a look at things, but I think what gets most fans down is they really believed Zach Wilson was going to be the guy. That's all they needed to do, they were screaming, yeah, we finally got our guy, and he's like what? A six-point what? And I don't want to put it all on Zach Wilson. It was absolutely the right decision to start Zach Wilson, but it just underscores that there's a lot more problems on this team rather than the quarterback, and fans have a hard time coming to grips with that but the talent's not there and it's going to struggle. They're in a rebuilding phase. They need more veteran leadership and they need better talent.
DH: When you change and you go to the youth movement and there's seven to eight freshmen players playing now on offense, you're going to have some lumps here and there. Jeff Call, the strength of Northern Illinois is the run defense. They only allow about 1 or 2 yards a play. BYU struggled to run the ball. At times they did run the ball really well but where the weakness was is defending the pass. They're something like 80th in the country in defending the pass. But when BYU tried to pass, they sacked Zach Wilson five times I believe, and they chased him out of the pocket at least four or five, maybe six other times, so that was not very easy to do. You have a fourth-and-5 at midfield and you elect to punt and probably one of the reasons is, is you have not been able to pass the ball in that second half very effectively and you don't think you would at that point. On the other hand, you get the ball back, you're poised to go down and kick a field goal to win the game. You're in the right position right there to win the game, and then take us through what happened?
JC: Well, I mean, Zach, first down, I think BYU's 35-yard line, and he didn't see the safety coming up. He threw it across the middle, got picked off. And that's basically your ballgame. You know, one thing that I think is disconcerting. I think there's seems to be some sort of disconnect between what Kalani sees BYU supposed to be and trying to do, and what Jeff Grimes is trying to do. Because in the postgame press conference, he talked all about how they need to be more aggressive. Zach Wilson is a gunslinger, he needs to sling it, he needs to throw it all over the field and stuff like that. And the reality is, I don't think — BYU hasn't shown that they have the capability or the talent to be able to do those kind of things. And it's going to take some time and I think eventually you may be able to, but right now, I don't think they are. But it's just again, we haven't talked to Jeff Grimes, offensive coordinator, yet this week. But the stuff that Kalani is saying and the stuff that we saw the play-calling, which is very conservative, again, there seems to be some conflict there between what they can do, what they're able to do, and what Kalani wants to do. And I'm not sure how that's going to get resolved.
DH: What's unusual is he kind of wants to be a Lavell Edwards type of an approach. But saying that after the game, this isn't BYU football, we need to be aggressive, Brandon Gurney, he's kind of departing from that a little bit, because Lavell would not be saying, well, I guess a few times he said, I wish we would have done this. We should have done that or could have done that. But it wasn't like he kind of made a contrast between his offensive coordinator and what they're going to do because plenty of times he disagreed with what Norm Chow may have done or a call that he made and you know he kind of couched that pretty carefully. But Kalani seemed to not do that after the game.
BG: Yeah, he's pretty emotional after those games. He admitted as much and he wanted to clarify comments, says things off the cuff. But I think what's really going on in the mind is what he says off the cuff emotionally. I think when he sits down and tries to clarify what he really meant, I think that might be a little disingenuous. I take Kalani for what he said after the game. That's the real emotion. That's what's going through his head, in my mind. He wants to see production. I mean, I had to laugh. I graded the defense of B plus. Right? And people said it was ridiculous. You held a team to 204 yards and 7 points at home and it wasn't enough. Are you kidding me? What else do you need? Maybe more turnovers. I guess you could argue that, but the fact that you're not able to get it done with the defense performing like that, man is that frustrating. And Kalani's a defensive coach, that's what he's in charge of. And that coupled on the futility we've seen offensively for the last two years, he's at his wit's end.
DH: You had an opportunity, both of you, to listen to Kalani this week. Can you set that up for us, Brandon?
BG: Yeah, he had a theme. I actually went back to count how many times he used the words consistency or variations of it. It was 18 times. 18 times. And he stopped midway through the interview and says I should just put a banner: Today's theme is consistency. And I have to say, man, he must listen to this podcast because what have I been saying? That's the biggest difference between him and Bronco. Bronco was very ,very consistent. Say what you want about Bronco Mendenhall, he was consistent. Consistent application, consistent effort, and all that. And that's what this team lacks. And Kalani put it on himself. I don't know if that was just coach-speak or if he really believes it, but he says we need to consistently put these guys in best positions to exemplify their skill sets. And it's kind of weird to hear that midseason. A directive like that. And I'd like to know specific things that they're changing. Maybe we'll hear about that in the coming weeks, but yeah. Well, at least he as the team right because it is consistency.
