NCF Nation: Dennis Pitta

We continue our series previewing selected non-AQ teams.

Today: BYU

He knows it is unprecedented at BYU. A school steeped in quarterback tradition playing two? In the same game?

Coach Bronco Mendenhall knows all this, and yet he acknowledged that very possibility if he cannot come to a conclusion in his four-way quarterback battle to replace Max Hall.

[+] EnlargeBronco Mendenhall
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireBronco Mendenhall isn't opposed to playing two quarterbacks this season.
As BYU prepares to open camp Saturday, Jake Heaps, Riley Nelson, Jason Munns and James Lark are all in the mix.

“Playing two wouldn’t be my first preference nor would it be my ideal,” Mendenhall said in a phone interview. “But until there is one who had an upper hand, I think it would be the fair thing to do.

“This is a very unique situation. The good news is they’re all very good. Because it’s BYU and we have a good team and a good program we happen to attract good players at that spot. Now we have four. It’s going to be quite a challenge.”

Mendenhall would like to narrow the field down to two early on in camp and then go from there. The two likeliest candidates seem to be the highly touted Heaps and the junior Nelson, who served as the backup to Hall.

Munns and Lark have recently returned from missions, so they are not only working on getting into physical shape, but learning to get to know their teammates and the playbook as well.

If the focus is on Heaps and Nelson, the two could not be more different. Nelson is a running quarterback who transferred in from Utah St. following his mission. He has game experience, but he is not what you would call your prototypical BYU quarterback.

Heaps is. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he has spent his entire life preparing to play football. He enrolled at BYU in the spring and went through practice, impressing his coaches. At one point, Mendenhall says he has to remind himself that Heaps should be finishing up his senior year of high school.

So what will go into his decision on who should start? Mendenhall lists various factors, from the ability to move the ball on the field and be a team leader. There also is one intangible he must consider as well -- being able to shoulder the pressure that comes with playing quarterback at BYU.

“Sometimes the pressure in the community can really affect how a player plays on the field,” Mendenhall said. “The maturity level and watching how the players handle it during fall camp, seeing how it’s affecting their presence and their confidence and their personality -- because it’s going to last their entire career here. They have example after example of tradition in front of them, being at the pinnacle of quarterback play.”

Hall certainly must be considered one of the BYU greats, having set the Mountain West Conference career passing yards record (11,365), and breaking Ty Detmer’s career wins record with 32.

BYU has more to replace than just Hall on offense. Leading receiver Dennis Pitta is gone, along with leading rusher Harvey Unga. On the plus side, four starting linemen return.

There is plenty of work to do on defense, too, where six starters are gone, including three starting linebackers. BYU was picked to finish third in the MWC because some deem this to be a rebuilding year. The front part of the schedule is loaded, too, beginning with the home opener against Washington, then road games at Air Force and Florida State.

“We’ll still demand a lot with this team, but our intent is to build the confidence, build team chemistry,” Mendenhall said. “Not that we’re conceding a championship or a top-20 year, but we’ll have to be different in the way we handle them because of our inexperience.”
Last season, BYU watched as Boise State and Mountain West Conference champion TCU both finished the regular season with undefeated records and played each other in the Fiesta Bowl.

Two years ago, the Cougars watched MWC rival Utah finished unbeaten and upset Alabama, 31-17, in the Sugar Bowl.

Bronco Mendenhall
Tim Heitman/US PresswireBronco Mendenhall's Cougars are 43-9 over the past four seasons.
“I think it’s motivating for us, and I think it’s fantastic for the league that those teams have been able to do it,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We’ve won the most games, but we don’t have the signature season those teams have had.”

BYU hasn’t been perfect over the past four seasons, but the Cougars have been about as consistent as any team in the country. Since finishing 6-6 in Mendenhall’s first season in 2005, the Cougars are 43-9 and have won at least 10 games in each of the past four seasons. Only four NCAA FBS teams -- Boise State, Florida, Ohio State and Texas -- have won more games than BYU since 2006.

“It’s about as close as you can get,” Mendenhall said. “I’m very pleased with the progress and consistency. Until we have that signature season, we’ll just keep rattling off as many wins as we can. I don’t really view us as one of those teams looking from the outside in. I view us as one of those teams that are waiting to be recognized.”

