BYU began its final season of Mountain West Conference action on Saturday, on the road against Air Force. Air Force considers the game a rivalry game – even though they hadn’t won against the Cougars since 2003. As BYU’s head coach, Bronco Mendenhall had never lost to Air Force, though he has stressed that playing against the Academy is always a challenge, and he always breathes a sigh of relief when the game is over.
The sigh of relief came as usual, at the end of the game, but this time for a different reason. Air Force came away with not only a win, but a rout, and they have the chance to finish in the top 3 of the conference this year, a feat that has been elusive of late.
Looking back at my keys to the game from my preview, it’s easy to see where BYU got off track.
BYU will have to stop the run. This they most certainly did not accomplish, giving up more than 400 yards to the Air Force rushing attack. That is more than they’ve allowed in a very long time.
Ball control. BYU had three turnovers. Air Force only one.
Special Teams. Far from being MWC special teams player of the week (last week), Riley Stephenson’s last three punts went for 25, 1, and 12 yards.
Air Force will have to find a way to stop both Nelson and Heaps. Turns out, I was wrong on this one. Before the game, Mendenhall said the Nelson/Heaps equal series rotation would likely last all season. It didn’t make it quite that far. Despite ‘the plan’, Heaps did not return to the game after halftime. While his numbers weren’t even good (2 for 6, 15 yards, INT), he was a true freshman in what was his first road game. Maybe a few more series and he could have settled down; or perhaps some time in the fourth quarter, when the game was all but lost anyway. Air Force had obviously figured out how to stop Nelson’s attack as well as Heaps’, so why not let them both play? The decision to remove Heaps left BYU’s struggling offense one dimensional, and the Air Force defense took control and didn’t relent. The Cougars’ offensive ineptitude can be summed up by the results of its last nine series: Punt, Fumble, Interception, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, Turnover on downs. Very difficult to win games like that.
So where do the Cougars go from here?
They have a date in Tuscaloosa with Florida State next Saturday. FSU is coming off a blowout loss of their own this week. They fell on the road at Oklahoma 47-17. Considering the lopsided victory the Seminoles had over the Cougars in Provo last year, this may not be the best way for Bronco’s team to cope with the loss at Air Force.
BYU is 0-1 in the Mountain West Conference. Coach Mendenhall firmly believes that the MWC champion will have to win every conference game; history supports this claim, as the MWC champion has won every game for the last 6 years.
And of the two-quarterback system? Is it history? Some fans and media have speculated that perhaps the coaching staff simply gave Nelson enough rope to hang himself, so to speak, so that Heaps could take over as the outright starter. I doubt Bronco would have made a decision that way, but that may be the end result.
In past history, Coach Mendenhall has been able to use a loss to help the team define the season – it becomes a teaching point, and a growth point. Look back at the Cougars in 2006 and in 2007. In each year, the Cougars started 1-2, with both losses being close, winnable games. The team’s response each year was a ten game win streak to end the season. Only time will tell if the loss/losses at the beginning of this season will become the drive to earn wins later.