ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. It wasn't pretty, but BYU deposited a "statement game" in the bank Saturday night in New Mexico.
The Cougars are clearly the team to beat in the Mountain West.
No program in the short history of the conference has won more consecutive games, including more consecutive games on the road, after BYU held on to defeat New Mexico.
"I'm proud of these guys," said BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae. "It isn't easy to come here and win on the road and they did it, were tough, overcame mistakes and leave here with a big win."
Saturday's game was supposed to be a measuring stick, a tell-tale, if you will, for the Cougars.
First, for the defense. The Lobos were the first big offensive test since Bronco Mendenhall's Great Confession at Tulsa; that he didn't have the Cougar defenders properly prepared when the Hurricane tattooed BYU for 595 yards in a 55-47 shootout.
Was Mendenhall just covering, or telling it like it was?
Of that nearly 600 Tulsa yards, 490 of came on just 22 completions by Paul Smith. Mendenhall had Bryan Kehl and company work on 70 percent run plays leading up to the trip to Tulsa and with 15 days to prepare, the Hurricane offense had BYU looking like cardboard cutouts, clueless as a hooked tuna.
Second was rookie Max Hall, the league's total offense leader.
On Saturday he faced the Lobos' 3-3-5 front with as many as 24 players subbing in all game and blitzes pitched everywhere from Sante Fe to Yale Avenue and to test Hall's mettle, his mental toughness, his resolve displayed bravely in the first four starts of his career. Tougher and more complicated than Arizona or UCLA to figure out, this was a Rocky Long gauntlet that would reveal much about the upstart sophomore.
Well, Bryan Kehl and Quinn Gooch both intercepted Lobo QB Donovan Porterie and linebacker Chris Bolden jumped on a New Mexico fumble on a punt return at crunch time to pace a solid BYU defensive effort. The Cougars held the Lobos to 103 fewer yards total offense then they average and 13 points below their average.
Tulsa was a fluke.
The sophomore had an off day. But his effort was spectacular for what he faced. Yes, he fumbled a low snap that got the Lobos back in the game in the second half, but Hall showed moxie beyond his years in repeatedly killing the Lobos with huge plays, few bigger than his gutsy 11-yard third-down run to help the Cougars maintain possession of the ball and run out the clock at the end of the game.
Cougar defenders, splayed at Tulsa, busted down on basically one single play, screen passes to the league's top back, Rodney Ferguson.
The first one went for 18 yards. The big one was a 71-yarder in the third quarter that elevated UNM back as a threat at 21-21 after the Cougars led 21-13.
"I talked to their coordinator after the game and they put that in for us. Take away that one play, which we did not handle, and it was the only one that hurt us," said Mendenhall.
The BYU coach had high praise for Hall, who got tested by fire. "There is no way you can prepare for New Mexico in practice, you just can't," said Mendenhall. "We had Jeff Grimes, our offensive line coach for three years working on New Mexico's blitzes and improved each year, but for Max to come out and do what he did was phenomenal."
Hall completed 18 of 40 passes for 251 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He had another one, to Andrew George, nullified by the replay booth officials. "I got it, that's my final answer," George said to reporters going into the locker room.
Hall's 62-yard touchdown pass to Austin Collie was a perfect one-on-one sideline bomb and put the Cougars up 21-6 in control of the game in the first half.
"Max never quit. He just kept coming at them. That makes such a huge difference when you have a leader like that," said senior captain Matt Allen.
"This bodes well for the future of this team."
The Cougars now take a week off to lick wounds, put coaches out on the recruiting trail and prepare for another road trip to UNLV in two weeks.
Somehow, you get the feeling they left Albuquerque just like in 2005, as a better football team.
Their old mistakes were still there nipping and haunting them, but they were good enough to nail the Lobos, a team with an eye on the title. Bottom line?BYU passed a test thrown their way by themselves and other critics.