College football observers looking at BYU's football team from a distance see just another .500 team trying to get into one of 35 bowl games.
Cougar head coach Bronco Mendenhall says those people have no idea what it required to get his team to 5-5 and on the verge of a sixth consecutive postseason appearance.
"There's no one — myself included — who will every underestimate how much work it has taken (to get back to .500)," Mendenhall told a KSL Radio audience after Saturday's win over Colorado State. "For anyone to say it's random or lucky or happenstance, they have no idea what's going on, and how hard we're working to reach our potential."
Mendenhall sparked the resurgence by taking over as defensive coordinator after a loss to Utah State that dropped BYU to 1-4 on the season.
BYU's defensive numbers have jumped dramatically since Mendenhall assumed his old play-calling responsibilities, and offensive players say the coach's re-focused leadership has had a carry-over effect on their side of the ball.
"It's very exhausting, but it's gratifying to see some of those things playing out," Mendenhall says.
Admittedly circumspect after his team's 55-7 home win over UNLV, the 49-10 road win at CSU has left Mendenhall "more confident that the positive steps we've taken are real. It's not over yet, and we don't want it to be over yet because we know we're not playing as good as we can play."
That collective sentiment can also be applied to BYU's freshman quarterback, Jake Heaps, whose growing pains have lessened in severity as the season progresses.
Through the first seven games of the season, Heaps had thrown one touchdown down pass with six interceptions. In the last three games — all BYU wins — Heaps has seven scoring tosses with only one interception.
Saturday's pass efficiency rating of 242.64 is the eighth-highest single-game mark ever recorded at BYU, trailing only outings from Ty Detmer, Max Hall, Steve Young, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielsen, John Beck and Steve Sarkisian.
"When I hear those names, it makes me smile; those are the best guys that ever walked through this place," Heaps said during KSL Radio's postgame show on Saturday.
Heaps is as aware of BYU's quarterback history as he is of the need to lead the Cougars from his spot behind center.
"As the quarterback goes, so does the team. I have had to make some big steps and some big strides for our team, and it's been a lot of fun. Hopefully, by the time I'm done with this place, I'll be the number one guy on (the list of great BYU QBs) — that's my goal."
Mendenhall says his goal for Heaps is "steady progress," but that "Jake has tremendous potential. He came in prepared at a level that I hadn't seen from any freshman."
Although the coach is not yet willing to anoint Heaps as the future No. 1 after only seven starts (and a 4-3 record), Mendenhall says the young signal-caller will clearly enter next season with confidence.
"He certainly should think he's 'the man,' and he certainly should go into spring or next season with that mantle because of what he has a chance to do for the remainder of this season," Mendenhall says.
"I also know that we have another excellent leader and an excellent quarterback in Riley Nelson, and so all this (season) is doing is giving Jake every single opportunity to make sure that he can reach his goals and potential as a starting quarterback. (Heaps) will have to be beat out, but I think Riley will do everything he can to help this team, and I'm not willing to rule him out."
Heaps has a chance to enter Cougar lore as the 19-year-old phenom who helped to lead BYU back from the 1-4 abyss, but he won't be content with simply a sixth win and a bowl bid.
"We have an opportunity to finish this season out 8-5, and that would be a pretty sweet mark to hit after going through what we did earlier in this season," Heaps says. "It was frustrating to go through what we did, but we've grown as a team. It has made us a better football team and a closer-knit group."
Mendenhall agrees with his rookie signal-caller about the role that adversity has played with this year's team.
"Every second of it is worth it, for what we're going to be capable of — not only the rest of this year, but the future."
Greg Wrubell is the radio play-by-play "Voice of the Cougars," and hosts "BYU Football with Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall" on KSL Newsradio and KSL 5 Television. Wrubell's blog "Cougar Tracks" can be found at byu.ksl.com. "Behind the Mic" is published every Tuesday during the BYU football and basketball seasons. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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