It will all start up front with the offensive line. If we can establish a good run game, then that will open up pass lanes for us. The key to our success will be balance. —BYU quarterback Riley Nelson
As BYU's head coach and defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall keeps a keen eye on the Cougar offense.
His defense competed against the offense during fall camp, and, ultimately, of course, Mendenhall is responsible for the offensive performance.
With Thursday's season-opener at LaVell Edwards Stadium against Washington State (8:15 p.m., MT, ESPN) rapidly approaching, the reality is that in Mendenhall's previous seven campaigns at the helm, BYU's offense has sputtered in almost every season-opener, averaging about 18 points per game. Take away the 41 points scored in the 2008 opener against FCS opponent Northern Iowa, that average drops to a lackluster 14.5.
With a senior quarterback, a variety of proven playmakers and a clearer identity, is this year's offense equipped to start strong?
"From what I saw in practice, yeah," Mendenhall said. "They're hard to stop. I just kind of gauge it by that. I like the way they work."
It should be noted that BYU owns a 5-2 record in those seven openers — despite the lack of offensive production — including five consecutive victories, which stands as a testament to the Cougars' defensive efforts. In last year's opener at Ole Miss, the defense essentially won the game thanks to linebacker Kyle Van Noy's fumble recovery for a touchdown with five minutes remaining. The offense scored just one TD in a 14-13 victory.
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman and quarterback Riley Nelson certainly want to see more points on the scoreboard in this year's opener.
"It will all start up front with the offensive line. If we can establish a good run game, then that will open up pass lanes for us," Nelson said. "The key to our success will be balance. That will come through high-efficiency pass offense and a highly efficient run game. I can't say that we'll come out of each game with the same pass-to-run ratio — 60-40 or 65-35 or whatever. Those may be flipped depending on the game. All we're interested in is putting the ball in the end zone, getting first downs and moving the ball up and down the field. I feel like we're well on our way. We feel good about where we are right now."
Doman, who is entering his second season as offensive coordinator, remembers the opening game of his senior season at BYU in 2001 — a 70-point outburst against Tulane. Is this offense capable of producing a prolific amount of points from the outset?
"I hope so. Man, I've thought a lot about that," Doman said. "Offenses usually should be a little bit slower than the defense early on. But in my senior year, we came out and scored 70 in that first game. I would like these guys to come out of the chutes running. Our scrimmages have shown that we're capable. But, gosh, we're playing against a good team. So you never know."
One aspect of this year's offense that Doman is excited about, besides having wide receivers like Cody Hoffman, Ross Apo and JD Falslev, is the rushing attack, which features a stable of backs — Michael Alisa, Iona Pritchard, David Foote, Adam Hine and Jamaal Williams.
"The run game changes our offense. It makes us a lot more difficult to defend," Doman said. "I hope that (opponents) feel threatened by it. It's certainly not our identity, but it's a supplement to who we are. If they feel threatened, they've got to add extra people in the box to stop the run game. I think we have enough weapons throwing the football and then with Riley doing what Riley does by moving in the pocket, it will pose some challenges for them. So here's hoping that it will do that for us."
Of course, turnovers will always thwart the potency of an offense. In last year's opener at Ole Miss, the Rebels' only touchdown came on a 96-yard interception return.
Avoiding turnovers has been a point of emphasis for the Cougars.
"We had a handful of interceptions and a couple of fumbles (during fall camp)," Doman said. "But it's increasingly better this year than it's been in the last three years. So I'm hoping with a senior quarterback and a little bit more experience that we'll see a decrease in turnovers. Riley's a little bit on the edge. That's okay. I'm not going to take that away from him. Maybe we will see a handful more interceptions than we saw with (former BYU QBs) Max (Hall) and John (Beck). But we might have more explosive plays than we did with those guys."
In any case, Doman is much more confident about what this offense can do compared to last season.
"I'm a heckuva lot more at peace than I was last year. I was nervous last year, and I'm nervous this year, but it's different. Last year it was the uncertainly of the unknown of what to do and how to do it," Doman said. "This year, I feel more like a player going into a game, where I know what to expect, just anxious and excited to go compete and see what they do defensively — hopefully adjust and make good calls during the game and give our team a chance. I'm looking forward to that. Our identity is different. We know who we are a heckuva a lot more than we did last year. The leadership is a lot better. Our ability to move the ball in scrimmage is night and day from where we were last year … We have more weapons. We've got guys in our offense that can do things and we're going to utilize those guys. We're going to get the very best football players on the field in a variety of ways and run our offense. Hopefully, it will be fun for the fans to watch."
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SLOW OUT OF THE GATES
Under coach Bronco Mendenhall, BYU's offense has generally sputtered in the season-openers. Here's a look at how the offense has fared each year:
Year Opponent Points scored Result
2005 Boston College 3 L, 20-3
2006 Arizona 13 L, 16-13
2007 Arizona 20 W, 20-7
2008 Northern Iowa 41 W, 41-17
2009 Oklahoma 14 W, 14-13
2010 Washington 23 W, 23-17
2011 Ole Miss 14 W, 14-13Season opener
Washington State at BYU
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Thursday, 8:15 p.m. MT
TV: ESPN Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM