|AP Photo/Donna McWilliam|
|BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall calls for a timeout in the first half of BYU's 38-24 win over Air Force.|
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- After Saturday's 38-24 win over Air Force, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall waxed on about the importance of the win and how much it meant for momentum.
Yes, the win kept the Cougars in the hunt for their third Mountain West title and a possible BCS bowl. It also eliminated Air Force from a share of the conference title leaving the Cougars, Utah, and TCU as the only possible conference champions.
And while all that was well and good, it was not what the swarms of media wanted to talk about.
After all possible questions about specific plays and schemes were exhausted, Mendenhall was asked about next week's game against Utah, BYU's bitter opponent and hated rival, and mum was the word.
For as much as next week's "Holy War" between two bitter rivals means to both schools, Mendenhall intimated that he and his team weren't going to be the first to start what could be perceived as mud slinging.
"Basically, our community doesn't treat next week's game like it's another game and they usually try to stir up and capture content that really is divisive early, early on in the week," Mendenhall said. "I'd as soon have [my team] enjoy this one and again, they'll work on Utah next week. That's the best way I can shape it. "
Players, on the instruction of their coach, took the high road as well. Every mention of Utah was met with a polite, "We'll talk about that next week," and then a quick subject change back to Air Force and the win.
But even if BYU won't talk about it, everyone inside and outside the state of Utah knows the ramifications of Saturday's winner-take-all matchup in Salt Lake City.
A Utah win (and a Utah win over San Diego State on Saturday night) means a Mountain West title, an undefeated regular season and a BCS bowl all the team's first since 2004.
A BYU win and the Cougars share the title with the Utes -- BYU's third consecutive Mountain West title -- and the Cougars get themselves back in the hunt for a BCS bowl.
Saturday's win over Air Force was exactly what BYU needed to gain swagger heading into such a pivotal game against the Utes. Several players said the three games since the loss to TCU on Oct. 16 and prior to Saturday had been emotionless, and that the trend started to surface again in the second quarter against Air Force.
After jumping out to a 10-0 start, BYU allowed the Falcons to score two consecutive touchdowns and get an interception in the end zone to lead 14-10 at halftime.
It was at halftime that junior wide receiver Austin Collie stood up and called his teammates out.
"Austin basically told us that we're the best team in the conference and we've got to act like it," linebacker David Nixon said. "We were playing timid, we were playing on our heels, and Austin fired us up. He gave us a good speech and said, 'Let's go out there and win. Act like you're the best offense in the conference, act like you're the best defense in the conference.' And it fired us up."
BYU opened the second half with three unanswered touchdowns to push the score to 31-14 and basically out of reach, though Air Force didn't go away quietly and even cut the lead to a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. It wasn't always pretty, but it was enough to get the win and a little confidence heading into next week.
"I think for the last couple games we've walked out there like zombies and really haven't had that much emotion," Collie said. "I'm just proud of the guys because we came in second half and we stepped it up emotionally and we got after it."
BYU knew it needed a big effort this weekend to match the incredible momentum boost Utah got from its win over TCU last week.
The Cougars have not played well on the road this conference season, especially after their loss to TCU, so they needed to prove, not only to others, but also themselves, that they could face a good team on the road and come away with a decisive win.
"I think the last couple games we've had to battle it out and I think we played very well today," quarterback Max Hall said. "What I was happy about today was I think we had more emotion and excitement than we did in last couple road games, so it was good to see that we could come out and play like that."