Provo • So, does Tennessee getting upset in its season opener by a Georgia State team projected to finish last in the Sun Belt Conference make the Volunteers less or more dangerous to BYU in their matchup this Saturday?
Does losing to a Group of Five program that went 2-10 a year ago indicate this Vols program is still beleaguered by depth issues and remains in the infancy of its rebuilding, and thus simply doesn’t pose a huge threat? Or will the proud SEC program’s stunning Week 1 defeat prove the catalyst for a renewed level of focus and energy, to be directed at BYU?
Not surprisingly, Cougars coach Kalani Sitake — in his first meeting with the media since last Thursday’s 30-12 drubbing at the hands of Utah — pointed out that his own team has too many issues to address for him to be focused on what will or won’t motivate Tennessee.
“With all the mistakes, there’s a lot of stuff we can still work on,” Sitake said Monday.
Everyone who took a turn sitting at the head of the table in the Student Athlete Building answering questions acknowledged some complicity in how the Utah game turned out.
Sitake expressed regret at not trusting his defensive backups and leaning too heavily on the starters, to the point he felt they tired late trying to stop Utes back Zack Moss from running the clock down: “I thought maybe some of the guys stayed on the field a little bit too long and probably could have come off. We could have better rotation and keep our guys fresh.”
Quarterback Zach Wilson, referencing the pair of pick-sixes he threw, conceded he committed “a lot of critical plays. I’ve got to be smarter with the ball in my hands.”
Defensive end Trajan Pili noted BYU “missed a lot of tackles as a defense … that’s just a fundamental.”
Center James Empey, meanwhile, didn’t really want to get into specifics beyond “execution issues,” though he did ultimately divulge that “maybe different timing issues or assignment issues, things like that” were partly to blame.
So, then, with a trip to Knoxville coming up later this week — Sitake said the team would fly out a day early on Thursday to acclimate to the time difference — what do the Cougars do now?
Pretty much everyone was in agreement: recognize what went wrong vs. Utah, work to correct it, and don’t make the same mistakes again. To that end, the Cougars got right back to work on Friday, just hours after the disappointing defeat.
“I know the guys were really hurt after it, but we came to work the next day. You gotta learn from it and move on,” Sitake said. “It didn’t really matter the result — we would’ve had to put it away and learn from it and move on to the next one. With the schedule that we have right now, we don’t really have time to dwell on it much.”
Asked about running back Ty’Son Williams getting only seven carries against the Utes, Sitake said that was pretty much a microcosm of the self-perpetuating second-half problems. The offense didn’t do much with the chances it had — which then put the defense back on the field. Then the worn-out defense couldn’t get stops — preventing the offense from getting more chances.
“Utah did a great job of keeping the ball away, and possessing the ball, and our offense didn’t really do enough to get more first downs and get more plays in the second half,” he explained. “… If we can get more than 15 plays in the second half — that’s the key. … I think we had, like, 40 plays in the first half, so if we can get 40 plays, that’s means we’re converting third downs and we’re getting first downs, and we’re driving down the field. Then there’ll be more opportunities.”
Getting more opportunities is one thing. Doing something with them is another.
Still, Wilson believes many of the self-inflicted problems that hurt BYU against Utah are easily remedied heading into the Tennessee game.
“There was a lot of confusion throughout the game of who’s lining up where, who’s supposed to do what, clock management, just getting up and getting set and ready to go,” Wilson said. “Now that we’ve had that first game, we should be a lot better in overall execution.”
Of course, they expect the same of Tennessee, too.
No one would say directly if Tennessee was more or less dangerous as a result of the loss, but their thoughts on the Vols certainly gave an impression of leaning one way. Asked if any of his players might be prone to underestimating Tennessee following its 38-30 stunner, Sitake chuckled, before noting he expected both teams to come out intending to prove something.
“We gotta keep working and take it out on Tennessee — who’s coming off a similar deal,” he said. “You’ve got two teams that are pretty upset about their performance in the first week.”
Empey seemed to be channeling his inner Bill Belichick, concluding each of his first three responses — to questions about the Utes game — with some variation of, “and we’re moving on to Tennessee this week.”
As for Pili, he watched the game on TV, admitted to being surprised by the result, and tucked away a few tidbits he noticed, but also vowed not to overreact to it.
“Tennessee is still a good team, they have good players — I know a few of ’em. They’ll come ready,” he said. “Watching, after the game, they were pretty distraught, pretty mad. I know they’re gonna be prepared for this week.”
But, he conceded, that shocking result didn’t really matter to him one way or the other.
“They can come in with whatever record — I just wanna beat them,” Pili added. “That’s my mentality towards it.”
BYU AT TENNESSEE
At Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
Saturday, 5 p.m. MT
TV • ESPN