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Dick Harmon: BYU goes toe-to-toe with Wisconsin, wins physical battle

MADISON – BYU made a huge statement for its adventure as an independent football program in the heart of Big Ten territory Saturday by pulling off what may be college football's biggest upset of the young season, a 24-21 victory over No. 6 Wisconsin.

It was an emotional, hard-fought, gutty performance by BYU. Kalani Sitake brought his team in believing when others did not. BYU punched big, bad Wisconsin just as hard and as long as they did and when it was over, it was Wisconsin that couldn't convert a 42-yard field goal to tie the Cougars who'd had leads most of the game.

This was a historic win by a fired up BYU team. It was a Goliath takedown of major importance. The Cougars came out swinging and landed haymakers all day long.

BYU beat Wisconsin by throwing for just 89 yards. It was won in the trenches against a program that usually owns the line of scrimmage against everybody.

It confirmed much about what BYU must do in this era of the college game: Get bigger and be tough.

On this Saturday, Sitake's program took a major step forward.

"I was pleased with how hard our guys played. It was fun. There was great energy on our sideline and our coaches had our guys prepared," said Sitake.

How big was this win?

It marked the first loss by Wisconsin by a non-league opponent at Camp Randall Stadium in 15 years, breaking a 41-game streak for the Badgers.

A confirmation of BYU's move to independence?

Absolutely.

Why? Because this is the traction needed by BYU's program. It helps in recruiting. It justifies exposure and confirms to the SEC, Big Ten and Pac 12 that yes, consider the Cougars a worthy non-conference choice in scheduling. It is the kind of momentum the program needs to make a New Year's Day game. Someday

As an independent, you have to get a share of 40-60 percent chance to win games. This was just that. Perhaps it was a 20-80 percent upset by some experts.

BYU has 25 wins over Power 5 teams since 2003, the most of any non-Power 5 team in that time span. With the victory, the Cougars broke a tie with Navy (24).

If you go the independence route, you have to beat Power 5 teams which TV partner ESPN lines up for you. You can't balk, freeze or not show up. On this Saturday afternoon, BYU registered its first victory over a Top Ten team in a true road visit since beating No. 3 Pitt in 1984.

It was the antithesis of BYU's trip to Michigan several years ago and the failure to cross midfield against LSU last year in New Orleans.

A confirmation of Sitake's decision to shake things up in the offseason after a four-win struggle?

Yes. You have to credit his moxie, his passion, his insistence he can lift BYU's program.

A confirmation of Sitake's desire to invest scholarships in his offensive and defensive line and then beef them up to play like Wisconsin, a program he idolizes? Absolutely.

Squally Canada scored a pair of touchdowns and BYU's young but big offensive line enabled him and Aleva Hifo to rip off huge chunks of yardage in completely taking it to the legendary Badger defense. Canada had runs of 40 and 46 yards in gaining 118 on 11 carries, an average of 10.7 per tote. His counterpart, Wisconsin Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor had 117 yards on 26 carries or 4.5 yards per carry and no touchdowns.

That, in a nutshell, speaks volumes about the job Jeff Grimes, Ryan Pugh, Aaron Roderick, Steve Clark, Fesi Sitake and AJ Seward did a week after losing to Cal in Provo.

This was a gladiator fight in an arena on the line and BYU won. If not for a dropped pass by freshman tight end Dallin Holker at Wisconsin's goal line and if Skyler Southam's 52-yard field goal in the first half had found its mark, BYU may have put 30 on the Badgers.

Defensively, BYU took on what Sports Illustrated and many other experts labeled the best five blockers in college football – and won.

"Those guys up front did their jobs. Without those defensive linemen holding up their blocks, we couldn't have done what we did, they made it easy," said senior linebacker Sione Takitaki.

From the sidelines, up close, Sitake witnessed his dream of getting his linemen bigger and stronger. In the trenches, filled with sweat, grunts, muscle-on-muscle hand-to-hand combat, the clashing of really big men, he saw his guys win more than their share of matchups.

That's why he gave the game ball to his strength and conditioning and nutrition coaches.

This upset would never have happened without an outstanding game plan and prep by coaches. To a man, BYU players said they were prepared for everything Wisconsin had for them.

The 31-yard first half Aleva Hifo halfback touchdown pass to Moroni Laulu Pututau was installed on Monday and it was brilliant, set up by Hifo's successful jet sweeps early in the game. Pututau was so wide open, he actually walked into the end zone.

"He told Pututau he had to sell that he was blocking in practice but he's a bad actor. He did a great job and made it an easy throw."

Zane Anderson's third-quarter interception of Bader QB Alex Hornibrook, who ate BYU's defense alive last year in Provo, set up Canada's second touchdown, a huge play.

BYU stands 2-1 on the season after performing a task few if any believed they could pull off in Madison.

What begs the question, and what players and fans are perplexed about is what in the heck happened against Cal last Saturday.

It takes little imagination to believe that Sitake's team could be 3-0 going into Saturday game against McNeese State in Provo if not for two or three more plays.

That's what makes college football so exciting.

What BYU did at Wisconsin was dramatic and decisive.

What in the heck did happen with Cal?