PROVO It was only a couple of years ago that the knock on BYU was its propensity for losing games at the end of the season. From 2001-05, the Cougars lost their final two games in each of those five years.
But 10-game winning streaks to end the 2006 and 2007 campaigns, respectively, halted that criticism.
Of late, it's BYU's slow-as-dialup starts that's been the problem.
Since coach Bronco Mendenhall took over in 2005, the Cougars have begun with 1-2 records in each of the last three seasons (including a 1-3 start in '05).
But with a victory Saturday at Washington, BYU would start with a 2-0 record for the first time under Mendenhall and keep its dreams of a perfect season alive.
"We've struggled a little bit early in the season the last couple of years. We're trying to remedy that," said defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen. "We've got to be focused when we make the trip out there.
"We can't let a big stadium or anything like that play in our minds. We just have to go out and take care of business. We want to go out and prove that we can beat these teams early in the season. It's kind of been a flaw that we've had the last couple of years. We want to prove to ourselves that we can get started right off the bat and beat those Pac-10 teams on the road early."
The discrepancy between the way the Cougars have started and finished is starkly manifested by the numbers. Under Mendenhall, BYU is 7-6 overall in the month of September and 21-4 overall in the months of October, November and December.
Mendenhall addressed the slow-start issue at the beginning of fall camp when he had his players run up "Y" Mountain. Upon their arrival at the top of the trail, he told his players: "I appreciate your effort. I am most impressed by how you finished. It's representative of who you are. We've had strong finishes over the past three seasons, and that's not surprising because of who you are. Now the question is, what kind of start do you want to have? There's something about starting and finishing with the same effort."
When asked this week about bucking the trend of poor starts, Mendenhall said he and his staff have handled fall camp in "a smarter way."
"We have more healthy players and we'll play to our strengths as much as we can," he said. "I have a little better idea now of who this team is and against whom we're playing."
In 2005, BYU suffered defeats to Boston College and TCU, sandwiched around a win over Eastern Illinois all at home. The following year, the Cougars fell at Arizona, downed Tulsa at home, then dropped a heartbreaker at Boston College in overtime. A year ago, BYU opened with a victory over Arizona, only to follow that up with back-to-back road losses to UCLA and Tulsa.
It's been a learning process, Mendenhall said. Early in the season in 2005, 2006 and 2007, Mendenhall didn't know enough about some of the opponents, nor did he know enough about his own team.
The difference this time?
"I think I have a better idea, not a perfect idea, but a better idea right now of who we are and who Washington is," he said.
The Cougars addressed the slow starts many times during the off-season, with an emphasis on turning things around.
"It's something we talked about a lot in the winter and spring because we know if we want to meet the goals we want to get, we have to figure out a way to fix it," Jorgensen said. "We think we have. We had a great winter conditioning and summer conditioning program, better than the other years.
"We're going to be more prepared to go out and play this year than we have in the past. Early in the season the last two years, we went into those games playing not to lose. It wasn't because of a lack of effort. We have to play to win. When we play to win, it shows in the teams that we've beaten.
"At the end of the season, the last couple of years, we've showed what we can do when we play like we want to win the game," he said.
Jorgensen says the team possesses a lot more confidence than it did a year ago.
"We're a different team than we were last year. Last year, we knew we could be good, we knew that we had the potential, but we didn't quite know we were going to be good," Jorgensen explained. "This year, we already know we are a good team and that we have the confidence to go out and win.
"We won't be surprised by going in there and playing with a team like Washington like maybe we were last year and the year before that we know we are the better team and we should win."As for this team's new-found early-season confidence, Jorgensen said, "I think it will show on Saturday."