LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Boasting a strong defense and a roster featuring 22 seniors, BYU entered the season with high expectations.
The Cougars certainly didn't expect to be 6-5 going into their final regular-season game. But that's where BYU sits as it visits New Mexico State Saturday (1:30 p.m. MT, ESPN3).
"It's been tough and hard-fought," coach Bronco Mendenhall said of the season to this point. "It's been a test of resiliency. So many games battling right down to the wire, then the next one seems to be right down to the wire. I think it's just been a challenging test for our team."
BYU (6-5) already clinched a berth in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 20. But the Cougars are coming off a 20-14 setback at San Jose State — one in a string of disappointing, close losses this year.
"Everybody's bummed. You lose a game and nobody's happy," said linebacker Spencer Hadley. "We're frustrated and upset that we lost. Is it going to affect the way that we play and the way we practice now? No. Our swagger's still there. It will be good for us to have a little chip on our shoulder and have something to prove this game and go into the bowl game with something to prove. Any time you lose, you ought to be frustrated."
Meanwhile, New Mexico State can relate to frustration and disappointment.
The Aggies (1-9) began the season eyeing their first bowl appearance since 1960. Instead, New Mexico State has lost nine consecutive games after winning its season-opener. The Aggies won't belong to a conference after the season ends because of the demise of the Western Athletic Conference as a football league. The school's president, Barbara Couture, resigned in October reportedly in part due to the football program's problems.
"It's been a tough year mentally for all of us, something we didn't really expect," New Mexico State coach DeWayne Walker said this week.
The Aggies are coming off a much-needed bye week, and Walker, a former BYU defensive backs coach, said the week off gave his team a "chance to re-fill the tanks."
Meanwhile, Walker said, the Cougars are much better than their record shows.
"BYU's a very good football team. I know they're not real happy with where they are but their record does not indicate what type of football team they have. I know they had a tough loss against San Jose State on Saturday but they're still a good team. We have our hands full. We have to come up with a scheme to try to slow these guys down. I know that they're very good on defense because Bronco does a great job defensively."
Mendenhall assessed the Aggies this way: "Talented, but they turn the ball over a lot. They've been struggling to stop the run. Offensively, they have a lot of good athletes, but they struggle with turnovers and consistency."
Last week, BYU started slowly and fell behind to San Jose State 20-7 early in the second quarter. The Cougars held the Spartans scoreless after that.
Hadley said BYU's defense didn't make any adjustments.
"It might have been a situation where we got flustered a little bit. We were a little shocked. That's not common for a team to put up that many points on us that quick. It caught us off-guard. We took a step back and talked and said, 'Get a hold of yourself, play your assignment, do your job and we'll be fine.' That was the difference — execution. Once we fixed that, it was a different game."
How would Hadley describe the way the season has gone?
"That's a big question," he said. "It's been fun. It's been frustrating at times. It is what it is. I don't have anything to say other than that."
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BYU (6-5) at New Mexico State (1-9)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
Aggie Memorial Stadium, Las Cruces, N.M.
TV: ESPN3 Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM