EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Heading into the first game of the 2013 campaign at Virginia, BYU had won six consecutive season openers.
That streak ended in ignominious fashion with a 19-16 setback to the Cavaliers, who finished the year with a 2-10 record.
One year later, as BYU visits Connecticut Friday (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN) in the 2014 season opener, memories of that game in Charlottesville haven’t faded away.
“We’re focusing on redeeming ourselves from the opening game we had last year,” said wide receiver Mitch Mathews. “That was such a bad start and it wasn’t the way we wanted to start the season, so we’re making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Coach Bronco Mendenhall admits there are a lot of unknowns in openers. The Huskies are led by first-year head coach Bob Diaco, and, once again, the Cougars are opening the season on the East Coast.
Mendenhall learned some important lessons from that setback at Virginia.
“Any loss to me has more value than a win. The lessons, man, they hurt. They’re applied usually faster,” Mendenhall said. “Always difficult to tell exactly where you are going into the opener. I was shocked that we didn’t score a bunch of points in our opener last year based on how our offense had moved it against our defense. I think I’m more cautious if anything and maybe less accepting of exactly what I see and then trying to predict what that will really look like. But the opener, there’s always uncertainty. That’s the takeaway. There is uncertainty in the opener. I didn’t think there was much a year ago and there ended up being a lot.”
The Cougars know it’s important to kick off the season with a strong performance.
“Winning that first game is huge and it really does set you up in the right way,” said linebacker Bronson Kaufusi. “Really being focused on winning is key. Last year, we lost that game. Too many mental errors. This year, we’re really going to limit that and come out with that win.”
“Starting off the season with a loss kind of makes everyone second-guess themselves,” said linebacker Alani Fua. “This year, we’ll just take that with us and know that’s an important game that we need to win and just carry that momentum throughout the year.”
What’s the biggest challenge in a season opener?
“Just starting fast. You never want to lose that first game,” said Mathews. He added, “Getting into the (playoff) and getting to the game you want to be in and being a top-four team in the country, to start like that it could kill your hopes the rest of the season. We want to start fast and play smash-mouth football from the beginning.”
Running back Adam Hine said the Cougars may have overlooked Virginia last year and that they could have been better-prepared.
“We can’t underestimate this team,” he said of UConn. “We can’t look past them. Our focus needs to be on them.”
Diaco, who faced BYU the past two seasons as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, respects the Cougars.
“We expect a nationally branded BYU team that over the last 20 or 30 years, hard-pressed to find a better organization and university in the country,” Diaco said. “We’re expecting to see that caliber of football team at (Rentschler Field) on (Friday) night.”
The Huskies, who won their final three games last season after starting 0-9, are tough to assess, Mendenhall said.
“They finished on a strong note, putting a nice streak together at the end of their season. Brand-new staff, both sides (of the ball). What that will look like in terms of chemistry, effort and what they do with personnel or even schemes, it’s hard to know. That makes me more reserved also in terms of predicting the opener. (UConn is) certainly capable. I’ve seen their personnel. What the team will look like, the focus has to go more back to us because we can control that. I’m not sure what we’ll see from them.”
Senior wide receiver Ross Apo said his team will be better-prepared than it was to open the 2013 season.
“We have a lot more guys ready. We’re going into this game with the same urgency,” Apo said. “We want to win this first game and have momentum going into the next week. That year of experience will make a big difference.”
BYU (0-0) at Connecticut (0-0)
Rentschler Field (40,000)
Friday, 5 p.m. MDT
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM