Within reach — BYU Cougars have realistic shot at matching '06 record

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 17 2007 12:03 a.m. MDT

BYU's Manase Tonga has helped the Cougars put together a formidable running attack this season.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

At the midway point of the 2007 season, BYU football finds itself in the same tracks as a year ago with an added admonition to tidy up play on the field.

"We're good enough to be 4-2," said head coach Bronco Mendenhall. "And we're good enough to be 3-0 in conference."

The Cougars lead the league in passing offense and total offense and have fielded a defense stout enough to control New Mexico, Air Force and UNLV. The Cougars face Eastern Washington on Saturday, followed by a trip to San Diego State and Wyoming, with home dates against Colorado State, TCU and Utah.

"We have played well enough to earn the statistics we have," Mendenhall said. "We're not as clean as we need to be in ball security yet. That may be the biggest area of emphasis and the primary reason we are not undefeated."

This late edition of the Cougars appears nearly the same as a year ago, attacking opponents with a balanced pass and run attack while using a stingy defense to limit opponent scoring.

Two issues clearly separate Mendenhall's current squad from the team that went 11-2 in 2006 and defeated Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Today's team gives up the ball more than a year ago — by a big margin.

Also, this year's squad has yet to face an opponent that resembles Utah State in 2006, a team BYU shut out 38-0 in LaVell Edwards Stadium without starting quarterback John Beck. For that matter, this year the Cougars have not faced a team like Boston College, which proved to be outstanding in 2006.

Still, considering youth at key positions on offense, the Cougars are on track to repeat as MWC champions.

"I think our play has been cleaner in terms of penalties, and I think our identity as a team is becoming more apparent," Mendenhall said.

The Cougars didn't start out as a balanced offense, but they are heading that way, slipping into a system that blends Max Hall's passing with the running of Manase Tonga and Harvey Unga.

"It's been a necessity to run the ball more," Mendenhall said. "Our defense, since the Tulsa game, has played with relative consistency in terms of managing points, managing the run, forcing teams to pass the ball on third down, which we are playing relatively well with the numbers down. On special teams, we've made improvement. I guess you could say we're 4-2 and showing improvement with more improvement needed."

This year's team is turning the ball over more than twice the rate of a year ago (16 to 7) at the midway point. Most of those 16 turnovers have been turned into opponent field goals or touchdowns, including a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns by UCLA and Tulsa.

Last year's team's average score stood 33-17 after six games; this year's average score is 28-22. Turnovers are the difference.

As far as offensive productivity, this season the Cougars are outgaining the 2006 conference champions 452.8 yards to 430. Defensively, this team is allowing opponents 313.3 yards to 343.8 a year ago at this stage.

On the positive side, Mendenhall appears to have placed the Cougars in a groove of sorts since his team lost to Utah in LaVell Edwards Stadium in 2005. They haven't lost again at home or in league play since, an 11-game streak and something the third-year coach wanted BYU football to return to when he took the reins in December 2004.

The Cougars currently enjoy a nine-game road win streak in MWC contests. The current streak breaks the old MWC mark of eight held by Utah from Nov. 16, 2002, through Nov. 13, 2004. BYU's streak started with a 27-24 win at New Mexico during the 2005 season.

Still, BYU players, who expected to be 6-0 and in the BCS conversation at this stage, are far from satisfied with the season.

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