EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — For BYU, the first half was the perfect start to the season Friday night.
With memories of last year’s humiliating season-opening loss at Virginia fresh in their minds, the Cougars wanted to come out strong against Connecticut.
In BYU’s dominating 35-10 victory, the Cougars took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards, capped by quarterback Taysom Hill’s seven-yard touchdown run.
“As an offense,” Hill said, “that was our goal, to score on that first drive.”
Then, on the first play of UConn’s first possession, the BYU defense forced a fumble and recovered, putting the ball back in Hill's hands.
One play later, the Cougars struck again when wide receiver Mitch Mathews ran a post pattern, streaked past the Huskies defender and caught a 26-yard touchdown strike from Hill.
“That’s the time we take a shot downfield,” Mathews said. “I was one-on-one with a safety, and that’s a receiver’s dream.”
At that point — just minutes into the game — the Cougars had seized a quick 14-0 advantage before a crowd of 35,150 at Rentschler Field.
Suddenly, UConn found itself in a deep hole and the Cougars were in control.
That fast start was exactly what BYU was looking for, and it was exactly the fast start it was looking for to open the 2014 season.
“Always great to start out the season with a win,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “Starting fast was something I was hopeful for and we made an emphasis on it on both sides of the ball. That was something we targeted. I was glad to see that. It was a critical start to the game in terms of establishing what the outcome was going to be.”
BYU turned in a dominating first-half performance on the East Coast, even playing without five key contributors, including running back Jamaal Williams, who missed the game due to a suspension.
Aside from a slew of penalties and a turnover, BYU looked impressive and rolled to a 28-7 halftime lead.
“Twenty-eight points in the first half was an ideal,” Mendenhall said. “It was something I was hoping to see.”
For UConn fans, their biggest cheer of the night was when their national champion women's basketball team was introduced on the field at end of the first quarter.
The concern for the Cougars was that they didn’t finish as well as they would have liked. The listless third quarter featured a turnover, a missed 33-yard field goal and zero points.
The Cougars scored just one touchdown in the second half, on a 26-yard run by Hill, with 4:06 left in the game to put the Cougars up 35-10.
“We lost a little bit of our edge at halftime as we came out missing the field goal early on,” Mendenhall said. “That added to our edge coming off a little bit.”
Yes, BYU has plenty of things to work on this week as it prepares to visit Texas next Saturday.
Against UConn, BYU amassed 513 yards of total offense (205 on the ground and 308 through the air) and held UConn to 355 yards, including just 71 rushing yards.
Hill completed 28 of 36 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns. Nine different receivers caught passes.
Mendenhall praised Hill for being “very resilient and very methodical,” and liked the way Hill managed the game.
“He was on point,” Mathews said of Hill. “He played like the All-American that he is.”
On UConn’s first play from scrimmage, linebacker Jherremya Leuta-Douyere forced a fumble that was recovered by Bronson Kaufusi that led to Mathews' TD.
With BYU leading 14-0, the two teams had a few series riddled by penalties. But the Cougars built their lead to 21-0 midway through the second quarter on a seven-yard swing pass from Hill to Adam Hine.
BYU turned the ball over later in the quarter on a Mathews fumble and UConn capitalized on a one-yard TD run by Josh Marriner.
But BYU answered quickly, as Hill completed a 35-yard touchdown pass to Terenn Houk, who tight-roped the sidelines and dove in the end zone near the pylon with 1:03 left in the first half to make it 28-7.
All in all, the Cougars put to rest the haunting memories of the opening-game disaster a year ago.
“Last year was a shocker to all of us,” said Mathews, who caught five passes for 62 yards. “We thought we were going to win and obviously we didn’t. (On Friday) confidence is what helped us win.”
Not to mention a very fast start.