Road trip: No. 9 Baylor football faces daunting No. 21 BYU in Provo

Junior running back Qualan Jones dusts three UAlbany defenders before crossing the goal line for a 27-yard touchdown run. Ken Prabhakar | Photographer

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

Two programs fresh off blowout wins, No. 9 Baylor finds itself pitted against No. 21 Brigham Young University for a non-conference duel in Provo, Utah, at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

The Bears (1-0) dismantled the University of Albany 69-10 in its home opener, while BYU (1-0) crushed the University of Southern Florida 50-21 in a delayed road contest against former Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon.

Last season, the future Big 12 foes squared off in Waco, and Baylor handed then-No. 19 BYU a 38-24 loss. Now, it flips over in a big way. For the Bears, it’s not only a top-21 showdown on the road, but kickoff time is set for 9:15 p.m. CT. at 4,648 feet above sea level.

The contest will also be broadcasted on ESPN, leaving the chance for a delayed start if previous games go later than expected. Even with this, Baylor head coach Dave Aranda is welcoming the test ahead, as he said the game is a chance for his group to prove themselves under all the lights.

“What a great opportunity with this next game vs. BYU,” Aranda said. “[BYU head coach] Kalani [Sitake] and his team are playing at a high level. It’s an opportunity for us to show what we’re about.”

The Bears come in as three-and-a-half point underdogs and more eyes upon them, but sixth-year senior wide receiver Gavin Holmes said it doesn’t matter who they play, the green and gold always make it a big game.

“We know it’s a big game, but like we say, every game is a big game because we’re playing in it,” Holmes said. “It’s definitely going to be a big test for us. We’re excited, and we’re embracing the opportunity for sure.”

Junior linebacker Will Williams forces the incompletion from the UAlbany quarterback. Ken Prabhakar | Photographer
Junior linebacker Will Williams forces the incompletion from the UAlbany quarterback. Ken Prabhakar | Photographer

According to Aranda, one of BYU’s biggest threats is junior quarterback Jaren Hall. Last season, Hall posted 342 passing yards and a touchdown against the Bears.

“He’s going to be one of the better quarterbacks we’ll play all year,” Aranda said. “He doesn’t put the team at risk. He was good last year; he’s better now.”

Fifth-year senior cornerback Mark Milton said he expects Hall to be a problem for Baylor’s defense as well. Milton said the connection between Hall and BYU junior wideout Puka Nacua is lethal as well.

In the 2021 meeting, Nacua notched 168 receiving yards and a touchdown on five catches.

Milton spoke highly of the Utah team but said the defense “has something planned for that.”

“He’s [Hall] an extremely smart player,” Milton said. “He doesn’t gamble with it too much, but he will throw the ball to [Cougar wide receiver Puka Nacua,] and we have something [planned] for that.”

Regarding the atmosphere of LaVell Edwards Stadium, Aranda knows what to expect from the BYU faithful. He said Cougar fans are “welcoming” before the game but as soon as the kick is away, they get loud and rowdy.

“They’re great at welcoming you at the beginning of the game, just a really friendly fan base,” Aranda said. “Once you get in the game, it’s packed, it’s loud, especially now that the games are later in the evening. That’s a storm we have to run into, and we’ve been talking about and preparing for that.”

Baylor looked dominant in its home opener against FCS UAlbany, but with more national attention in terms of the upcoming ranked matchup, Aranda expects potential distractions for his squad.

“I anticipate that this week, the outside noise will probably get more, more people, with more opinions, and I think a lot of it – for a fan – is good,” Aranda said. “I appreciate all that, but I think from the inside out, those could be looked at as distractions.”

Aranda’s solution? Focusing on the direct task ahead.

“Let’s have the best Tuesday practice, the best Wednesday practice, so on and so forth,” Aranda said.

Sophomore quarterback Blake Shapen sits in the pocket before delivering a throw. Ken Prabhakar | Photographer
Sophomore quarterback Blake Shapen sits in the pocket before delivering a throw. Ken Prabhakar | Photographer

During Tuesday’s practice, the coaching staff had crowd noise pump on to the practice field through speakers to prepare the group for the hostile BYU environment. Aranda’s exercise is preparing Holmes and the team to generate their own energy away from McLane Stadium.

“It’s going to be loud, but we can’t let that outside noise get into our circle, and what we’re trying to do,” Holmes said. “That’s just what we’re preparing for right now. We talk a lot about bringing our own energy, especially at practice. When we’re out there [in Provo], all we’re going to have is us.”

Saturday night’s match will kickoff at approximately 9:15 p.m. CT on ESPN. It’s the fourth time the two groups have met and for the second consecutive season. Baylor leads the all-time series 2-1, dating back to 1983.

At the end of the day, Holmes said it’s a battle between two disciplined teams. He said BYU will come at them with a vengeance and that the Bears will have to dish it back out.

“It’s going to be our standard versus theirs,” Holmes said. “We beat them last year, so they’re going to be coming with everything they have, so we have to give them everything that we have.”