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BYU Looks To Close Out Independence With Bowl Upset Against SMU

Dec 16, 2022, 9:40 PM | Updated: Dec 17, 2022, 12:31 am
BYU Football, Kalani Sitake, New Mexico Bowl...
BYU football head coach Kalani Sitake leads his program into the New Mexico Bowl, the last game of the Independence era. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
(Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

ning BYUALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Eleven years of football independence comes to a close for BYU football on Saturday night in the New Mexico Bowl.

In a way, it’s a full-circle moment.

Capstone on the Independence era

BYU ushered in the Independence era after a New Mexico Bowl win to close out the Mountain West era in 2010. They will look to do the same in primetime against a 7-5 SMU team with a high-flying passing attack before they move on to the Big 12 in 2023.

“I think for us it is, you know, a bigger game. It kind of puts a capstone on the independence era and finish things off strong there,” said BYU defensive end Tyler Batty.

BYU football QB situation

BYU football comes into the game without its starting quarterback Jaren Hall. Hall is dealing with an ankle injury that has him sidelined.

BYU will roll out either Cade Fennegan, Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, or Nick Billoups. But all three likely see playing time at some point.

Head coach Kalani Sitake is entering his sixth bowl game. He’s grown used to playing backups in bowl games. In 2016, BYU won with Tanner Mangum in the Poinsettia Bowl. In 2021, it was the Independence Bowl with Baylor Romney.

BYU is 3-2 all-time in bowls under Sitake.

Is BYU football looking ahead to the Big 12?

With the bright lights of Power Five affiliation in the near future, Sitake is trying to avoid the realities of life in the Big 12 and focus on this Independence finale in the land of enchantment.

“A lot of attention has been made about going into the Big 12 for a while now. I’ve always tried to keep the focus on the young me in our program that have worked really to get us to where we’re at right now. That’s from the past and the present,” said Sitake. “Then there’s a good number of men on our team right now that are going to be able to play in that conference. So I want to make sure that they get all of the love and attention right now for them going into this last game.”

When the matchup was announced, BYU opened as a favorite. But with Hall now out and star wide receiver Puka Nacua out as well, the Cougs are an underdog to the Mustangs.

BYU football staff is leaning on analysts

Besides high-profile personnel expected to be out, BYU is also shorthanded on the coaching staff. BYU doesn’t have a defensive coordinator. Kalani Sitake is expected to resume his role as the defensive play caller, with cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford taking on an elevated position for this bowl game.

BYU football has relied heavily on analysts and graduate assistants to fill the gaps on the staff while newly hired coaches Jay Hill and Kelly Poppinga handle recruiting efforts. Gavin Fowler is running BYU’s special teams. Jan Jorgensen is coaching the defensive line and linebackers along with Vince Feula, who will move down from the box to field level.

It’s not the same BYU team that opened up the 2022 season as a preseason Top 25 squad. But there won’t be any shortage of intrigue when it comes to seeing what product BYU puts out on the field.

 

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That’s honestly how Independence has gone for BYU. What seems like a ho-hum game can sometimes turn into quite the event for the Cougars.

Which team will be motivated? BYU or SMU

The magnitude of the event is often in question for pre-Christmas bowl games.

SMU has stated all along throughout this bowl process that this game is a reward for the season. For BYU, they see it as a reward as well. However, after dropping the Independence Bowl last year to UAB, there’s motivation to finish the year with a victory.

“Being bowl eligible, like Coach Sitake has mentioned, is a huge reward, right? And just the work that the team, our program has put in to be able to get to this point,” Batty said. “At the same time for us, it’s an opportunity to go out and do what we love. We want to win. At the end of the day, we’re all competitors … more than just a reward, we want to go play and we play to win. So I think the guys are really excited to be able to do that.”

In order to get that win, BYU likely turns to the ground game with running backs Chris Brooks, Hinckley Folau Ropati, and Miles Davis. Especially considering the lack of experience BYU’s quarterbacks have going into this game.

“As far as running backs, we do whatever we can to help our team no matter who’s back there,” said senior Chris Brooks. “I think that as running backs, we look to just do everything for the next 10 guys that’s on the offense. We do whatever we can to put our team in the best position.”

Get ready

There are no questions at quarterback for SMU. Tanner Mordecai leads a Mustangs passing attack among the best in the nation. Mordecai is gearing up for his final game before pursuing an NFL career.

“He’s a great player,” Batty said. “As we’ve seen this year on film, SMU has been able to be potent on offense, in large part, thanks to him. … But I think we’re gonna see him in his usual form. That’s something that we’ve been very focused on and preparing for just to make sure that we can be ready for that.”

While BYU players get ready for SMU’s passing attack, BYU fans have been ready for more than a decade to see Independence brought to a close. So regardless if BYU pulls off the upset, that’s a victory for the Cougars.

BYU vs. SMU

2022 New Mexico Bowl

Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. (MT)

TV: ABC

Radio: KSL NewsRadio (102.7 FM, 1160 AM – Extended pregame begins at Noon)

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Mitch will be in Albuquerque for the 2022 New Mexico Bowl between BYU and SMU. Follow his coverage on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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BYU Looks To Close Out Independence With Bowl Upset Against SMU