The Arizona Wildcats were crushed 70-7 by their rivals the last time they played a college football game, haven’t tasted victory in almost two years, and are heavy underdogs against BYU in the Vegas Kickoff Classic Saturday night at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
But they are getting all kinds of respect from the Cougars, who are coming off an 11-1 season and seemingly trending upward despite the loss of starting quarterback Zach Wilson and other stars to the NFL.
Why is that?
Two reasons, BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday.
“They know a lot more about us than we know about them,” Roderick said. “Honestly, it is a huge advantage (for) them in this game. It is a huge challenge for us.”
BYU players and coaches have watched film of Arizona’s spring game, but beyond that the Wildcats are a mystery — much like BYU was to them in 2018 when a revamped offensive coaching staff led the Cougars to a 28-23 upset win in Tucson.
Second, new Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch inherited some good players, attracted plenty of talent from other Power Five schools across the country, and was able to assemble a veteran coaching staff loaded with high-level college football and NFL experience.
“They definitely have our respect,” Roderick said.
The Wildcats, who last won on Oct. 5, 2019, a 35-30 win at Colorado, could also have an emotional edge, although BYU fans gobbled up most of the tickets for the opener, a six-hour drive from Provo, and the Cougars are expected to have a big home-crowd advantage.
Arizona has been working toward this game for months, while BYU’s players, whether they admit it or not, have next week’s game against rival Utah circled on their calendars.
It has all the makings of a trap game for BYU, which is almost a two-touchdown favorite. BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Monday that a fast start will be vital for the Cougars, who named fourth-year sophomore Jaren Hall their starting quarterback more than a week ago in an attempt to cut down on the usual first-game mistakes and confusion.
“We gotta do our part to get that place rocking,” Sitake said. “We have to make plays and do whatever we can to entertain our fans. You approach the game with a huge sense of appreciation that we get to play and represent, and that we are able to share that field with Arizona.”
Sitake said Arizona is “good program” with a “great coaching staff” and “great talent” on its team.
The Cougars do know that Arizona will blitz a lot.
New Arizona defensive coordinator Don Brown spent the last five seasons at Michigan and has long been known for his blitzing, attacking style. Having earned the nickname “Dr. Blitz,” Brown brings pressure from all over the field and will surely attempt to rattle Hall, making his third college start.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s part of the game,” Sitake said, when asked if BYU is ready for relentless pressure. “Defenses are allowed to do that and we have to be ready to give them an answer. That is the whole strategy of the game, is to figure things out and see what they are willing to risk, and willing to give up, and see what we can do to match up with them.”
Receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake, the head coach’s cousin, said the Cougars have been trying to simulate Brown’s attacking style since spring camp began.
“The beauty of that is our scheme offensively is fit to handle whatever those looks are,” Fesi Sitake said. “Everywhere Don Brown has been, he has been pretty true to his identity. So we look at film in the past, and get a good idea of what to expect.”
Sitake said season openers are always about making adjustments on the fly, because both teams will have wrinkles their opponent didn’t expect.
Will BYU be able to handle the relentless blitzing? That task will fall upon the offensive line and the running backs, Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa.
Roderick says they’ll be ready.
“We have a good offensive line,” Roderick said Wednesday. “I keep getting a lot of questions about our depth there and I don’t really get it because a lot of those guys have played a lot of football. … It is a good group and I have a lot of confidence that those guys are going to play well.”
Katoa said the Cougars know Arizona has Power Five talent, regardless of what happened last year when it went 0-5. He said BYU’s players are mature enough to know they can’t look past anyone, having been on the wrong end of upsets in 2019 when they fell to Toledo and South Florida.
“The coaches have done a good job of giving us the preparation that we need in terms of knowing their stuff,” Katoa said. “We just expect their best punch. We have practice like we know they are going to come out and give us a challenge and that we need to put our best effort out on the field.”
It will be the third time in six seasons that the Wildcats and Cougars have opened against each other. BYU has won the last two, but Arizona leads the series 12-11-1.
Can the Cougars finally even the score? The odds are in their favor — even in Las Vegas.