PROVO — There's a frustrating trend at BYU that senior quarterback Riley Nelson is striving to put an end to this season.
In five of the past seven years, the Cougars have suffered two losses early in the campaign. Those disappointing defeats in the first month have quickly squelched the program's dreams of reaching its loftiest goals.
As an independent, BYU has no conference championship to play for, and a schedule that is frontloaded with tough opponents — which places increased emphasis on the first part of the season.
"I'm glad you brought that up," Nelson told reporters during BYU's media day last month when he was asked about slow starts. "No one's really talked about that. It has been a focus of ours. We can't afford to do it anymore. We did it again last year. It's over, man. It's the same old song. We're tired of doing the same stuff."
In coach Bronco Mendenhall's seven years at the helm, BYU has posted a lackluster 15-13 mark in the first four games of the season. And that includes five consecutive victories in season-openers.
Most of the trouble has come in Week 3 — the Cougars are 1-6 in the third game of the season under Mendenhall.
Last September, BYU opened with a dramatic victory at Ole Miss, which was followed by a one-point setback at Texas, then a humiliating, 44-point drubbing at home at the hands of arch-rival Utah.
The Cougars open the 2012 season at home against Washington State (Aug. 30), then host Weber State (Sept. 8). They make back-to-back road trips to Utah (Sept. 15) and Boise State (Sept. 20).
"I'm most anxious about coming out of the gate strong," Nelson said. "Utah's our third game and Boise State is right after Utah. You take it one game at a time, but let's get rolling that first month. If we continue that, can you imagine? By the end of the season, we'll be the team we want to be."
Mendenhall is well-aware of his teams' slow starts and said he's spent a lot of time thinking about it — though no more this offseason than previous offseasons. Mendenhall points to playing tough games early in the season. "That's maybe a simple explanation," he said.
He is also aware of BYU's success in openers, adding that the key "is to sustain it, usually on the road against good teams."
It's an issue Mendenhall hinted he is planning to address in fall camp, which opens on Aug. 2.
Mendenhall has made keeping players healthy a focal point of fall camp, at the expense of having them participate in game-speed drills. He acknowledged last fall that he didn't give his players enough "live" work in fall camp. Expect the Cougars to do more "live" reps this August.
"I've erred on the side of team health in two-a-days more than anything else over the past while," Mendenhall said in June. "There might be a hair more (this fall camp) in terms of volumes of repetitions in competitive settings to increase the volume of those types of repetitions, especially as the strength of our schedule has been frontloaded."
Nelson said the onus is on the players to prepare well off the field, then perform well on the field.
"So what are you going to do?" he asked. "Say, 'Concentrate harder this week because we don't want to be 1-2?' No. But can you keep it in the back of your mind when you're doing squats and running gassers? Yeah. Can you think about after you take care of week one, you take care of week two and week three? The way college football is set up, and the position that we're in, if we start off 1-2, it's the same old, same old. Seventh straight year of a good season, but we didn't take any step forward. It's definitely on our minds. It's on my mind. I feel like it's on the mind of the team collectively."
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy said he doesn't think much about early-season trends.
"Every year is a different year," he said. "I didn't notice that until we were 1-4 (in 2010). It stinks that we start like that."
While BYU has been plagued by slow starts, one of Mendenhall's hallmarks has been strong finishes. Twice, in 2006 and 2007, the Cougars opened 1-2, then won 10 consecutive games. In 2010, BYU overcame its 1-4 start to win six of its final eight contests. Last season, the Cougars won nine of their last 10.
Of course, scheduling has been a factor.
Meanwhile, Van Noy is counting on another big finish this season. But can BYU put together a strong start?
"This year the team is more mature, there's more leadership," he said. "That's a big thing when you have senior leadership that takes over and helps the younger guys. We should emphasize that more, that we should start out fast instead of slow."
In four of seven seasons under coach Bronco Mendenhall, BYU has started with a mediocre 2-2 record. The Cougars have also opened 1-3 and 1-4. Here's a look at how BYU started and finished each year under Mendenhall:
2005: lost to Boston Col., beat E. Illinois, lost to TCU, lost to San Diego St. (1-3, final record 6-6)
2006: lost to Arizona, beat Tulsa, lost at Boston Col., beat Utah State (2-2, final record 11-2)
2007: beat Arizona, lost at UCLA, lost at Tulsa, beat Air Force (2-2, final record 11-2)
2008: beat N. Iowa, beat Washington, beat UCLA, beat Wyoming (4-0, final record 10-3)
2009: beat Oklahoma, beat Tulane, lost to Florida St., beat Colorado St. (3-1, final record 11-2)
2010: beat Washington, lost at Air Force, lost at Florida St., lost to Nevada (1-3, final record 7-6)
2011: beat Ole Miss, lost at Texas, lost to Utah, beat C. Florida (2-2, final record 10-3)
2012: vs. Washington St. vs. Weber State at Utah at Boise State
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