PROVO Well into the fourth quarter Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, No. 16 BYU was nursing a tenuous 10-point lead against Northern Iowa.
Not exactly what the Cougars had in mind when they declared 2008 the "Quest for Perfection."
Yes, it was a far-from-perfect season-opener, but BYU exploded for a pair of touchdowns in the span of about 90 seconds in the fourth quarter to secure a 41-17 triumph Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The Cougars committed plenty of gaffes against the gritty Panthers the offense coughed up four second-half fumbles, the special teams had an extra point blocked, and the defense surrendered 69-yard running play and a 76-yard passing play on a double-reverse pass (reminiscent of last year's nightmarish loss at Tulsa).
Despite all of that, coach Bronco Mendenhall was downright serene afterwards.
"We made enough plays to win and I think we showed signs of being the kind of team we're capable of being," he said. "We also saw enough mistakes and things to improve on that we can certainly leverage and improve next week and for the rest of the year. I give Northern Iowa credit. I think they're a very good team. It was a hard-fought contest and one that we learned a lot from today."
Defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen hinted that maybe the Cougars entered the game a little overconfident. "We made some big mistakes out there," he said. "It could have been a little overconfidence.
It's a humbling experience. It showed we have to work on the little things in practice."
In the first half, the Cougars cruised to a 27-3 halftime advantage. But the third quarter and early part of the fourth bordered on disastrous. They lost fumbles on three of their first four possessions in the second half and allowed Northern Iowa to get a cleat back in the door.
The most costly error, and, for BYU, the scariest moment, came when quarterback Max Hall was blindsided in the end zone by Panther defensive end James Ruffin. Hall fumbled the ball and Mark Huygens pounced on it for the touchdown. That made the score 27-17 with about six minutes left in the third.
"Obviously in the third quarter, we shot ourselves in the foot a few times," said tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught a career-high 11 passes for 213 yards. "But we can't discredit Northern Iowa. I think they did a great job. They forced a lot of those fumbles. We need to clean up that part."
Early in the fourth quarter, Hall fumbled again at the UNI five-yard line on a bad exchange with center Dallas Reynolds.
What in the name of Appalachian State was going on here? Was the guy representing the Fiesta Bowl that sat in the press box Saturday paying attention?
BYU's defense then forced a punt that put the ball back in Hall's hands. He re-entered the game resolved to turn things around.
"It never entered into my mind that we would lose or that they would come back," said Hall, who completed 34 of 41 passes for 486 yards and two touchdowns. "What entered into my mind was 'I need to get these guys going and we need to start making plays.' We did that down the stretch."
Hall promptly connected on a 28-yard pass play to Pitta, then hooked up with his cousin, wide receiver Reed White, who made a diving catch at the one-yard line. One play later, Hall dove into the end zone to give the Cougars a 34-17 cushion.
Moments later, BYU linebacker Coleby Clawson turned the tables on UNI, causing a fumble that was recovered by defensive lineman Brett Denney at the Panther 15. Bryan Kariya ended up scoring on a 14-yard run to make the score 41-17 with 7:30 remaining.
With that, the crowd of 64,108 could let out a collective sigh of relief. The Cougars say they were never worried about the outcome, however.
"I wouldn't say there was any panic," Pitta said. "We just can't afford that many fumbles, especially in one quarter. But I don't think we panicked at all. We came out in the fourth quarter, put a couple more scores on the board and did what we always do."
"There's always a lot of room for improvement," said senior receiver Mike Reed, who scored BYU's first touchdown of the season on a 27-yard catch-and-run. "I'll take this win any day of the week. But we know as an offense we didn't play our best. We could have executed a lot better than we did. We know what we need to do to improve."
Needless to say, taking care of the football will be a point of emphasis in practice this week when the Cougars prepare for their trip to Washington. "Ball security was one of the worst things ... if I had to say things we have to improve on," Mendenhall said. "With that one thing being different, most likely the game would have been a little bit more convincing. ... To reach our goals, we'll have to get it corrected."As of Saturday night, though, Mendenhall enjoyed starting the season 1-0. "It's nice to have (mistakes) happen and still win," he said. "But they're visible enough and teachable enough where the sooner they happen the better, for this team to develop and grow. It makes me smile when we can still win and learn at the same time."