ALBUQUERQUE — On Saturday in the Land of Enchantment, Bronco Mendenhall watched his defense and offense magically end the year as one.
BYU's defense did a 180-degree spin back in October. After the Cougar offense exploded for a school record 52 points in the New Mexico Bowl blowout win over UTEP on Saturday, one might say it did the same.
Freshman quarterback Jake Heaps tossed four touchdown passes and BYU's offense amassed 514 yards in this game. He completed 73.5 percent of his passes — a Cougar bowl record. It looked easy, although it wasn't, not really. This is a guy who began this season sharing the ball like twin sisters' dresses with junior Riley Nelson and a team struggling to find itself.
Against the Miners, Heaps tossed timing passes with astute precision three times in the nest of freshman Cody Hoffman. It was as impressive as any trio of scoring throws by any Cougar quarterback in any bowl game since Ty Detmer against Penn State in 1989.
Heaps played with a broken rib right below his shoulder blade on his non-throwing arm. The gravity of the injury he and BYU's staff kept secret since it happened in the first half of the Utah game.
"It took about a week and a half to stop hurting all the time," said Heaps, the New Mexico Bowl offensive MVP, as he left the locker room. "Right now, the adrenalin is wearing off and, yes, I can feel it."
It was a pretty darned good performance by the kid," said quarterback coach Brandon Doman, who said he didn't know what to expect before kickoff and was ready to play backup James Lark at any time.
"It says a lot about the guy."
An injury that takes six weeks to completely heal, Heaps' broken rib is symbolic of BYU's entire team this crazy season. What breakage and pain it suffered, had to be worked through from week to week until the very end.
In BYU's last game of 2010, its last football game as a member of the Mountain West, the Cougars were not the same squad that began the season against Washington as a fractured football team, which underachieved out of the chute but got better.
Mendenhall told reporters after the win he'd "mishandled" the quarterback situation leading up to the season, disabling the position with split reps and preparation. He took the blame, saying he was inexperienced as a head coach in creating the right structure.
Like a broken rib, the situation took time to heal.
"I learned so much," said Mendenhall. "I had never been through having a freshman quarterback, let alone having two brand new quarterbacks with identical percentages and grades all the way through spring ball and fall camp. I was praying a clear starter would emerge.
"I think the worst thing that happened to us was beating Washington in the opener with two quarterbacks. It made me think it could work. It prolonged me, forcing myself to put in all the reps into a player. That's hard to do when you love both players and they're so equal. I think it hurt us at the beginning of the year. And it's no one's fault but my own."
It takes some guts to admit the mistake.
The result is six wins in the final eight games, a bowl invitation and win after standing 1-4.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of BYU's dramatic win over SMU in the Holiday Bowl. Saturday's win gives Mendenhall his fourth bowl victory in five tries in a six-year career as head coach.
It took LaVell Edwards 10 years, from 1974 to 1984 to get his fourth bowl win. Perhaps Mendenhall is catching on with this bowl thing, albeit UTEP hardly pushed back very hard.
"What I take away from this game is that these young men are rare and unusual," said Doman. Where Heaps praised his offensive line, Doman said he'd add to it the extensive "hard work" of BYU receivers.
"The ability to do what they can do is rare. They are going to play as we prepare them. I've learned that our meetings are going to translate into practice and practice is going to translate into the stadium. We weren't very good at that at the beginning of this season and we've got better as the season's gone on.
"I just know this football team will accomplish whatever it wants to accomplish if we just prepare them to do it."28 comments on this story
His boss agreed.
"This particular season now does a nice job of setting the baseline for what it's really going to take to even reach the level of success we did this year, knowing with more difficult opponents, to reach a higher level, this now becomes the starting point."
So, perhaps BYU's end to 2010's end is the beginning; a start to more than independence.