Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO — Homework time.
This week Bronco Mendenhall gets a unique opportunity to measure the progress of all he's trying to fix inside BYU's football team since it lost to Utah and Boise State by a combined four points in September.
The opportunity comes in the form of hosting Utah State this Friday night.
Utah State is not Hawaii. It isn't the old Utah State, either, where losses piled up and coaches stopped on the way to someplace else.
Gary Andersen has USU playing on a higher plane. The Aggies are tough, motivated and executing, and are more than capable of testing anyone. USU is headed for a double-digit win season and a bowl game, and is four quarters away from declaring itself champion of the state of Utah. Except for a tipped pass last year, USU would be 2-0 against BYU.
Anybody who denigrates the Aggies these days is nuts.
USU is owed respect.
Andersen is sneaking up on no one. Ask folks at Auburn, Wisconsin and Utah.
That's why it will be very interesting to see if and how Mendenhall applies lessons learned for this game.
And what are the lessons his 3-2 team should have learned?
BYU has an elite defense he can lean on in critical times. His defense has now shut down three of college football's best offensive minds in Mike Leach, Chris Petersen and Norm Chow.
BYU cannot wheel out a less-than-100 percent Riley Nelson against good teams and win.
PATs cannot be taken for granted.
BYU's offensive line must play with more nastiness. BYU shook things up last week and played better against Hawaii, but Utah State's defense will pose a much, much stiffer challenge.
BYU must manage momentum. In their two losses, momentum loomed like a critical engine, with nothing killing the Cougars more than turnovers that provided free scores to their opponents. Above everything else, and in honor of his defense, Mendenhall cannot afford to place any unsure offensive player or unsound offensive practice on the field in a game that is not against Hawaii. His team is not good enough to overcome self-inflicted momentum wounds against good teams.
All these factors make for interesting BYU-USU game-week fodder.
Both teams are having outstanding defensive seasons. Before this weekend, both were ranked in the Top 11 in the nation in total defense: the Cougars at No. 7, USU at No. 11.
Touchdowns will be tough to produce on Friday night. Turnovers will be crucial — as in suicidal to the team that commits them.
Heading into this past weekend, BYU ranked No. 2 in the nation in red-zone defense, just ahead of Alabama, with only three scores allowed in eight opponent red-zone appearances. The Aggies ranked No. 8.
We're all enamored with offenses — all the scoring, big plays, touchdowns and scoreboard activity.
But this game could turn out to be a real defensive gem, a strategic masterpiece by both Andersen and Mendenhall.
The edge goes to USU because of experience, continuity and consistency.
One thing is for sure on BYU's side — as soon as the experience with Hawaii and the 47 points can be erased, the better. Chow's Hawaii team was like watching episodes of "The Walking Dead," hardly a measure to truly determine if lessons were learned.
Conversely, USU's got to get Saturday's game against UNLV out of its system; the Rebels' defense is not BYU's defense.
Suddenly, in-state games for this local independent are a very big deal.
Andersen has always known this.
Now, Mendenhall should know it as well.
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