PROVO — As the Cougars approach the halfway point of their season, Coach Bronco Mendenhall joined Greg Wrubell, Marc Lyons, and an energetic crowd in the President's Loge at LaVell Edwards Stadium Wednesday night. BYU is coming off a 31-14 victory over Utah State and looks forward to Saturday's homecoming tilt with Georgia Tech.
Coach Mendenhall assessed the Utah State game, saying, "I think we made progress. I think our team is growing and maturing. I think offensively we continue to find more and more rhythm within what we're doing."
The biggest improvements that were visible to him were, "the run game remains consistent, steady, tough, diligent and hard working. The passing game, there has been no dropped passes the past two weeks, the completion percentage is going up, the ball is being distributed better down field, third down completions and third down conversions are increasing; it's a work in progress that continues to grow. The special teams are playing solidly as well as the defense."
Uani Unga led the team with 16 tackles against the Aggies, as well as a forced fumble, which caught Mendenhall's attention and praise. "We struggled taking away the football in terms of turnovers, and there was a clear emphasis on his part to do that."
Coach Mendenhall shared how Unga became a starter this season. "Day to day, how physical he played, how hard he worked, how productive he was, anytime he got a chance in the game, the play didn't decrease in terms of production, it stayed the same or increased and it just a matter of time until he got his opportunity."
Georgia Tech stumbles into Provo this week with a 3-2 record, having suffered back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and No. 13 Miami. However, the Cougars are looking forward to the unique challenge that Georgia Tech and their option attack present.
"We've played five games to this point, but you shift gears to Georgia Tech because of the style of play. Really anything you're doing defensively goes out the window with regards to scheme. You do everything you can for that opponent specifically and the minute the game is over, you go back to what you were doing before you played that game."
Coach Mendenhall elaborated stating, "Option week changes a lot. There's very little work against our offense. Almost two different teams within the team. Not a lot of similarities to practice against each other. Offense goes about their planning, defense goes about their planning."
Even though the option attack is tough to defend, Coach Mendenhall and the Cougars have developed a reputation as option defensive specialists, and that has the players excited. "A year ago, Georgia Tech was 0/10 on third down and didn't score an offensive touchdown. That rarely happens, but the team prepared really well for that opportunity. The defensive players currently know the system will work, they know the preparation model will work, if they do their part."
While the Yellow Jackets seek to figure out the Cougars' defense, Mendenhall shared the keys to stopping the option. "The first thing you need to understand is what the offense is trying to do. If you know exactly what (the quarterback) is looking at to make the decision, then you can manipulate the decisions in your favor If you understand that, then you have a lot better chance of determining where you want the ball to go and on what downs and in what situations."
Georgia Tech boasts a quarterback in Vad Lee who has carried the ball 82 times for 241 yards and 3 touchdowns this season. The Cougars have their focus on Lee because they know how dangerous a running quarterback is in the option offense. "Once the quarterback is a ball carrier, option defense is about numbers. Once the quarterback is a run threat, the defensive advantage is lost and every player has an assignment at that point."
As the Cougars prepare for Georgia Tech's vaunted running attack, Mendenhall acknowledged that, "we really need 11 great tacklers out there but also 11 disciplined players who will look at what they are supposed to look at the entire time to make sure the ball doesn't fly over your head."
The Cougars know that in order to put pressure on the Yellow Jackets, they will need to get out on top and put the pressure on the visiting team. "Option teams aren't great and it isn't their desire to play from behind. They would much rather have the lead."
Sophmore wide receiver Mitch Mathews joined the coach's show this week as the player guest and fans were treated to a great scene as player and coach interacted with some great humor.
Against Utah State, Mathews caught five passes for 112 yards and three touchdowns. When asked what the difference was in the passing game, he replied, "It's hard work and practice. We put a big emphasis on throwing the ball around last week, because teams have to stop the run; they have to stop Jamaal and Taysom, and it puts the pressure on us when they stack the box to have the one-on-one opportunities on the outside. For our receivers, that's a lot of fun."
Coach Mendenhall also shared that Mathews, who is 6 foot 6 inches, "has lobbied the special team coaches to be on the PAT field goal block as the jumper, and so there could possibly be a debut for Mitch Mathews to block field goals."
In the fan question portion of the show, Bronco answered some questions that every fan has been wondering about. As he assessed the offense from his preseason expectations to where they are now, he said, "At the halfway point, we're scoring about 27-28 points a game. We know that when we score more than 24, we have great success. We're rushing it for 270, 280 at over five yards a carry and I like that. When our pass game continues to grow, develop, and maybe leads to one more touchdown, then I think we'll be smiling even more."
Bronco was also asked to compare Kyle Van Noy to the best defensive players in his coaching career. Coach Mendenhall has coached two NFL first-round draft choices in Brian Urlacher from New Mexico and Ziggy Ansah. "Kyle makes the most plays at the most critical times and is the most productive player that I've ever coached and it's not close. Not only does he make so many plays, but when he makes them, and the nature of how they change the game. That's by how hard he prepares and his athleticism. I think he's the most productive player to this point."
Finally, the coach was asked about independence and its viability as a long-term option for the Cougars. "I'm not sure it is long term right now. There are only 8 teams that have been seen more on national tv than us over the past two years. That number will continue to grow as we keep playing better opponents on the biggest stages and if we continue to play consistently and win, then we become more marketable not only to the world but to other conferences. Eventually, I believe someone will want us for who we are, and not ask us to compromise other things about who we are to fit in to what they're doing. Until then, we'll just keep playing as strong of teams, as great a schedule, with as much exposure, and I don't have a time-frame, but that's the direction we're going to go."
Coach Mendenhall concluded by giving his keys to beating Georgia Tech on Saturday. "Third down conversions offensively are going to be really important. Georgia Tech doesn't want to give the ball back. They want ball control, they want to make sure they can hold onto it, and score points, so 3rd down conversions offensively and conversely, 3rd down stops defensively are going to drive the game."
Saturday's Homecoming game against Georgia Tech kicks-off at 5:00 pm MT on KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM; the Cougar Countdown Show begins at 3:00 pm MT.
Reggie Lewis is a KSL Newsradio BYU intern