DH: John Beck last last week told me to watch for this, you make a quarterback change like this and the biggest thing that you'll need to see is consistency. Because it's like going into a casino and putting a coin in and getting that lever down and the 7s come up and sometimes you're going to get the 7s to line up in a row and you're gonna have a jackpot. But it's very hard to get all of those 7s — the defensive line, the receivers, the running backs, the quarterback — all on the same page when you play and make changes with young players. Let's listen to Kalani Sitake right now:
Kalani Sitake: After evaluating over the weekend, I think the one thing that's really disappointing — I know there's a lot of disappointment from last week's performance — but we need to be more consistent as a team and that's my job as head coach, you know, is to find a way to be consistent. If you look at the season, we've played some really good games and played some really bad ones. You know, even within the game, we've shown some really good things, shown some good drives, and then it's just not consistent enough. And so what I need to do as head coach is find a way to get our team to be consistent because we have really good players, they do everything we asked them to. They work hard. And so really I need to do a better job at making sure our team, our program, and that our results are more consistent on the field and they'll give us a better chance for success. Now that being said, I understand frustrations that are out there from fans' expectations and they're valid, you know, so my focus entirely is on trying to find a way to keep our team consistent and get the results we need, the results that I think our players deserve. So that's going to be the focus and trying to find a way to have better results and just to find ways to give our guys what they deserve and how hard they've worked have a payoff.
DH: This podcast is brought to you by the Salt Lake Stallions. Football does not have to end. The Salt Lake Stallions begin their inaugural season at home on Feb. 23, all led by former NFL and college coach Dennis Erickson. Season tickets for as low as $75. Call 1-833-AAF-2019 or go to SaltLakeStallions.com.
Looking ahead to Boise State. This is a big game. This is a big, big road trip for BYU and, Jeff Call, I can't explain it. But this team plays better on the road.
JC: Yeah, it does. I can't explain it either. Although in Seattle they didn't play very well. But for the most part, yeah, I mean, we've seen against Arizona, Wisconsin, you saw this team come out looking prepared and fired up and ready to play. And this is going to be a tough challenge up on the blue turf, as we know. BYU has never won up there. They've had three, I think three one-point games, games they're in the game and these couldn't get it done. It's going to be tough, but Boise State is a team that, as we know, rolls up a lot of points. (Brett) Rypien's a very good quarterback, he's been pretty good this year, and yeah it's come down to can BYU score enough points? That's going to be tough for this team that's just come off a six-point performance.
DH: Brandon Gurney, if you look the defensive stats Boise State has always played pretty good defense but they are not the defensive team that Washington is, they're not the defensive team — at least in pass defense — that Utah State is or even Northern Illinois. The defensive stats are not there for these teams BYU has lost to the last three losses. Boise State is not that kind of defensive team. Still good but statistically they're not in that realm.
BG: You're going to have to start seeing production. And a lot of it, well basically all of it is lack of a run game. I also went back and I counted how many of those 15 third down conversion attempts were from third-and-5 and longer. Ten of them. Ten of them. You're not going to have success when it's like that. I don't care who you are. When you're consistently faced with third-and-long, especially when you're a freshman quarterback, that's when teams tee off on you. That's when they get creative with pass rushes, that's when they're creative with coverages that really set off a young freshman where it's man, what am I seeing? They dictate what's happening in that regard. So they have to get a running attack established.
DH: Jeff, you got to win on first down. You've got to win on first down and having Squally Canada back gives them a glimpse of what they began the season with, which was very good football and very good run football and power football, which is what Jeff Grimes wants to do. Now that he's come back and had a few plays under his belt, can we expect that Squally would have a bigger role in this game in Boise?
JC: I would think so. Yeah. And, you know, I think Matt Hadley showed us again, played well in the Hawaii game. I think last Saturday he showed some glimpses of what he can do and so yeah, those guys are gonna have to be on point and I think if there's one theme that we've seen throughout the season that separates wins and losses is an ability to run the ball. When they can run the ball they can win. When they don't run the ball well they don't. And so yeah that's got to be priority number one. And then going back to what we're talking about earlier, if Kalani wants to quote-unquote let it rip and let Zach Wilson throw the ball around, I mean, I don't know. You're talking about a team that is down Moroni (Laulu-Pututau), who's out with an injury, Matt Bushman is not 100 percent, and then the receivers, I mean Dylan Collie has just like disappeared. Which has really surprised me. He was a guy that I thought would really add a lot to this team as far as production and we have not seen him. And then you kind of see glimpses here from Talon Shumway and Micah Simon here and there, and Gunner Romney, but you just don't see any consistent playmakers at wide receiver. So that puts even more of a premium on being able to run the ball. They've got to do that.
HD: Big game. Our next segment is talking social media, things that we've heard, things have cropped up, and a lot of people right now, Brandon Gurney, are questioning whether independence is the way to go because the schedule is a little bit different. You've got it tough on the end, you got the home games are sometimes not very interesting, lot of challenges with scheduling, lot of challenges with recruiting, lot of challenges with a lot of aspects of this program we've seen since 2011.
BG: Yeah, it comes down to what are they playing for? You see a team like Northern Illinois, these teams are scheduled to become bowl eligible, that you can beat them, right, at the very least. After that front-loaded schedule this when you're supposed to coast, come into form, and all that, and then you get it laid to you where you're only scoring six points against this team. What's the point? And I think fans are really struggling with that because BYU football isn't what they remember, what they want it to be. And it's tough because the argument is yeah, go back to the conference, go back to the Mountain West and all that, but it ain't the same in the Mountain West. TCU's not there, Utah's not there. It's a step back. But I think fans are just struggling to understand what BYU football really is. Is it really what we've been told? What is it, what are we cheering for right now? What's the point of it? I think that's a tough conversation to have in your mind.
DH: Wins cure all. Just win. Go to Boise State and win. Jeff Call, what's the rest of the story? What have you got for us?
JC: Well I'm going to shift gears a little bit to basketball. So in about a week, BYU opens the regular season at No. 7 Nevada, a very good team, a team that went far the NCAA tournament last year, has a lot of talent coming back. I had a chance to talk to Yoeli Childs down in Las Vegas for the West Coast Conference media day a couple weeks ago and it was really interesting because, as we know, Yoeli tested the NBA waters, right, and he got some evaluation, got some feedback and ultimately decided to return to BYU and I think he's taken all that and he's really worked on his game.
I think one of the things that came out of that was he needs to develop a consistent outside shot. And he's been trying to do that. We saw that in the West Coast Conference tournament, if you remember, against St. Mary's and Gonzaga last March where he was knocking down 3s and really helped BYU in that regard. So I was talking to Yoeli about how he sees this year, is this his last year, is this a swan song? And he told me that his goal is he wants to try to be a first-round pick, play like he can be a first-round NBA pick. He wants to lead BYU back to the NCAA tournament, win a championship, you know all those things and so it's gonna be interesting to see how he performs this year. And the thing for Yoeli is, I think it could be interesting to watch, is teams know about him. I mean, last year there was Elijah Bryant as well. Now all these teams will be gunning for Yoeli. They're going to game-plan specifically for him, how does he respond, how does he adjust to that? So it's gonna be interesting.
DH: This team has to hit 3-pointers. Yoeli's going to do his thing, and he'll be very good, but they have got to help. When they go double down on him they've got to hit the 3-pointers.
So let's get around to our GridPicks right away. There's a great opportunity for you to win prizes by posting your college football predictions online. This is called GridPicks. And you can sign up at DeseretNews.com. I personally pick the 14 games each week. And there are gift cards to be won. Test your knowledge and luck at DeseretNews.com. Let's get your picks right now on Boise State-BYU. Jeff Call?
JC: I'm going Boise State 31-17
DH: Brandon Gurney.
BG: Boise State's going to win this game. And it's going to be lower scoring than Jeff Call thinks. I think BYU's going to bounce back but I'm going to go 24-20 Boise State.
DH: I think it would be pretty close too. I'll say Boise State 28, BYU 24. I don't know, it's going to be a better game. I think these guys will get a good effort, but I kind of worry about the feeling of this team coming out from this loss. There's just a lot of negativity that's just kind of hanging in the air. Now, the rest of the story, gentlemen, what's your final word?
JC: Well, this whole week the whole situation one One kind of storyline that is probably going to get overlooked a little bit just because of the circumstances. But Zach Wilson is going to be starting his first road game on Saturday, and he's going to be going up against the team that he was once committed to, Boise State. I know Boise State really liked Zach Wilson and I think the feelings are mutual there. Something changed and Zach ended up going to BYU, so that's going to be interesting to see him up there on the blue turf wearing BYU blue and we'll see how that goes for him. His first road start, so just kind of another challenge for him.
BG: If you look where BYU's at currently, opposed to what fans expectations were, what many people's expectations were at this time, it was probably 4-4. BYU's still on track. They're rebuilding and I think maybe some expectations were set too high after some early-season successes that no one saw. But if you just come down and understand where BYU is, they're still in a rebuilding process. They're starting out a lot of young players who are still forming identity and all that and you just take your grip of that and understand that and deal with that, it's not that bad. BYU's still two wins away from bowl eligibility. They can get it. And just have that thought and just understand what BYU is.
DH: My final thoughts, gentlemen, this offensive line for BYU has been impressive in a lot of different ways. They're very, very young. But if they go up to Boise State, and these guys play like they're capable of doing and take control of that line of scrimmage, play dominant, play physical, play fierce, push Boise State around on their own field. I think they build confidence and maybe they come out with a win, that will change the whole trajectory for the program, for the season, and for Kalani Sitake.
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