Conference weekend: Big 12 opener reminds BYU of new reality at equally unbeaten Kansas

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PROVO β€” During his Monday morning session with local media, BYU linebacker Max Tooley admitted that he's a "big-time score checker," often opening the ESPN app on his phone after the Cougars' games to see how other teams around college football are playing.

This year, that includes a heavy eye turned toward the Big 12 Conference β€” for good reason, obviously.

The ethereal becomes reality this weekend, when BYU (3-0) opens Big 12 play against fellow undefeated Kansas (3-0) at 1:30 p.m. MDT in Lawrence, Kansas. No longer will Tooley be watching these games with an eye toward the future.

The Big 12 era is here. For the first time since the Cougars faced Utah co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and special teams coordinator Jay Hill at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Nov. 27, 2010, BYU will play in a conference game.

"It's my first time in my college career that I've been in a conference, and have really been able to track the teams within our conference," said the former Bountiful High star who recently finished his degree in geography his sixth-year senior season. "It's interesting to see how they're doing against teams that may be favored or whatever. But we know how college football is; every team is going to come out swinging every week β€” especially when you're the underdog. You're going to want to show what you can do and upset some teams."

BYU was one of those underdogs last week, but stole a 38-31 win against an Arkansas program that outgained the Cougars 424-281, out-rushed them 177-77 and had more than 10 more minutes in time of possession that included double-digit leads twice before BYU rallied.

"I spoke in the press conference after the game that there's improvement to be made," said Sitake, now in his eighth year as head coach of his alma mater. "I'm looking forward to correcting the mistakes. But the great thing we can say is our players' energy and effort, the physical play and their willingness to buy into everything we've asked them to, is there. I love the resiliency and the fight in our young men."

As expected, the Cougars received plenty of attention for their road win over the Hogs, which came during an otherwise average (at best) week across the Big 12. As has been the norm, the outside world took notice.

Chase Roberts' one-handed circus catch was the top play on SportsCenter later that night, drawing millions of views online and across social media.

Tyler Batty was named Big 12 defensive player of the week by the conference after the team captain totaled a career-high nine tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a separate fumble recovery with 3:49 left in the win.

Freshman tailback LJ Martin was recognized as one of four first-year "freshman focus" honorees by The Football Writers Association of America after piling up 77 yards and two touchdowns in his first collegiate start.

The challenge, now, is staying grounded as BYU shifts its focus to conference play for the first time in a dozen years.

"I'm looking forward to trying to get our team ready this week," Sitake said. "We'll need to be at our best to go into that environment and compete with them … I feel like we've every week, and we probably need to improve even more this week."

No one in the program wants a repeat of the last time BYU picked up a big win, when the jubilation of a then-top-10 victory over Baylor led to the flat performance of a 41-20 road loss to Oregon a year ago.

The Cougars lost four in a row that year, being pushed to the brink by a 27-24 setback to East Carolina before rattling off four-straight to finish the final season of independence at 8-5 with a 24-23 win over SMU in the New Mexico Bowl.

Since that setback, the Cougars have now won seven-straight games, tied for the seventh-longest active winning streak in the country with Oregon State and Marshall.

But stretching it to eight-straight against Kansas won't be easy. These aren't, after all, your grandfather's Jayhawks β€” at least not in football.

"Lance Leipold is an amazing coach, and I like watching him as a leader," Sitake said. "They're a really talented team, with an offense that can do a lot of things and tons of size."

Led by star quarterback Jalon Daniels, the Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year is a 63% passer who has thrown for 4,167 yards and 28 touchdowns while running for 13 more scores in four seasons for the up-and-coming squad from the once-self proclaimed "basketball school" in Lawrence, Kansas.

"He can run, and he can throw it," first-year defensive coordinator Hill said of Daniels during his Coordinators' Corner show on BYUtv. "They've led the Big 12 in almost every offensive category the last couple of years, and he's a big reason why … We've got our work cut out for us this week."

You only get one chance to make a first impression. For BYU and the Big 12, Saturday is just that.

"This is our opening game in the Big 12 Conference. We aren't going to ever get this back again," Sitake said. "I need these guys to understand the seriousness of this situation, and why there needs to be a huge sense of urgency for us to play at our best. … That's what the focus is on."

On the air

BYU (3-0) at Kansas (3-0)

David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium; Lawrence, Kansas

Saturday, Sept. 23

  • Kickoff: 1:30 p.m. MT
  • TV: ESPN (Mark Jones, Louis Riddick, Quint Kessenich)
  • Radio: BYU Radio / KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM (Greg Wrubell, Hans Olsen, Mitchell Juergens)

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