My, oh, my what an end to the season for the Cougars. Back in October, many left them for dead after a 2-5 start, featuring an anemic offense and a shaky defense. But BYU (7-6, 5-3 MWC) played one of the most difficult stretches to open the season, and had to do it with a true freshman in Jake Heaps first rotating snaps and then taking over as the starter.
After losing to TCU on Oct. 16, the schedule lightened considerably and BYU responded. The Cougars closed out the season with wins in five of their final six games -- and probably should have beaten Utah to end the regular season. Heaps showed growth, coach Bronco Mendenhall proved to be a terrific defensive coordinator and BYU moves on to the land of independence with serious momentum after an all-around terrific performance against UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
This was not the best season in BYU history, but it was one that showed the true heart, soul and grit of a team clawing its way back to respectability. Mendenhall reiterated throughout the season that this was his most gratifying in six years as a coach. It is easy to see why after watching his team rise from the doldrums to become a bowl champion.
Offensive MVP: RB JJ Di Luigi. For a big stretch of the season, he was the only playmaker to step up for the Cougars. Because of him, Mendenhall decided to change his offensive identity to be more of a power run team. Di Luigi ended up leading the team with 917 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, and added 45 catches for 443 yards and another score.
Defensive MVP: S Andrew Rich. BYU could not ask for a better defensive leader than Rich, who ended up leading the team with 111 tackles and five interceptions.
Turning point: Losing 31-16 at Utah State. The loss dropped BYU to 1-4 and was an embarrassment. So much so that Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jamie Hill and took over duties himself. BYU won its next game against San Diego State -- a critical victory that made the difference in the Cougars becoming bowl-eligible.
What’s next: Independence. Anybody who watched the New Mexico Bowl saw some serious talent returning for next season as BYU leaves the Mountain West. Heaps played the best game of his career, throwing for 264 yards and four touchdowns. Cody Hoffman caught a career-high eight passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns in the New Mexico Bowl. Joshua Quezada, ran for 101 yards on 15 carries and one touchdown. The running back trio of Di Luigi, Bryan Kariya and Quezada all return next season. So does Ross Apo, a highly touted receiver who was limited this season after injuring his thumb. There will be some tough losses -- kicker Mitch Payne, Rich and linebacker Shane Hunter. Offensive tackle Matt Reynolds must also decide whether he wants to leave school for the NFL draft or return for his senior season. But BYU showed promise. Now the big question is how it will handle a difficult schedule that includes games at Ole Miss, Texas, Oregon State and Hawaii.