BYU quarterback Jaren Hall (3) fires up his team during the Cougars’ 31-28 win over Boise State, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 in Boise, Idaho. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)
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PROVO — It’s become so commonplace during BYU football’s previous decade of independence that most of the players and coaches don’t know any difference.
After 10-straight weeks of full-contact football, the Cougars (5-5) have a bye week after a 31-28 upset win at Boise State brought the program back to .500 on the season and reopened the possibility (probability?) of becoming bowl eligible for the 17th time in the last 18 years.
Indeed, barring a colossal collapse against FCS Utah Tech in the home finale next Saturday (1:30 p.m. MST, BYUtv) and a week later at Stanford (3-5), BYU should find itself placed in one of the several dozen bowl games owned by ESPN Events in their final season before joining the Big 12 Conference in 2023.
Another thing that is likely to change with the move to a conference? The November bye week. Such has become common over the past decade, as common as the front-loaded schedules before Power Five teams lean into conference play and College Football Playoff positioning.
Luckily, the Cougars have been aided in November, mostly by the Pac-12, Mountain West, FBS opponents and the handful of other independents scattered across the country, to fill out its schedule. But the November schedule has regularly lacked the spark of September and October, for obvious reasons, and has been the best spot to insert the off-week for years.
This year, with the 31st-toughest strength-of-schedule nationally in Jeff Sagarin’s rankings, the Cougars have the chance to nurse bumps, bruises and a few more serious injuries during the second weekend of November.
“I’d say it came at the right time,” said defensive end John Nelson, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound sophomore from Salem who has played in all 10 games and posted 19 tackles, including a team-high four tackles for loss and two sacks. “It’s good to relax a little bit and mentally know that you don’t have to work on Saturday this week. I feel like it came at a good time and I think we needed it.
“I’m hurting a little bit, everyone’s hurting and so this is a good time to have it.”
Injuries are a part of the game of football, and nobody is feeling sorry for BYU. But the Cougars have been as injured, battered, bruised and banged up as anyone (and more than others), tying for third nationally with the most players with at least one start. Only New Mexico and Texas A&M have more.
Here’s a look at the most recent injury report from the most recent game at Boise:
- OL Kingsley Suamataia
- WR Gunner Romney
- WR Kody Epps
- RB Chris Brooks
- RB Mason Fakahua
- LB Payton Wilgar
- LB Max Tooley
- LB Chaz Ah You
- S Malik Moore
Epps (arm) and Moore (hand) have been confirmed to miss the remainder of the regular season, and Romney has played in just two games after suffering a lacerated kidney in fall camp.
No other players have been confirmed to miss the rest of the season, according to head coach Kalani Sitake, though a few are still questionable for a prompt return. In particular, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said during his Coordinators’ Corner television appearance this week that injuries to Tooley, Wilgar and Ah You, in particular, “doesn’t look too good for any of those guys” while deferring final say to Sitake.
“We have a bye week, and then another two games,” Sitake said during his usual Monday press briefing. “The chances that they can make it to one of those games, and also an opportunity to a bowl game … there are a few that may not play in the next two but can play in the bowl game.”
Players can play in up to four games during the season and still maintain a redshirt. That seems to be of particular notice for Romney and Ah You, who initially planned to redshirt the 2022 season with an undisclosed injury before being pressed into action against Liberty and East Carolina.
Wilgar, who started the first seven games of the season, was wearing a walking boot during the Cougars’ last home game against ECU, and did not make the trip (along with Tooley) to Idaho.
“Just wanna play football. Nothing and no one can take away my love or passion for the game,” Ah You tweeted as he was making his return, along with the hashtag Keep Doubting, back on Oct. 30. “I will overcome anything in my way just to put my cleats on and go to battle with my brothers.”
BYU will practice during the bye week through Wednesday, then release a few non-local players to go home for a couple of days, if necessary. The rest will remain on campus to lift weights, receive treatment from the athletic training staff, and catch up on academic work ahead of the final weeks of the season (and semester) before returning Saturday to start on the Trailblazers.
Sometimes players just need a day or two “away from the coaches” after a lengthy stretch, to say nothing of fall camp, Sitake admitted, half-jokingly. But coaches, too, will evaluate the current roster, both for this year and next year, and that may come with making a few decisions over who comes back for the 2023 campaign.
The Cougars have 17 seniors on the roster, including several like running backs Christopher Brooks and Lopini Katoa, fullback Houston Heimuli, and injured tight end Lane Lunt (knee), who will exhaust their eligibility. A few can maintain one final season stemming from the free year of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that may not be an option for all of them; Sitake has said that they’ll honor every senior on Senior Day, whether they return to the program or not, and each season has had players leave via the transfer portal, the NFL draft, or another unexpected departure or retirement.
This offseason expects to be no different.
“During this week, a lot of those conversations will be happening,” Sitake said. “We have a good amount of players who will already have their degree in hand who might have another year of eligibility, but also might want to go the NFL route or take job offers. It’s just a matter of talking with the right people, and communicating this week.”