Michigan State and Brigham Young will play football against each other for the first time in their storied histories this Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET ABC/ESPN2) at Spartan Stadium.
It’s a game between two teams trying to take a positive turn on their seasons. Michigan State (2-2) has lost two in a row for the first time in four years, dampening its expectations of repeating as Big Ten champs, while BYU (2-3) has had its five games decided by a total of 12 points. The Cougars ended a 3-game losing streak last week with a 55-52 win at home against Toledo. Senior running back Jamaal Williams set a school record with 286 yards rushing, equaled another with 5 touchdowns and is just 226 yards shy of becoming BYU’s all-time leading rusher.
BYU has played the seventh-toughest schedule in the country so far this season, according to USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings. This will be the fourth different conference BYU, a football independent, has played a game against this season. Senior quarterback Taysom Hill has come back from a fractured leg and a foot fracture that ended each of his last two seasons early, while senior defensive back Kai Nacua has 4 interceptions this season and 10 over the last two seasons.
Darnell Dickson has been covering sports in Utah for most of the past 27 years. He is the BYU football columnist and basketball beat writer for the Provo Daily Herald. He was kind enough to take some time this week to speak with Landof10.com about the Cougars and the game on Saturday.
Q: Jamaal Williams rushed for 286 yards last week vs. Toledo and is No. 2 in the nation in rushing with 703 yards. Just how good is he? Is the rest of the nation missing out on something?
Dickson: Williams has 3,229 career rushing yards, which makes him No. 2 all-time at BYU and just 226 yards from the top spot. So he’s certainly one of the best BYU has ever produced. He’s not really a burner, though he had TD runs of 48 and 62 yards against Toledo. He big (6-2, 220 pounds) and runs with a lot of passion. He has good field vision and one guy rarely brings him down. I would say he’s got a decent shot at playing at the next level, maybe a mid-round NFL draft choice in the spring.
BYU’s Jamaal Williams is second in the nation is rushing yards this season. Here’s a look at the top five in yards gained on the ground.
|Donnell Pumphrey||San Diego St.||4||98||750||7.7||8|
|Dalvin Cook||Florida St.||5||107||635||5.9||7|
Q: The comeback from not one but two injuries by senior quarterback Taysom Hill has meant what to this team?
Dickson: Hill is probably among the top five athletes to ever play at BYU, though the season-ending injuries (in 2012, 2014 and 2015) have taken their toll. Hill is a terrific leader, not only by example but vocally as well. Every one of his teammates would run through a wall for him. He’s battle tested and still pretty dangerous when the play breaks down.
Q: Five games for BYU, none of which have been decided by more than 3 points. What’s that say about the 2-3 Cougars?
Dickson: I guess it says BYU will battle no matter the circumstances. They’ve scored on their final possession of every game this year. The schedule is a real gauntlet of good programs, including three Pac-12, one Big 12 and Toledo from the MAC. BYU has aspirations to get invited to the Big 12 and has proven it can compete with just about anyone.
Q: The defense appears to have been stout the first three games but that wasn’t the case against West Virginia and Toledo. Which one is more accurate of this group?
Dickson: Injuries have revealed some depth issues on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary, and that’s probably the biggest difference between games 1-3 and the past two games. Three of BYU’s best defensive players – defensive tackle Travis Tuiloma, linebacker Butch Pau’u and freshman cornerback Troy Warner – have been limited due to injuries. In addition, West Virginia and Toledo both have high-powered, high-tempo spread offenses and very, very accurate passers. Lack of a consistent pass rush has put a lot of pressure on the defensive backfield in the past two games.
Q: What is football life as an independent like? Is there any real anticipation or maybe apprehension over possible Big 12 expansion? BYU has a strong football tradition but what would being left out of any expansion do to the program?
Dickson: College football as an independent has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, BYU has gotten some pretty good teams to accept scheduling agreements, and a unique ESPN contract gives those games some pretty good national exposure. But there are negatives. The Cougars have to front load the schedule with P5 teams so the November games can be pretty weak. There’s also not a lot at stake unless BYU goes undefeated, and even then I’m not sure the playoff committee would ever pick an undefeated independent team like BYU over a one-loss P5 team.
As for Big 12 expansion, BYU fans are hopeful but not optimistic. I think most experts see BYU as the leading candidate on the football field and as an athletic program, but there are obviously other factors – Sunday play, BYUtv, LGBT issues – that lead to more questions.
If BYU doesn’t get invited to the Big 12, it will continue as an independent and do the best it can as it pertains to scheduling and TV deals. No one sees independence as a long-term solution but it’s better than joining a Group of 5 league.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo