PROVO — For BYU, there's a big difference between a 9-4 record and a 10-3 record.
As the Cougars came from behind to down Tulsa, 24-21, Friday in the Armed Forces Bowl on a touchdown pass from quarterback Riley Nelson to wide receiver Cody Hoffman with 11 seconds remaining, they earned their 10th win of the season to finish with a 10-3 mark.
On the heels of a seven-win campaign last season, the Cougars have claimed double-digit victories for the fifth time in the last six years. The bowl victory underscored the program's strengths, and the win should keep the players and coaches energized as they prepare for the 2012 season.
Many of BYU's playmakers, like Nelson, Hoffman, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and wide receiver J.D Falslev, to name a few, are proven underclassmen that return next year. They've played together for a while.
"I think what we have on this team is some phenomenal team chemistry," said junior linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "I think guys really love each other and sacrifice for each other. To know that we have so many guys coming back for next season, I'm excited. I don't know if it's possible, but it makes you kind of excited for winter workouts and spring ball. Man, let's just get going. That's what I feel like."
"If you look at Cody and Kyle, these two have grown and matured a lot and have continued to produce on the field in new and better ways each time we play," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "That's a great sign for our future."
That Armed Forces Bowl victory also reinforced the notion that the Cougars know how to win in the fourth quarter.
Nelson completed just 17-of-40 passes for 250 yards against Tulsa. While he threw three touchdowns, he also had two interceptions, was sacked three times, and rushed 13 times for 16 yards.
"I feel like (teammates) stuck by me through very ugly plays, two picks and under 50 percent completion percentage," Nelson said. "The stat sheet is kind of scary to look at."
But thanks to the way the game ended, the Cougars are taking confidence in Nelson's ability to make plays in crunch time.
"We have heart and a never-quit attitude," Nelson said. "Moving forward, I'd much rather have that than sitting here at the end of the season saying, 'Man, all the talent in the world but we just couldn't quite come together in those close games.' We come together in those close games."
BYU has posted a 19-6 record since 2005 in games decided by seven points or fewer under Mendenhall.
"We have a strong reputation that when the games are close we find a way to win," Mendenhall said.
Meanwhile, the Cougars are looking to continue improving. While they will have to replace a number of key seniors, they seem to have plenty of returning players that can help them take another step forward next fall.
"The most successful teams in college football are senior-laden. If you look at us, we're going to be juniors and seniors," Nelson said. "A lot of guys that have experience have been around the block. It's exciting. We have that chemistry. We love the battle and the fight, not just on the field, but off the field. The fight, the winter conditioning, coach Mendenhall's workouts are tough. Working out when you don't want to work out, staying that extra 20 minutes for film. We have that foundation to build on."
"We know we have the potential to keep going like that," said Hoffman, who caught eight passes for 122 yards and three TDs in Friday's game and finished the season with 61 receptions for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns. "We make little mistakes that slow us down. We're going to work on those in the off-season and come out good next year."
Van Noy, who recorded 10 tackles, two sacks, five tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble against Tulsa, enjoys being around the players and coaches in the program.
"It's been an honor to play with teammates like Cody and under a head coach who is probably the most underrated coach in all of college football, as well as a defensive mastermind," Van Noy said. "He makes the game so much easier for the players. He makes it so simple and puts everybody in great positions."
Finishing the inaugural season of independence with a signature win is a big accomplishment for the program, Mendenhall said.
"I think it was fantastic and I think it was just one of many more to come. We've won 10 games as a conference member. Now we've won 10 games now (as an independent)," he said. "We'll keep winning games no matter if someone wants us in or wants us out. It's just who our team is. ESPN certainly recognizes that, and I think a number of people that have had a chance to see us play recognize that.
"I think this is just the beginning. This is five wins in seven bowl games, it's not just going to the games, it's winning the game, and that's the new tradition that we're embracing at BYU and it matters a lot to us."
Nelson said the BYU's 10th win will serve as a springboard for 2012.
"Our talent and skill level will keep increasing as we keep practicing. So moving forward, I'm very excited," he said. "I know our team is very excited. But sending our seniors out the right way, those guys accomplished something very unique in college football, three out of four bowl wins, three out of four 10-win seasons. Tomorrow when we wake up, back to the grind, reach our potential and be the team we can be next year."