Saturday night’s huge 28-25 upset win over No. 14 Boise State in Provo was filled with emotional moments for members of the BYU football team.
One of the most poignant, however, came in the post-game press conference.
Cougar junior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi couldn’t keep his emotions from showing when he was asked about how much of the passion the players brought to the field was because of head coach Kalani Sitake.
“I don’t think people really realize and understand how much we love Kalani,” Kaufusi said. “He’s a great mentor and a phenomenal coach. I think people are too quick to criticize and attack him. The whole team is behind Kalani. We love him. We play for him. Regardless of whether his job is on the line or not, you’re going to get 123 guys who are playing for Kalani. The bottom line is that we love him and we’ll fight for him any day.”
Don’t expect Sitake to take any personal credit or even express much personal satisfaction in getting the second home win over a ranked opponent in a single season for the first time in BYU football history.
“I’m glad we got this win and I’m extremely proud of our players,” Sitake said. “Our assistant coaches worked their tails off for this win. I’m really happy with the guys who stepped up and made plays. We always talk about our depth, about getting opportunities to play and making sure they are ready. I was really proud of how we did today.”
It was the other direction when it came to blame during the down weeks as Sitake said repeatedly after the losses to Toledo and South Florida that he was the one who needed to fix the issues.
So what did he do?
“I didn’t do anything too crazy,” Sitake said. “The players worked extremely hard for this win. If anything, I leaned on them even more heavily. Our assistant coaches had a great game plan and I thought it was executed well. I liked the aggressive nature of our team. I felt like we had to do some things differently to win this game and we were able to do just enough.”
The Cougars had never doubted their capabilities but just hadn’t gotten everything clicking.
“We’ve always talked about putting a complete game together,” Kaufusi said. “For some reason, it hasn’t happened. I think tonight, it did and it showed. When we do put a complete game together, we’re a great football team. I think we found the formula for what it takes. This week in practice, we worked really hard. We know how much time and effort it’s going to take to really game plan. Moving forward, I think you’re going to see a better team. We’ve kind of figured it out more.”
One of the most glaring examples of how well things came together was when BYU faced a pair of crucial fourth-down plays.
Coming into the game, the Cougars had only converted 2-of-11 fourth-down attempts but against the Broncos BYU went 2-for-2.
The first came from the Boise State 27-yard line when the Cougars used a little deception to make a big play.
“Baylor (Romney) and the running back had some good acting skills,” BYU junior tight end Matt Bushman said. “They faked like it was a fumble on the exchange and I faked a little block, then sprung out. We knew it was going to work. We just needed that right situation to do it. We’re glad it paid off.”
Bushman was wide open for the conversion and took the ball to the house for a touchdown to give BYU the lead.
The second fourth-down attempt was even more tense, since the Cougars were at their own 34-yard line needing just a few inches.
Since there was just over two minutes left in the game and the Broncos were out of time outs, traditional wisdom would suggest that the right thing to do would be play for field position — but Sitake went for the high-risk, high-reward approach.
“I had to trust the players,” Sitake said. “In your mind, you think that you should punt it but I had a good feeling. I liked the look that they gave me on the sideline. We needed it to win the game, so it was like let’s go do it. We were what? A couple of inches away? I trust the guys and they really wanted this. We were talking about the calls and what to do there and that one just felt right.”
BYU senior safety Dayan Ghanwoloku said the Cougar players didn’t have any hesitation.
“We were going for it all the way,” Ghanwoloku said. “Coach Sitake was there with us on the sideline, letting us decide pretty much. He had faith in us.”
BYU went to the “scrum” package, which feature defensive back Austin Kafentzis at quarterback, defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga at fullback and Ghanwoloku at halfback.
Boise State brought in all their big guys as well, so the game-changing play came down to 22 players in a very small area struggling to make the play.
“It’s physical and it gets your heart going,” Ghanwoloku said. “You can see all their defensive linemen with their heads down and you know everyone is going to go low. It’s just a dogfight and all physicality. That scrum play showed they wanted it too but we wanted it more. It was a great feeling to get it, the best feeling ever.”
The combination of emotion and execution paid big dividends for the Cougars as they got the upset victory.
“That was something our team definitely needed,” Bushman said. “Coming off of a three-game losing streak, that just is not fun. We were playing bad football where we know we can play a lot better. We just came into this game, knowing we can compete with Boise State, that we were just as good or better. We played like that. It definitely was a great feeling.”