PROVO After a physical, hard-fought game like Saturday's narrow 31-24 triumph at New Mexico, BYU probably could use a bye.
As it turns out, the Cougars get one this week.
BYU, winners of two straight games and unbeaten in Mountain West Conference play, will take next Saturday off before going back on the road to face UNLV on Oct. 13.
In the meantime, there's plenty of work to do, according to coach Bronco Mendenhall. "We're not a finished team yet," he said. "We're not a championship team yet. But we are growing and learning, step by step."
Does Mendenhall like the timing of this upcoming bye, given that his team has built up some momentum with victories over Air Force and New Mexico?
"I don't know if there's ever a right time for a bye week. We have plenty to improve in our football program," he said. "We'll work hard Monday through Thursday, and the players will have Friday and Saturday off. Then we'll move on to our next conference opponent. We'll make it come at the right time."
Last Saturday, the Cougars took a 21-6 second-half lead before the Lobos rallied to tie the game at 21. A pair of UNM fumbles in the fourth quarter helped lift BYU to victory. The Cougars fumbled three times themselves but recovered two of them. In Albuquerque, they were both lucky and good. "I don't know the definition of luck, but I think preparation has a lot to do with it," Mendenhall said. "For the last two weeks, this team has prepared better than any team I've ever been with."
It wasn't a pretty win, but Mendenhall will take it.
"We don't really care what it looks like on the road or at home," he said. "That's an exaggeration, but the bottom line is winning the game. That's what it's about in terms of having a chance at winning the conference."
Last season, BYU defeated TCU on the road in late September and went on to go unbeaten from there. Could last Saturday's win be a springboard to similar success? Mendenhall said the victory over New Mexico will benefit his team the rest of the way.
"Those types of wins, you learn a lot about your team and your character, your coaching staff and your resiliency. It was a very positive night in that regard ... We knew it would be a battle. And that's how it turned out."
Offensively, the Cougars did not enjoy one of their better performances. Against New Mexico's blitz-happy defenders, quarterback Max Hall had a rough outing, completing 18 of 40 passes for 251 yards, but he also had two touchdown passes, including a 59-yarder to Austin Collie. He threw one interception, fumbled once (on a low snap) and was sacked three times.
Mendenhall said Hall learned valuable lessons that will help him in the future.
The Lobos gained 346 yards against BYU's defense, including a screen pass from quarterback Donovan Porterie to running back Rodney Ferguson that went 71 yards for one of Ferguson's three TDs.
But speedy wide receivers Marcus Smith and Travis Brown didn't break any big plays. Combined, they had 12 catches for 87 yards. More impressively, BYU was without starting cornerback Ben Criddle, who remained in Provo nursing a sprained ankle. Andre Saulsberry took Criddle's spot in the lineup and recorded a tackle and a pass breakup.
"It's just the next player who steps in," Mendenhall said of Saulsberry. "On a matter of principle, or a matter of injury, when a player goes down, I feel for that particular player, but I expect the next player to fill his role."
Linebacker Bryan Kehl got the Cougars off to a strong start by intercepting a Porterie pass and returning it 36 yards for a touchdown on UNM's opening drive. He also recovered a fumble in the third quarter. Safety Quinn Gooch had an interception and a pass breakup while linebacker Markell Staffieri had a team-high 10 tackles, including a nine-yard sack and two tackles for losses (minus 11 yards).
On special teams, junior punter C.J. Santiago boomed a 75-yard punt in the first half at the end of BYU's first offensive series, pinning the Lobos back at their own eight-yard line. "That particular punt really helped us," Mendenhall said. Santiago punted 10 times for a 46.2-yard average and placed two inside the 20.Meanwhile, placekicker Brian Smith had a couple of kickoffs that sailed out of bounds. Mitch Payne converted all four PAT attempts (one, after a false start penalty, hit the upright but was good) and drilled a key 22-yard field goal late in the game. Mendenhall said he will continue to evaluate his placekickers during the bye week.