PROVO — As an independent with no conference championship to contend for, and a schedule front-loaded with challenging road games, an increased emphasis is placed on the first part of BYU’s football season.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, they have struggled under coach Bronco Mendenhall in the opening month.
In seven of the past nine years, BYU has lost at least two games early on, and the Cougars have posted a lackluster 19-17 record overall under Mendenhall in the first four games during his tenure.
For the program, and its fans, those disappointing defeats have doused dreams of reaching lofty goals.
Last year, a humiliating 19-16 setback at Virginia on a soggy day in Charlottesville snapped a six-game winning streak in season openers.
In game No. 3 of the season, BYU has a 1-8 mark since 2005, which includes three consecutive setbacks to arch-rival Utah.
Of course, the Utes aren’t on the schedule this season for the first time in decades. But in 2014, the Cougars open with back-to-back road games, at UConn (Aug. 29) and at Texas (Sept. 6).
BYU players are well-aware that if they are going to enjoy a special season this fall, they need to win those early games.
“We need to get off to a stronger start,” said quarterback Taysom Hill. “It’s been an emphasis. Our coaching staff has begun to break down film and get us prepared for UConn right now. We’re not looking at Texas. We’ve got to go get UConn.”
The Cougars are hoping to learn from the painful loss at Virginia as they prepare for another season-opening East Coast contest.
When BYU visited the Cavaliers last year, it was breaking in a new offensive scheme and a new offensive coaching staff. Everything seemed to conspire against the Cougars that day, including a two-hour weather delay in between the first and second quarters. The two teams sat in the locker rooms and the crowd was evacuated from the stadium. Then a torrential rainstorm soaked the field, making the conditions less than ideal.
“I’m not trying to make excuses, but last year was a little unique with a new offense and a new system,” Hill said of last year’s game at Virginia. “I don’t think we had an identity at that point and we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t adjust to the weather conditions very well at Virginia.”
“That first game, with a new offense, we were kind of timid,” remembered running back Jamaal Williams. “We didn’t want to do anything extreme.”
The Cougars have a full year with offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s go-fast, go-hard offense under their belt, and they apparently are planning to depart earlier this time for the long plane ride east.
“I think we’re going to leave for UConn Wednesday, be there Thursday, play Friday,” Hill said. “Because we’re traveling so far, we’ll structure that a little bit differently.”
A year ago, the team arrived in Charlottesville the day before the game.
Meanwhile, Williams hasn't forgotten the game-changing play against Virginia.
BYU had a third-and-6 from its own 34-yard line late in the fourth quarter when Hill threw a pass to Williams that was a little high. The ball sailed in and out of Williams’ hands and into the arms of Cavalier safety Anthony Harris for an interception. One play later, with 2:36 remaining, Virginia scored the game-winning touchdown.
“It was my fault,” Williams said. “I take full responsibility. Stuff happens. This year isn’t going to be the same because I’m not taking any chances because I’m catching every ball this year. It was a learning experience. Last year, I didn’t catch the ball and it ended up as a touchdown for Virginia. You learn from your mistakes and try not to do them again.”
Wide receiver Mitch Mathews said that Virginia loss still bothers him and his teammates.
“Everyone was so bitter. It makes us wake up in the morning and work harder to go to UConn and redeem ourselves,” he said. “We don’t want to show up on the East Coast again unprepared. We definitely have a chip on our shoulder. A big one. We’re excited about getting the chance to redeem ourselves on the East Coast.
"We are hitting the ground running with our offense, we have a lot more guys healthy this year, and we have more depth. We’re a dangerous team to stop.”
The Cougars want to make a strong statement at the start of the year. While they didn't do that at Virginia last season, they did do it the following week at home against Texas with a resounding victory over the Longhorns.
“The tough part of our schedule is the first half of the season,” Mathews said. “We need to start fast. We don’t have time to start slow.”