Tom Smart, Deseret News
BYU freshman wide receiver Ross Apo, left, runs for a touchdown after catching a pass in Saturday's game.

PROVO — The first-ever BYU senior class to play without a conference marched into independence 78 days ago without tangible evidence of what they'd be in for. They said good-bye late Saturday night in LaVell Edwards Stadium with an expected victory.

But did they rise up?

In a lot of ways, they certainly did.

In other ways, maybe not so much.

The 2011 seniors are bowl-bound. And after dispatching New Mexico State, they'll take a week off for Turkey Day. They'll head off to Hawaii, where they should be favored to defeat the Warriors, who just lost their QB.

A 10-win season is definitely within the grasp of these seniors.

And that is an accomplishment. The last group in 2010 couldn't do it.

The seniors on this team are comprised of great guys, nice men. They've played hard, practiced with intensity, overcome much adversity, switched quarterbacks back and forth, got blown out by their rival, blew a lead at Texas and should have lost to Utah State. It isn't the fault of these seniors that BYU's staff didn't have a senior quarterback to lead the 2011 campaign.

It is sad that talented senior Jordan Pendleton played only six games, and the salute to him by linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who wore Pendleton's No. 1 jersey, was an appropriate honor.

It was nice to see a trio of seniors trigger BYU's first touchdown of the night. A Jadon Wagner sack of NMSU quarterback Matt Christian in Cougar territory on the first possession of the game led to a Jameson Frazier fumble recovery. That play led to a subsequent 4-yard TD run by senior Bryan Kariya to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead.

But the bold fact of the matter of the 2011 season, however, is the biggest playmakers on BYU's team have been underclassmen.

While many times the seniors have been given their way, respected by the coaching staff with playing time, starts and political positioning, it's been freshmen, sophomores and juniors who fill up the stat sheet.

In fact, of the 11 statistical categories that chronicle the BYU team this season, 10 of the 11 categories were dominated by underclassmen.

Jake Heaps, who lost his starting job after the fifth game of the season, is the leading passer.

The leading receivers on this team are first and foremost sophomore Cody Hoffman; second, freshman Ross Apo; third, sophomore Marcus Matthews; third, sophomore J.D. Falslev. Then senior McKay Jacobson.

The leading field goal kicker is sophomore Justin Sorensen. The leading scorer on BYU's team? Sophomore Hoffman gets that honor, followed by Sorensen.

The best punter is junior Riley Stephenson. The best kick returner is Hoffman, who didn't even have that job every game. Falslev, who just got a scholarship, is the leading punt return man and freshman Jordan Johnson is second.

Hoffman leads the team in all-purpose yardage and junior Riley Nelson was the team leader in total offense with 1,483 yards before his injury in the Idaho game a week ago.

Defensively, BYU's four leading tacklers are all underclassmen, led by junior linebacker Brandon Ogletree, then sophomore Van Noy, junior Uona Kaveinga and sophomore safety Daniel Sorensen. Then, the fifth guy is senior safety Travis Uale.

The leading interceptor on BYU's defense is a tie between sophomore linebacker Kyle Van Noy and senior safety Uale.

Van Noy leads BYU's defense in sacks and interception return yards and is second in tackles-for-loss behind Ogletree. Yet, he's been unable to start but seven out of 11 games and wasn't on the field when BYU gave up the two longest plays of the season, a pair of 80-plus yard runs by USU's Robert Turbin and Idaho's Princeton McCarty.

If I had a vote, I'd say Van Noy is the MVP of BYU's 2011 season.

A trio of seniors who've been very impressive are one-year player and USC transfer Hebron Fangupo and Matt Putnum, whose inspirational effort to get back on the field, albeit late, is a nice story and he's made plays.

This BYU class is the first in school history to grace independence. They answered the call.

But can we spell it out real simple?

The most visual memories of 2011 are young Van Noy saving the 'Ole Miss game, gutsy Nelson saving the USU game and Hoffman catches, the pair of TDs Saturday by Apo, coming out of sophomore Michael Alisa, and the potential of sophomore Jake Heaps.

The Young Ones.

That's a title that underscores this Cougar season.

It's a good sign for the future.