In 2005, Bronco Mendenhall was in his first year on the job as BYU's head coach, trusted with (among other things) getting the football team back to the postseason. The Cougars had just gone three straight seasons without a bowl bid, and 2005's postseason prospects were not aided by a 1-3 start to Mendenhall's rookie campaign.
BYU would bounce back, however, and win five of its next six games to secure bowl eligibility in the Cougars' second-to-last regular-season contest.
Flash forward five years, and BYU was 1-4 to start this season, with shovels of dirt waiting to be tossed on the Cougars' bowl hopes. As in 2005, this year's team went on a run, again winning five of six games to punch a postseason ticket in BYU's second-to-last regular-season game.
Mendenhall notes the parallels, and says without hesitation that the 2010 season "has been more difficult."
"When I first took over, that was after three losing seasons," Mendenhall says.
What made the 1-4 start to this season tougher "was the depth of how bad the team was hurting, after all the success."
"Every single play, every single day was a battle," says Mendenhall. "It has been a remarkable challenge and a great opportunity to learn. I don't think anyone believed they could have a winning season, or possibly go to the postseason, and they've kind of kept chipping away at it."
Certainly BYU's stern early season schedule exacerbated the Cougars' growing pains, just as a softer late-season slate has allowed BYU the opportunity to gain greater momentum and some much-needed offensive traction. Yet the coach says BYU's improvements go well beyond the vagaries of the schedule-maker.
"There were far greater issues than just who we were playing. If we didn't get those issues addressed, and get them addressed correctly, then it didn't really matter who we were playing; that's something I hold firm on," says Mendenhall.
Now that the Cougars are firmly in the postseason mix, all that remains is the curtain-dropper at Utah, in the final game of their rivalry as conference foes. Regardless of the outcome at Rice-Eccles Stadium, BYU will leave the Mountain West Conference with the most conference wins since the league's inception in 1999, edging out the Utes.
BYU's MWC record of 64-25 is two games better than the Utes' 62-27 mark, with BYU also assured of leaving the league with the most conference road wins and no worse than a tie for most home victories in conference play.
BYU and Utah will each depart the MWC with four conference titles in football and a combined 18 bowl appearances as Mountain West members — Utah with 10, and BYU with eight.
Two of the most commonly mentioned football axioms are "you have to be able to run the ball," and "you have to take care of the ball."
BYU's hopes for a win at Utah may indeed depend on those two areas in which the Cougars currently hold a statistical edge over their rivals.
BYU boasts the nation's 39th-best rushing attack, averaging 173 yards per game; Utah's 163 rushing yards per contest rank 45th. Whether BYU can run the ball effectively against the Utes is the question, since Utah's rush defense ranks 10th nationally, allowing only 108 yards per game on the ground. BYU has run the ball for 200-plus yards in four straight games and six times this season; since 1972, the Cougars have a 93 percent win rate (102-8) when rushing for 200 yards or more.
Despite having a true freshman QB at the helm, BYU has a positive turnover margin of plus-2, which ranks 43rd to Utah's 75th-ranked margin of minus-3. Rookie QB Jake Heaps and the Cougars have thrown only eight interceptions, compared to Utah's nine.
BYU's ball security is integral to the Cougars' chances on Saturday. In the Bronco Mendenhall era, BYU is 40-5 when "even" or "plus" in the turnover margin. Furthermore, in Mendenhall's three wins over Utah, BYU is plus-1 in the takeaway/giveaway tally; in his two losses, the Cougars are minus-7.
Run the ball. Hang on to the ball. Win the game.
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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