BRONCO MENDENHALL CHOSE a practice model that fits his team's personality.

He's molded and tweaked it over the years, balancing the need for physical contact and aggression with the safety net of preventing serious injury, thereby depleting his roster in players/positions he cannot afford to lose.

Mendenhall gambled that the "trust" capital he "believes" he has in his players outweighs the need for them to prove it in pads during August or during sessions leading up to game day.

Many coaches at talent-laden BCS schools have rosters so deep that competition for playing time is incredible. So, they let them battle it out on the field and, if somebody goes down, it's like "Oh, well, it's settled."

Mendenhall can't afford to step in that puddle. I remember when he used to have a sumo ring and have two similar sized guys go gladiator. But when a guy got hurt, he never did it again.

Mendenhall told reporters this week he is pleased how his team has handled his conservative approach. It's one where he has centered practice on position mastery and execution instead of bumps and bruises. He said that on game days, he's seen pent-up aggression unleashed against opponents at a level that's left him smiling — he lives for that.

Sure enough, through three games this season, the body count of injury timeouts,

where trainers scurry onto the field to tend to either unconscious, dazed or broken-down players is completely in BYU's favor. Probably a dozen to two.

Linebacker Vic So'oto broke his foot at Washington.

"It was freaky, he didn't get hit but just stepped wrong," said defensive captain Jan Jorgensen.

The other key injury, to wide receiver Michael Reed, came against UCLA, a mild knee injury that he will return from as early as two weeks from now.

Inside linebackers coach Paul Tidwell says when he grades films, he still encourages his guys to play more physical. But the approach has done two things — made them more hungry for the games, and prevented them from beating up one another.

"It doesn't mean we don't have depth, I just think it's smart not to get guys injured," Tidwell said.

The approach, according to defensive coordinator Jaime Hill, shadows what is done by NFL teams.

"It's more of an NFL philosophy of getting players to the party, getting them to the dance," said Hill. "You have very limited contact, people learn their assignments, you play fast and when you get to the game, you let it all loose, let all the aggression from the coaching staff loose on Saturday."

Here are the picks of the week:

TCU 34, SMU 7: The Horned Frogs are tuning up for a big showdown with Oklahoma, and this cross-town battle should not threaten the momentum they've gained so far by striking up an undefeated season and possible national ranking.

TULSA 34, NEW MEXICO 21: The Lobos are fresh off that big win over Arizona, but offensive inconsistency could cost them in this matchup where pass/run firepower is needed and Rodney Ferguson can't carry UNM alone.

COLORADO STATE 21, HOUSTON 17: The Rams have had two weeks to prepare a gameplan to pull off this home win. If they don't get the Cougars, they'll be hard-pressed to gain momentum heading into league play.

UNLV 24, IOWA STATE 21: Visitors to the city of lights are easily distracted — and could the Rebels be on the cusp of becoming a decent program? We'll find out how these ranked Sun Devil-killers handle success. I'll give them the benefit of the bet at home.

UTAH 28, AIR FORCE 21: The Utes are bigger, faster and more talented. But when has that stopped the Falcons? This is a classic test of Utah's interior defensive line going against one of the best precision run attacks in college football. Discipline will rule the day — who has it and who does not?

BYU 42, WYOMING 9: Bronco Mendenhall has spent three previous seasons starting with two early season losses before finding traction and posting two 11-2 campaigns. The 3-0 start catapults the Cougars to a level of consistency and confidence he's never had under his reign, and the Cowboys are next in the firing line.


E-MAIL: dharmon@desnews.com