The Cougars’ good work has hardly gone unnoticed. Among Boise State, BYU, TCU and Utah, the Cougars are the only team that finished each of the past four seasons ranked in the coaches’ Top 25 poll. BYU was the only school from a non-BCS conference to accomplish that feat the past four seasons.

Still, the Cougars’ accomplishments have largely been overlooked by Boise State’s undefeated seasons in 2006 and ’09; Utah’s perfect season in 2008; and TCU’s breakthrough performance last year.

“It’s a credit to those teams,” BYU running back Harvey Unga said. “They’ve got great teams and deserve credit for the seasons they’ve had. I don’t think we’re far away from doing it. There are things to work on, but I don’t think we’re too far away.”

If the Cougars are going to break though during the 2010 season, they’ll have to replace record-setting quarterback Max Hall and star tight end Dennis Pitta. Six starters must be replaced on defense, including All-MWC defensive end Jan Jorgensen.

A year ago, BYU replaced seven offensive starters, including All-America receiver Austin Collie, and four defensive starters. The Cougars finished 11-2 and were ranked No. 12 in the country at season’s end.

“I think every year we’re getting better and closer,” BYU safety Andrew Rich said. “We’ve been close the last couple of years. I think it’s one or two games where we’ve stumbled. But it’s hard when you play teams like TCU and Utah. It’s not so much what we’re doing as what other teams are doing. TCU and Utah have put together really good teams.”

So have the Cougars, who open the 2010 season against Washington at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Sept. 4. BYU also plays at Florida State on Sept. 18, at TCU on Oct. 16 and at Utah on Nov. 27.

“We have to get back to winning our conference before we start worrying about the other stuff,” Rich said. “We have a lot of great teams in our conference. I guess the perception of the Mountain West has been elevated over the last couple of years because of what Utah has done and what TCU has done. We can’t worry about that. We have to worry about what we’re doing.”
The NFL combine turned out to be the best opportunity for several non-AQ players to get noticed and increase their draft stock this past week.

Todd McShay, director of recruiting for Scouts Inc., noted a couple non-AQ players who significantly helped themselves during the NFL scouting combine. Included in that list was Ohio receiver Taylor Price and SMU receiver Emmanuel Sanders who tied for the second-best 40 times in the wide receiver group. I noted in an earlier post that McShay and other scouts were impressed with both players and both helped themselves immensely during workouts.

Here’s what McShay had to say about a couple of other non-AQ prospects.

Hughes
Hughes
McShay on TCU outside linebacker Jerry Hughes:
No player improved his stock more than TCU's Jerry Hughes At 6-2 and 255 pounds, the undersized edge rusher put to rest any concerns regarding his top-end speed when he ran an official 40-yard dash time of 4.69 seconds, fourth-best among the defensive linemen.

His fluidity in space was better than we thought it would be based on his film. Hughes stayed low and changed directions smoothly, which gives teams extra confidence in his potential to convert to outside linebacker in an odd-man front.

Finally, Hughes exceeded expectations with 26 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press. This strong workout in addition to the explosive pass-rushing ability he displays on tape should land Hughes a spot in the second round of the upcoming draft.

Prior to the 2009 season, Hughes was told by the NFL's undergraduate advisory committee that he was a possible late first-round or early second-round pick. His statistics weren't as strong last year as they were in 2008, so Hughes needed a good combine to show that he wasn't slipping. It appears as though he did enough to at least bump himself into the second round.

Pitta
Pitta
McShay on BYU tight end Dennis Pitta:
BYU TE Dennis Pitta had an outstanding [Sunday]. Pitta was more athletic than we anticipated, clocking a 4.62 in the 40 and showing more burst and better change-of-direction skills than we thought he had. He showed good strength with 27 reps on the bench and we are also impressed by his hands, which might be the best in the tight end class.

Many considered Pitta the No. 1 tight end in the country coming into the 2009 season, especially after Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham went down with an injury. However, Pitta slipped a little bit during the year and his draft stock took a hit. The questions weren't about his receiving abilities, but whether he could play with his hand on the ground and block. He answered those and likely will continue to as he auditions at pro day and private workouts until April. Pitta's slowly starting to gain draft momentum. Not bad for a former walk-on.

MAACO Bowl Las Vegas: Hall vs. Canfield

December, 22, 2009
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Experience at quarterback, coaches will tell you, is about as important as anything, and both BYU and Oregon State have that well covered heading into the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas tonight.

Hall/Canfield
US PresswireMax Hall and Sean Canfield lead potent passing attacks heading into the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
Experience? BYU's Max Hall has won 31 games, more than any other previous BYU quarterback. And there have been a lot of good ones.

Oregon State's Sean Canfield isn't exactly a rookie. He'll be making his 24th start against the Cougars.

That experience probably means neither figures to get rattled.

"The chances of rattling [Hall] are tough," Beavers coach Mike Riley said. "You're talking about a guy who has been through a lot in his career and played a lot and has been productive as heck. It's just like we said with Sean. The best thing that happened for Sean is to play for a long time in one stretch and grow and gain the confidence."

Quarterbacks -- duh -- are always important, but these two are their offenses' engine, though Hall is probably a bit more critical to the Cougars.

Who has the edge?

Consider:

  • Hall finished ranked third in the nation in passing efficiency. Canfield ranked 15th. It's fair to counter, however, that Canfield faced more talented secondaries in the Pac-10.
  • Canfield completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,103 yards and 21 touchdowns with six interceptions. Hall completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,368 yards with 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Those interceptions might catch your eye, but Hall only threw four in the final seven games.
  • Both pass defenses are questionable. Oregon State ranked 60th in the nation in pass efficiency defense; BYU was 40th. The Beavers will be missing starting cornerback Tim Clark, while the Cougars will have a speed disadvantage in the secondary.
  • Canfield is a higher-rated NFL prospect, in large part because Hall lacks ideal size. Mel Kiper rates Canfield the fifth-best senior quarterback.
  • Neither defense had a lot of sacks in 2009. BYU ranked 53rd in the nation with 24; Oregon State 106th with just 15. BYU's offense gave up 21 sacks, which ranked 54th in the nation. Oregon State surrendered 29, which is 87th.
  • Both quarterbacks have help. Canfield has the Rodgers brothers, receiver James and running back Jacquizz. Hall has All-American tight end Dennis Pitta and running back Harvey Unga.

So, who has the edge?

Too close to call. The game sets up as though both offenses will move the ball well and both quarterbacks will have time to distribute the ball to their playmakers.

Canfield's key is to get the ball to the Rodgers brothers in space so they can stress the Cougars with their speed and elusiveness.

Hall didn't play terribly well in the Cougars rivalry-game victory over Utah to conclude the season -- he completed just 12 of 32 passes -- but he kept his cool and threw the game-winner in overtime. He needs to stay in rhythm and take what the defense gives him.

Both veteran quarterbacks figure to play well. The one who plays better, however, likely will lead the winning team.

Three keys: BYU in MAACO Bowl Las Vegas

December, 22, 2009
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BYU (10-2)

1. Stop the run: It seems like a simple enough suggestion, but few have been able to stop Oregon State’s running game and most of the time it’s led to a loss. Jacquizz Rodgers is fast and he’s small, which makes him hard to find. He’s had a touchdown in all but one game and had seven 100-yard rushing games this season. BYU has been pretty stout against the run, allowing an average of 112 yards, and the Cougars allowed more than 200 rushing yards just twice.

2. Get Hall in a groove: BYU quarterback Max Hall seems to be at his best when he can get into a rhythm early and gain some confidence. That will be key against an Oregon State passing defense that hasn’t been great this season, but stiffened a bit at the end of the year. The Beavers allow 238.67 passing yards per game and they allowed two or more passing touchdowns in seven games this season. Look for tight ends Dennis Pitta and Andrew George to be top targets in this game.

