PROVO, Utah — A new culture has taken hold in the BYU football program.
The No. 25 Cougars are playing with toughness and a positive attitude. They are using smash-mouth physical football to go toe-to-toe with Power 5 opponents. There’s no better evidence of the effectiveness of this approach than road wins over Arizona and Wisconsin.
Now BYU is in position hardly anyone anticipated before the season. The Cougars are back in the AP Top 25 heading into Saturday’s game against McNeese State one year removed from a disastrous 4-9 campaign.
“The culture of the team is taking form and the players believe,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “We talked about developing a strong belief in what we’re doing and how we play the game and we’re really pleased with the way the guys are doing it.”
Signs of that cultural evolution were all over the place in BYU’s 24-21 victory over Wisconsin. The Cougars outgained the Badgers in yards per play, averaging 6.1 yards while limiting Wisconsin to 5.5 yards. BYU (2-1) achieved that feat while running only 51 plays compared to 71 plays for the Badgers.
It isn’t a fluke either. Arizona managed 4.7 yards per play on 69 plays while BYU averaged 5.5 yards. Even California, in its win over the Cougars, managed only 5.5 yards.
BYU’s dominance has been most pronounced in the third quarter. The Cougars have outscored opponents 35-7 in that quarter through three games.
“The biggest thing is how tough we can be,” defensive end Corbin Kaufusi said. “Everyone is tough, football is a tough sport, but it’s coming back from last season and translating that into your work ethic.”
McNeese State can appreciate the desire to play a tough brand of football. The Cowboys have imposed their defensive will in racing out to a perfect start through their first three games.
Among FCS teams, McNeese State ranks fourth with nine turnovers gained and sixth with five fumble recoveries. An ability to pressure the quarterback has made those takeaways possible. The Cowboys (3-0) rank fifth in the FCS with 14 total sacks.
B.J. Blunt is a leader in setting a disruptive tone for McNeese State. In his team’s 20-10 victory over Nicholls State last Saturday, Blunt totaled nine tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, and a fumble recovery. His fumble recovery on the opening kickoff led to a 16-yard touchdown catch by Lawayne Ross only 10 seconds later.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” McNeese State coach Lance Guidry said. “He’s the pulse of our entire team. I know he is of the defense. He rubs off on everybody with the way he practices and the way he carries himself.”
The Cowboys have a reputation for giving FBS teams fits in years past and could be a problem for BYU if the Cougars get caught looking ahead to a clash with Washington in two weeks.
McNeese State has won two of its last three games against FBS opponents. The Cowboys beat Middle Tennessee 27-21 in 2012 and then routed South Florida 53-21 in 2013. Their win over USF set a record for points scored and margin of victory for an FCS team over a BCS team at the time. A third win nearly happened in 2014 when Nebraska needed a final minute touchdown to edge McNeese State 31-24.
BYU is 11-0 against FCS teams over the past 30 seasons. Even with that success, the Cougars are taking the Cowboys seriously.
“We took the target off Wisconsin and now the target is on us,” Kaufusi said. “We believe that McNeese is going to be coming full speed after us. We have to be on top of our game this week.”
This is the first meeting between the schools in football.