Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
LOGAN — Each of the last three BYU-Utah State games has produced pivotal moments for Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall and his program — moments that have transcended the outcomes.
Maybe it’s coincidence that these seismic events happened against the Aggies. Then again, maybe it’s not.
As for this year's in-state showdown, for the first time in years, Utah State is favored Friday (6 p.m. MDT, CBSS) at Romney Stadium.
The Aggies are playing at home, they are in their first season in the Mountain West Conference (the one BYU used to belong to), and they boast a dynamic, play-making quarterback, Chuckie Keeton.
Meanwhile, the underdog Cougars have struggled throwing the ball, are riddled by injuries, and trying to avoid a 2-3 start to the season, with plenty of tough games remaining on the schedule.
Could Friday’s battle, once again, have long-term implications for BYU?
Here's a look at the last three memorable meetings between the Cougars and Aggies:
In 2010, a humiliating 31-16 loss to Utah State in Logan resulted in Mendenhall firing defensive coordinator Jaime Hill the next day. Since then, Mendenhall has called the defensive plays. He served as defensive coordinator up until Nick Howell was promoted to that position last spring.
“I don’t remember much about that (2010) game,” Mendenhall recalled this week. “I remember talking to (then-Aggie coach) Gary Andersen after. He waited for a long time to visit with me after the media stuff. It was fun to congratulate him and wish him success and see their program take a positive turn. Then I knew there were some tough decisions I had to make.”
Mendenhall opted to take over the defense, and it has paid off in big ways. The Cougars have been among the best nationally in defense over the past couple of seasons.
But the bitter memories of that loss in Logan linger for those Cougars who played in that game.
“It left a bad feeling in my stomach,” receiver Cody Hoffman said this week.
In 2011 in Provo, the Cougars were unable to do much offensively against USU until quarterback Jake Heaps was replaced by backup Riley Nelson. Nelson, a former Aggie, staged a dramatic, fourth-quarter comeback that lifted BYU to a 27-24 victory.
Nelson became the Cougars’ starting QB, while Heaps, the most highly touted recruit in school history, ended up transferring to Kansas.
In 2012, also in Provo, Taysom Hill was making his second start at quarterback after replacing an injured Nelson. Even though Hill and the offense scored just one touchdown, it was — thanks to the Cougar defense — enough to defeat Utah State in a sloppy defensive struggle, 6-3.
However, in the waning moments, Hill suffered a season-ending knee injury after a bizarre miscommunication with coaches on the sideline.
Hill said this week he has thought about that devastating setback.
“This is the time of year I was injured and it was a tough time in my life,” he said. “It’s allowed me to reflect on that and think back on that game.”
Hill, whose development was interrupted by that injury, added that it’s reminded him of the importance of sliding when necessary, and protecting himself.
BYU’s offense continued to sputter throughout the rest of the 2012 season. In January, Mendenhall replaced the entire offensive coaching staff, which included bringing back Robert Anae as offensive coordinator.
Which brings us to Friday night’s contest.
With a 2-2 record, the Cougars need four wins to remain in position to be bowl-eligible this season. A victory against the Aggies would put BYU halfway to reaching the necessary six wins to go bowling in December. The Cougars are also looking to avoid an 0-2 record against in-state foes this season.
“We’re fired up, we’re ready for this game,” Hill said. “It’s a big one. Going to Logan can really propel us and get that tipping point for the rest of the season.”
In a 37-10 triumph over Middle Tennessee last week, the Cougar offense looked much better than it did in a loss to Utah. But Utah State’s defense is much better than the Blue Raiders' defense.
Besides, with this being a rivalry game, and the fact that USU’s defense is very similar to last year’s, Friday’s matchup could be a very low-scoring affair.
“It’s always going be a struggle, that’s how rivalry games are,” said Hoffman. “But we know their defense is good and our defense is good. I think it will come down to which defense plays better. Either way, I think both offenses will get their points.”
The good news for BYU is both Hoffman and running back Jamaal Williams return to the lineup this week. While Hoffman served a one-game suspension, Williams sat out due to the effects of a concussion suffered against Utah.
“It’s huge,” Hill said of the return of Hoffman and Williams. “Even if we’re not getting them the ball regularly, their defense is going to have to account for them. That’s really big. It’s good to have them back.”
Hoffman is hoping his team plays much better than it did in 2010, and can win its third in a row over the Aggies.
“The last couple of years we had revenge on them and hopefully we can keep the streak going,” he said.
BYU (2-2) at Utah State (3-2)
Friday, 6 p.m.
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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