BYU head coach Kalani Sitake is as loud as they come in the business of American football coaching. LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah, where the Cougars will host the Bears for their home opener Saturday evening, is one of the more electric venues in college football.
And with a fan base that is as fired up as any after BYU stunned heavily favored Arizona in Tucson last weekend, the Bears might as well be flying into a hornet’s nest for their first road test of the 2018 campaign.
But while there are a number of signs that point toward a win for the home team, counting Cal out isn’t the obvious move if the Bears can start and finish strong against the rejuvenated Cougars.
“Our game is good enough to win,” said junior linebacker Evan Weaver. “With the coaches and what they’ve installed, we should be pretty good. We’re not worried — we just have to go out there and execute.”
As for the nitty-gritty, there’s a lot to digest with more questions than answers for both teams this early in the season. For one, Cal needs to find a rhythm on offense if it wants to have any shot at escaping Provo on top. But at this moment, it’s anybody’s guess as to what direction the team’s offense will take on any given possession.
While Ross Bowers has the experience of playing in a loud road environment, it’s expected that Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain will, once again, be active and inserted at offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s pace.
Fans can bet that after viewing tape of Cal’s satisfying albeit shaky 24-17 win over UNC, BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki will stack the box and force the Bears to expand beyond Patrick Laird in the playbook. None of Cal’s quarterbacks passed for more than 56 yards against the Tar Heels, a stat line that likely won’t get the job done this time around.
That extends the pressure to not just the three rotating quarterbacks, but also the likes of Vic Wharton III, Kanawai Noa, Jordan Duncan and the rest of the Bears’ receiving corps. While tight end Ray Hudson was targeted a handful of times by Bowers and Garbers, it’s expected that BYU will deploy a similar defensive scheme to that which allowed North Carolina to limit Hudson to zero catches.
The good news for Cal? BYU is also still searching for an offensive identity early in the season. The return of senior Tanner Mangum against Arizona after a devastating Achilles tear last season was undoubtedly a welcome sight for the Cougars faithful. BYU’s offense didn’t exactly put on a textbook-esque clinic against the Wildcats in Week 1, but it did get three touchdowns from tailback workhorse Squally Canada.
The senior from Milpitas, California, received 26 touches last Saturday, highlighted by 24 carries on the ground en route to a career night. Yet many will argue that the team’s Week 1 victory can primarily be attributed to brilliant ball control and perhaps even better defense. Like the Bears, the Cougars kept the rock away from their opponent, maintaining possession for more than 36 minutes — well above the Wildcats’ 23:27.
“The key is to just play our game,” said redshirt senior linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. “To have great communication from the back end to the defensive line — as long as we do that, we’ll be ready for whatever they throw at us.”
Ten penalties and a shaky final frame showed that BYU was far from perfect in its execution, but a 21-point third quarter gave it just enough cushion to knock off a dangerous Pac-12 school.
With Cal linebacker Cameron Goode’s status doubtful after he suffered a lower body injury late against UNC, expect his outside counterpart Alex Funches to step up to the challenge of stopping Canada and utility playmaker Aleva Hifo.
“Alex is a great guy. He’s a great teammate, he’s a great player,” Kunaszyk said of Funches. “We’re very blessed and fortunate to have him on our side of the ball.
Although many speculate that Bowers will get the first crack when Cal’s offense takes the field, BYU is ready for anything — after all, Tuiaki’s squad held Heisman hopeful Khalil Tate more than just in check. Tate recorded a miniscule 14 yards on the ground and the Wildcats posted just 3.7 yards per carry against Butch Pau’u, Zayne Anderson, 6’9” Corbin Kaufusi and the rest of BYU’s front seven.
If Cal is to avoid Arizona’s fate, finishing off strong will be just as vital as the first 3.5 quarters of action. A 24-3 lead against UNC evaporated to a single score late in the fourth quarter, and college football fans are well aware that Mangum possesses an undeniable flair for the dramatic.
This isn’t a national rugby championship featuring Cal and BYU, two historically successful programs in their own right. But it sure feels like it, given how similar these two teams are. With 65,000 expected to be on hand and more tuning in on national television for Saturday night’s affair, expect plenty of noise from the home and national crowds as they see which team will blink first — and which will continue its season unscathed.