Six weeks ago, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said he needed to uncover the heart and soul of his football team.
His Cougars, so used to winning and winning consistently, had just lost to Utah State for the first time since 1993. The Aggies stormed the field around the bewildered BYU players, who had lost four straight for the first time in their careers, dropping to 1-4.
The following day, Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jamie Hill and took over. He also announced he would take a more hands-on approach to his team.
He has captured something all right. BYU has won four of its past five games since that low point, with the lone loss coming at No. 3 TCU. The Cougars (5-5, 4-2) need a win Saturday against New Mexico (1-9, 1-5) to become bowl eligible, a thought that seemed so far from their minds in early October.
"It is as gratifying, if not more, than any season I have coached here,” Mendenhall said earlier this week. “Because, again, of where we have come from, and the improvement I see and the change in the players -- not only how they are playing, but the way they carry themselves. I have always just kind of professed that coaching is nothing but teaching, and teaching is service-driven. And that’s to help the players.
“And when you see them growing in confidence, and just their spirit and how they are walking around, it is fun. And that’s more important to me than the scores. But let’s be honest, without the scores being on our side, sometimes they won't get to that point.”
BYU was decidedly un-BYU like early on for several reasons. First, the opening stretch of the schedule was brutal. After beating Washington to open the season, BYU had to play at Air Force, at Florida State, and then Nevada. Mendenhall also could not decide on a starting quarterback, so he went with two – Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps.
That hamstrung the once-prolific BYU offense and made it difficult to get anything going offensively. After Nelson went out for the season, the true freshman Heaps had to handle the entire offense himself. No playmakers emerged at receiver. About the only thing working was the run game behind J.J. DiLuigi.
But perhaps all Heaps needed was a little bit of time, and for some players to step up around him. One of those receivers has been Luke Ashworth. In the first five games of the season, he totaled 11 catches for 53 yards. In the last three, he has 15 catches for 253 yards, including 113 yards and four touchdowns last week in a 49-10 win against Colorado State.
“I took it upon myself to step up and practice extra hard,” Ashworth said in a telephone interview. “We were pretty frustrated when we were at that low point, especially the seniors. I thought we were going to do a lot better. But being a young offense, we’ve progressed a ton since that point. The bowl game is in the back of our minds, but we’ve been really focused on each game in front of us.”
Both the offense and defense have improved since the 1-4 start. Here are a few examples to prove it:
After averaging 15.2 points over the first five games, BYU has averaged 31.2 points over the last five. On defense, BYU allowed 28.8 points in the first five but has improved to allow 17.8 points over the last five.
In the last five games the Cougars have held their opponents to first quarter rushing totals of minus-10 (San Diego State), 20 (TCU), minus-31 (Wyoming), zero (UNLV) and 8 (Colorado State) yards, respectively.
BYU led UNLV 38-0 in the first half, and then Colorado State 35-0 in the first half in the last two games, marking the first time the Cougars scored at least five first half touchdowns in consecutive games since getting seven against Tulane and five against Nevada to open the 2001 season.
Heaps has thrown for 536 yards in the last two games. Mendenhall said it was a matter of finding balance in the offense.
“It has kind of been a progression to being able to run the football, to run it with a little play-action, and then to be able to make some short throws, and now being able to make some intermediate throws with more consistency -- now sprinkled with a few plays over the top that help us score points,” he said.
As for what that slow start did for the team, Ashworth said, “It was almost like a character, attitude goal-setting check, just seeing that we were at the bottom of the barrel compared to last year. It’s been a huge growing experience.”