3. Don’t forget the other Rodgers brother: Jacquizz Rodgers is a great running back, but his brother, receiver James Rodgers, might be the best player on the team, period. Rodgers ranks first on the team in receiving yards with 1,004 and nine touchdowns on 87 catches, and he’s second on the team in rushing with 289 yards and a score. He’s a great vertical threat and will be one of the toughest receivers (if not the toughest) the Cougars have faced this season. Look for BYU to double Rodgers and force quarterback Sean Canfield to find other options.

MAACO Bowl Las Vegas preview

December, 21, 2009
12/21/09
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Breaking down Tuesday evening's Las Vegas Bowl between No. 18 Oregon State (8-4) and No. 14 BYU (10-2).

WHO TO WATCH: This is a primetime matchup of skill players. BYU will offer up quarterback Max Hall, tight end Dennis Pitta and running back Harvey Unga. The Beavers will counter with quarterback Sean Canfield and the Rodgers brothers, running back Jacquizz and receiver James. The difference for the Beavers is speed. The Rodgers brothers have it, while the Cougars are mostly about power. Canfield has been accurate all season, and if he can distribute the ball in space to the Rodgers brothers, all three could have a star turn.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Beavers pass defense. Starting cornerback Tim Clark broke his leg in the season-finale vs. Oregon, so an already thin crew is even thinner -- said coach Mike Riley, "We're thin. We're absolutely thin.'' Even with Clark, the Beavers ranked sixth in the Pac-10 in pass defense and pass efficiency defense. They surrendered 20 TD passes -- only Washington State surrendered more -- and their eight interceptions were tied for second fewest in the conference. Moreover, they only recorded 15 sacks, which ranked ninth in the conference, six fewer than No. 7 Stanford. Hall and BYU rank 12th in the nation in passing and have accounted for 31 TD passes.

WHY TO WATCH: It's the first matchup of ranked teams in the bowl seasons, and it's always interesting when the Pac-10 and Mountain West square off. The MWC annually wants to prove itself vs. BCS conferences -- perhaps paving the way for it to become one? -- while the Pac-10 doesn't want to endure dismissive sniffs from its BCS conference brethren. As for the game itself, there will be a lot of playmakers on both sides of the field. Jacquizz Rodgers, for one, could make a statement for the 2010 Heisman Trophy race, while Canfield could improve his already blossoming NFL draft prospects.

PREDICTION: BYU 33, Oregon State 30. So much of a bowl game is about which team is more motivated. Last year, Oregon State also lost a Civil War rivalry game with Oregon that knocked it out of the Rose Bowl, but the Beavers got blown out and embarrassed and wanted to exorcise that memory -- particularly the defense -- in the Sun Bowl. They were motivated. This time? They lost a heartbreaker. That's a different sort of touchstone. As for BYU, sure the Cougars are playing in their fifth consecutive Las Vegas Bowl. But they are riding high after a win over Utah in their rivalry game and surely will recall that they were out-hustled by Arizona in the bowl last year. That will be a lesson, and they will be plenty motivated this time to take a Pac-10 scalp.
Seven players from the nonautomatic qualifying schools were named to the 2009 Walter Camp Football Foundation All-America team.

The Walter Camp All-American Team, which is in its 120th season, is the oldest All-American team in the country.

TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes was selected on the first team for the second consecutive season after finishing with 11.5 sacks for the undefeated Horned Frogs.

BYU tight end Dennis Pitta also made first team after leading the Cougars with 57 catches for 784 yards and seven touchdowns.

Idaho offensive guard and Outland Trophy finalist Mike Iuapati was a first team lineman after helping the Vandals rank 10th in the country in total offense.

Bowling Green receiver Freddie Barnes, Utah offensive lineman Zane Beadles, Houston quarterback Case Keenum and Boise State defensive back Kyle Wilson were all named to the second team.
Three players from nonautomatic-qualifying schools have been named first-team All-Americans by the American Football Coaches Association.

TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes, BYU tight end Dennis Pitta and offensive lineman Mike Iupati all were named to the 25-player team.

The AFCA All-America team, in place since 1945, is the only All-America team chosen exclusively by coaches.

Last season, Utah kicker Louie Sakoda was the only player from a nonautomatic-qualifying team on the list.

Hughes has 15 tackles for loss, including 11.5 sacks, and a career-high 54 stops. He anchors the nation’s No. 2 defense.

Pitta is the nation’s top pass-catching tight end with 57 catches for 784 yards and seven touchdowns.

Iupati helped pave the way for Idaho to rank No. 12 in the country in total offense with 451.33 yards per game. The Vandals also had the 23rd-ranked scoring offense with 31.83 points per game.

TCU dominates all-MWC team

December, 1, 2009
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The Mountain West Conference released its all-conference football team and TCU won all but one of the major honors.

Junior quarterback Andy Dalton won offensive player of the year, defensive end Jerry Hughes won defensive player of the year, Jeremy Kerley was named the special teams player of the year and Gary Patterson was named the coach of the year.

Wyoming quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels was named the league’s freshman of the year.

Overall, TCU led the conference with nine players selected to the first team. Utah was second with six selections, including running back Eddie Wide, who replaced Matt Asiata midseason. BYU had four players named.

UNLV senior receiver Ryan Wolfe, BYU senior tight end Dennis Pitta and BYU senior defensive end Jan Jorgensen were named first-team honorees for the third time in their respective careers.
Houston’s Case Keenum, Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes and BYU’s Dennis Pitta have been named finalists for national awards.

Keenum has been named a finalist for the Davey O’Brien Award, which is awarded annually to the nation’s best quarterback. Texas’ Colt McCoy and Florida’s Tim Tebow are also finalists.

Keenum leads the nation with 428.27 yards of total offense per game, 35.18 completions per game, 418.09 passing yards per game and 4,599 total passing yards. Houston is 9-2 and a win away from playing for the Conference USA title.

Barnes leads the nation with 1,482 receiving yards and 134.73 yards per game. He also leads the country with 11.73 receptions per game. He has eight 100-yard receiving games this season and six in a row, including a 278-yard performance against Kent State. He’s had eight games this season with 10 or more receptions.

Pitta is the nation’s top pass-catching tight end with 55 catches for 753 yards and seven touchdowns. He leads all tight ends with 68.45 yards per game and is tied for the most catches per game with five.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson

At the end of Mountain West media days in July, TCU's Andy Dalton and Jerry Hughes and BYU’s Dennis Pitta and Andrew Rich shook hands, hugged and exchanged phone numbers.

The four had spent a lot of time together during their few days in Las Vegas, got to know each other and even got to like one another. But even as they were laughing and talking about seeing each other in October, they had to know that when they met again, it wouldn’t be nearly as cordial.

TCU will travel to BYU this week in what is the biggest game in the Mountain West season so far. The winner not only will have a jumpstart on the race for the Mountain West title, but also in the BCS standings. At No 8 and undefeated, TCU has the best chance of reaching a BCS bowl should it stay undefeated, but it needs to boost its strength of schedule and voter confidence by beating a ranked team. BYU is No. 16 in the standings, but with one loss, it has only an outside chance of earning a BCS bowl berth.

“I think the only way that our conference will end up having the BCS bid is if someone’s able to remain undefeated,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “So, TCU has the best chance of that bid. Again, I don’t think our league has the respect yet of a one-loss team, however, our conference is stronger than the WAC and I don’t think there’s any argument about that. The teams that the top three teams have lost to or might lose to should all be good football teams. So, it might be the year and I could be surprised, but I’m still of the opinion you’re probably going to have to go undefeated to get in.”

(Read full post)


Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson


BYU players would be the first to tell you that this has been one of the most enjoyable fall camps in a long time.

The Cougars haven’t been bombarded by questions about the BCS, the undefeated season or the infamous quest for perfection. So, with none of the pressures that accompanied the past two seasons, BYU set out to make this year’s fall camp fun.

“When you consider the previous two years having not lost a conference game for two straight years and the growing anticipation of being the team that would be the BCS buster, so to speak, I think they started then to protect that rather than to go out and look to conquer, so to speak,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I think the team and staff, including myself, became more hesitant rather than more aggressive and as a byproduct didn’t enjoy what we were doing as much thinking that we had more to lose than we had to gain.”

Coming into Saturday’s game against No. 3 Oklahoma, BYU is relaxed. The Cougars know no one thinks they’ll win the game and so there’s no more pressure than the pressure they put on themselves. The underdog role is something the Cougars aren’t used to, but are enjoying.

“I don’t think a whole lot of people outside of our program expect us to win that game,” tight end Dennis Pitta said. “So, it’s kind of a good feeling going in as an underdog, having a lot to prove, kind of having a chip on our shoulder, and being able to play loose and relaxed because nobody really picked us to win. We understand that this is a big game for us and we respect Oklahoma and understand that they are a very good football team. But being able to beat a team like that would really set things up for us this season.”

A lot of BYU’s attitude now comes from looking back on the way it overreacted to the loss to TCU last season. The Cougars were 6-0, but the Horned Frogs jumped all over them and used their speedy defense to unsettle BYU quarterback Max Hall and ultimately win 32-7. After the game, it was like a funeral. BYU players had all but laid their regular season to rest with six games remaining.

“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and as soon as we lost we were kind of deflated and didn’t really recover throughout the later part of the season,” Pitta said. “We’re not putting as much pressure on ourselves and we understand that it’s just one football game. If it doesn’t work out Week 1, we’ve still got 11 other games to prove ourselves and hopefully make a run at this thing. We understand that a lot better because of what we went through last year. So we’re a lot more relaxed going into it.”

So, at the end of last season, BYU started its preparation for Oklahoma carefree. It wasn’t that the Cougars thought they couldn’t beat Oklahoma, it’s that they didn’t want to handicap themselves before the game even kicked off.

They know the implications of the game and what a win could do to set up the rest of their season, but thinking about that and making it the focal point, after everything they went through last year, would only ruin the progress that they've made.

“We’re not scared of Oklahoma,” Pitta said. “Like I said, we respect them and understand they’re good. But we’re not scared and we’re excited about the challenge.

“It’s just a game and I think we better understand that now. And we understand that we need to have fun at the same time. That’s kind of been our attitude. We’re a team that works very hard and we’re going to prepare well. But I think this year we’re going to incorporate more of a fun and comfortable aspect to it.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The Biletnikoff Award watch list was recently released and 18 players from the nonautomatic qualifying schools made the cut.

The award goes to the nation's best collegiate receiver.

Three players from the non-AQ schools have won the award, but none this decade. Wyoming's Marcus Harris won in 1996, Randy Moss of Marshall won in 1997 and Troy Edwards from Louisiana Tech won in 1998.

Several players have been finalists, though, including Rice's Jarett Dillard in 2006, Ball State's Dante Ridgeway in 2004 and Nevada's Nate Burleson in 2002.

Both Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference lead the non-AQ's with five nominees each.

The winner of the 17th Biletnikoff Award will be announced as part of ESPN's College Football Awards Show on Dec. 10. The award will be officially presented to the winner at the annual Biletnikoff Award dinner, hosted by the Tallahassee Quarterback Club, on Feb. 12, 2010.

2009 BILETNIKOFF AWARD WATCH LIST (From non-AQs)
Kris Adams, UTEP
Seyi Ajirotutu, Fresno State
Antonio Brown, Central Michigan
DeAndre Brown, Southern Miss
Tyron Carrier, Houston
Cortez Gent, Florida Atlantic
Rashaun Greer, Colorado State
T.Y. Hilton, Florida International
Jerrel Jernigan, Troy
Damaris Johnson, Tulsa
Dennis Pitta, BYU
Taylor Price, Ohio
Aldrick Robinson, SMU
Naaman Roosevelt, Buffalo
Greg Salas, Hawaii
Jacory Stone, Eastern Michigan
Stephen Williams, Toledo
Ryan Wolfe, UNLV

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Ask any BYU fan, player, coach, or even opponent, and they probably have a theory as to why BYU, the highest-ranked non-BCS team to start 2008, imploded in every big game it played last season.

The Cougars were too tense, too overconfident, too absorbed with all the hype that surrounded the program, too insert-a-theory-here. The team has heard it all.

 
  Ethan Miller/Getty Images
  Bronco Mendenhall quickly turned BYU into a powerhouse, but the swift transformation had a cost.

But to get to the root of what happened last year, it's important to understand where this program was just a few years ago. From 1997 to 2004, the Cougars had one double-digit win season. They had just four winning seasons during that span. And for the better part of this decade, the Cougars only winning season came in 2001.

So when coach Bronco Mendenhall took over in 2005 and went from a 6-6 record his first season to two consecutive 11-2 seasons, expectations for the program grew faster than Mendenhall and his staff could have predicted and ultimately could control. And Mendenhall said he's as guilty as anyone for pushing his team more than they were maybe ready to handle.

"In terms of where do you go from there, and I continued to propel and kind of push the team forward, but most likely I was pushing beyond where that team was capable of going," Mendenhall said. "The expectation because of the previous years, myself included, was that you now have to surpass what you have done. And so I think that's why players, staff and community felt the pressure that was there."

That's why BYU has worked hard this spring to change the culture around its football team. Expectations for winning are still high, but so is the expectation to have fun and enjoy playing the game. Too often the fun in football was lost last season, which put a strain on the players and the coaches. So each coach has challenged his players not to be afraid of failure, but instead to embrace, learn from it and come out a better player on the other side. It's the mission of the coaches this season to insulate the players from the pressures of the media and the community and just get back to when football was simple, when it was just a game.

"I think the hype that everyone gave us going into the season and kind of the pressure that we put on ourselves as a program to win every game and to be perfect and all that was difficult for us to handle," senior tight end Dennis Pitta said. "I think we had the mindset that we were better than we were and that we didn't have to work as hard to be as good. That was obviously wrong. I think we've learned a lot of lessons from it and I think we're a stronger team this year and a better team this year because of all the things that we went through last year."

(Read full post)

Dec. 20, 8 p.m., (ESPN)

Arizona take by Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller: Based on the records, this looks like a mismatch. But is it?

BYU, winners of three consecutive Las Vegas Bowls, started the season talking about perfection and a BCS bowl berth and rolled to a 6-0 start. But the Cougars fell well short in their two biggest games, getting drubbed by 25 and 24 points at TCU and Utah.

On the other hand, the Wildcats and Cougars have three common opponents: New Mexico, Washington and UCLA. BYU beat all three, while Arizona lost to New Mexico. Both blew out UCLA, though the Cougars' 59-0 drubbing of the Bruins was one of the season's most shocking thrashings.

Arizona manhandled Washington, but the Huskies were playing their first game without quarterback Jake Locker. BYU slipped by the Huskies, 28-27, when Locker, you may recall, was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for flipping the ball into the air after scoring what appeared to be a last-second, game-tying touchdown, pending the PAT, which was subsequently missed after an extra 15 yards was tacked on.

BYU's defense struggled over the second half of the season, giving up 32 or more points in four of its last six games. The BYU offense leans on quarterback Max Hall, who has thrown 60 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, finding receiver Austin Collie and tight end Dennis Pitta, but the Wildcats' defense probably should be just as worried about running back Harvey Unga. The Wildcats, who lost 20-7 to BYU in 2007, have struggled against power backs, and the 239-pound Unga, who's rushed for 1,061 yards and 10 TDs, certainly fits that bill.


BYU take by non-BCS blogger Graham Watson: This isn't the game BYU envisioned itself in when the season began, especially after it started the year 6-0 with a big win over UCLA on national television. But the Cougars lost handily to the two best opponents on their schedule, keeping them out of the BCS and snapping their string of consecutive conference titles and consecutive undefeated conference seasons.

But there's still a chance to will 11 games for the third consecutive season.

Although quarterback Max Hall had the worst performance of his career against Utah in the final regular season game of the year, he's still considered one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Hall has thrown for 3,629 yards and 34 touchdowns this season, more touchdown passes this season than any quarterback from the Pac-10, ACC, Big East, Big Ten or SEC.

BYU receiver Austin Collie leads the nation with 118.25 receiving yards per game and finished the season with a record nine consecutive 100-yard receiving games. He's fast and elusive and not unlike some of the receivers in the Pac-10.

Defensive speed has been the main question for BYU especially on the edges. That will be a point of emphasis against an Arizona team that averages 164 rushing yards per game.

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