PROVO — When BYU announced it was going independent in football and signed an eight-year broadcast agreement with ESPN, the network's vice president of programming and acquisition, Dave Brown, said one of the reasons to form a partnership with the Cougars was because of their tradition of "signature games."
In its first season of independence, BYU hasn't had a signature game yet, but it is providing entertaining, close contests for ESPN viewers.
Four of the Cougars' five games this season, all televised by the ESPN family of networks, have been decided by a touchdown or less, including a pair of one-point decisions. BYU has staged second-half comebacks in all three of its victories, including a game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left in last Friday's 27-24 thriller against Utah State.
Afterward, Mendenhall looked around the locker room and saw that his players were spent.
"They're battered, they're bruised, they're sweating and they're dripping," he said. "That, to me, is the way I would like to coach and the way I'd like our team to respond. Our M.O. to this point looks like the games we're winning and the games we're losing, other than one (a 54-10 loss to Utah), have been this kind of right-to-the-end, find a way. That should make for an exciting season."
Based on the way the season has gone so far, Mendenhall said Monday, his team's identity is tied to doing things the hard way. And he likes that.
"It seems like we might be coming from behind, we might be stumbling or reaching for the goal line or causing a quarterback to fumble a ball or knocking down a Hail Mary pass or something like that," Mendenhall said. "Nothing's come easy yet and I'm not sure it will for this particular team. We'll see."
Quarterback Riley Nelson, who led the Cougars to the dramatic win over USU, said every game is going to be a "dogfight."
"That's just who we are and the way our schedule is set up, every game is going to be decided by a touchdown or less," Nelson explained. "We're ready for it for the rest of the season, and I hope Cougar fans are too, because this is how it's going to be.
"Obviously, in games like that that are close, emotions run high. The highs are really high and the lows are really low. So it's going to be a fun season."
While ESPN offers national exposure for BYU, it also offers non-traditional kickoff days and times. The Cougars' last two games were on Friday nights. Saturday's contest (8:15 p.m. MT, ESPNU) is the latest starting time for a BYU game since an 8:37 p.m. kickoff in a 29-0 win over UNLV, in Las Vegas, in 1999.
Mendenhall said he's resigned himself to the late kickoffs, adding that there's a trade-off. He said he was told that three times the amount of viewers watched the win over Central Florida than the setback to Utah "simply because it was (on) Friday night. If part of the reason to go independent is for more people to see our team play, and hopefully we're playing well, then you'd have to say that that's helpful."
The coach said he can live with late games as long as it "allows more and more people see BYU win … even though it's unconventional in terms of time."
Cougar players have warmed up to the inconsistent game days and kickoff times.
"I don't like games that are very late, to tell you the truth, but we take what we can get," said safety Travis Uale, who added that he will probably catch a nap Saturday before the game against San Jose State. "It's a good opportunity to play on Saturday after playing two Friday games and get a little bit more preparation than we had the last two weeks."
Center Terence Brown said he'll play anytime. "Monday night, Thursday night, Friday at 5 a.m., at whatever time they say we're playing, we're going to play."
Question is, will the fans show up at LaVell Edwards Stadium at 8:15 p.m.?
"It's a late game, I don't know how that will affect (attendance)," Mendenhall said. "But I think we're gaining momentum and we're playing better football each week, and I think our fans support us. They're seeing exciting games and, with the exception of one week, games that are going right down to the very end. If they're interested in that, it would be a good one to show up for, I think."
There have been some other scheduling quirks in this first season of independence. The Cougars opened the campaign with long, back-to-back road trips to Ole Miss and to Texas. Saturday's contest marks BYU's fourth consecutive home game — the first time that's happened in 20 years, when the Cougars hosted Air Force, Utah State, UTEP and Hawaii in 1991.
Living on the edge
Of BYU's five games this season, four have been decided by a touchdown or less:
BYU 14, Ole Miss 13
Texas 17, BYU 16
BYU 24, Central Florida 17
BYU 27, Utah State 24
Cougars on the air
San Jose State (2-3) at BYU (3-2)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
LaVell Edwards Stadium
TV: ESPNU Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company