Coach Bronco Mendenhall can hardly remember how it feels to start 1-3, thanks to the success he has had with the Cougars. The last time it happened was the 2005 season, Mendenhall's first at BYU. What he does remember is how good it felt to win the second game that season, a 27-24 victory at New Mexico.
"I remember hugging my wife in the locker room," he said earlier this week on the Mountain West coaches conference call. "There were tears we were so desperate."
But Mendenhall says he does not feel desperate now, even though his team is 1-3 and has lost three straight for the first time since he became coach. The last time BYU lost four straight in one season -- 1993.
Now comes a critical Friday night game against Utah State (1-3), a team the Cougars have dominated.
"My perspective is a little bit different,” he said. “Not that I don’t want to win, not that I don’t desperately want to help our kids play at a higher level, but I have actually tried to remain very consistent ."
Perhaps the perspective is different because his teams have gotten off to slow starts before and have been able to turn things around. Following that 1-3 start in 2005, BYU made it to the Las Vegas Bowl before losing to California and ending the season 6-6. There were 1-2 starts in 2006 and 2007 that resulted in 11-2 seasons. But this one feels different because BYU is not playing its classic brand of football.
The Cougars cannot score, and part of the reason for that is the quarterback shuffle they played through the first three games of the season. Now true freshman Jake Heaps takes over, but you are asking a lot of a true freshman to lead a team without any proven playmakers around him. Harvey Unga is gone and Dennis Pitta is gone, and nobody has really stepped up in their absence.
Meanwhile, a defense that was already playing inconsistently just lost its best player in defensive tackle Romney Fuga. The stretch does not get any easier after this game, either, with a home game against San Diego State (3-1) on Oct. 9 and then a game at TCU (4-0) on Oct. 16.
The back end of the schedule does get easier, with games against Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico before the finale against Utah. But it is safe to say BYU cannot afford to lose to the Aggies, not with what looms ahead. Before you ask, the last time BYU failed to make a bowl game was 2004, the year before Mendenhall arrived.