This season has been anything but typical for BYU.
First came the preseason announcement that BYU planned to leave the Mountain West Conference after this season to pursue football independence. Then the Cougars proceeded to lose four of their first five games to end a string of four consecutive seasons with double-digit wins.
The Cougars finally turned things around in a most unusual manner. A program known for producing an assembly line of outstanding quarterbacks has won four in a row by relying on its rushing attack.
That strategy is just fine with BYU freshman quarterback Jake Heaps.
"We have one of the best offensive lines in the country, and they've been a dominant force for us," he said. "We have some great running backs. Our running game has really been a huge thing for us -- very effective. We've been able to really take care of people in the running game. We're doing a good job of finding a balanced offense, having the running game set up the pass."
The numbers bear that out.
BYU has run the ball 64.6 percent of the time in its six wins. In its five losses, the Cougars have run the ball on 44.6 percent of their snaps.
The Cougars' resurgence also has coincided with the improvement of Heaps, a true freshman. He threw six interceptions and only one touchdown pass through the first seven games of the season. He has thrown nine touchdown passes and only one interception in the four games since.
In BYU's past three games, Heaps is 52-of-83 passing for 767 yards and eight touchdowns, with no interceptions.
"As an offense, we really found our identity of what kind of team we are," Heaps said. "Our skill guys and myself and our whole team really has stepped up, and our confidence is at an all-time high right now. We're trusting each other, believing in each other."
BYU's defense also has performed much better since Bronco Mendenhall fired coordinator Jaime Hill and started running the unit himself. BYU was allowing 28.8 points per game before the switch. The Cougars have given up 16 points per game since and have yielded 10 or fewer points in each of their past three games. Heaps said he believes Mendenhall's move helped turn around BYU's season.
"It was a tough decision -- a really tough decision -- to do that in midseason, but it shows how much he cares about us and how badly he wants to help this football team," Heaps said. "We knew from that moment, each and every one of us needed to step up and start playing the way we're capable of."
Of course, it's worth noting that BYU's four-game winning streak has come against Mountain West lightweights Wyoming (3-9), UNLV (2-9), Colorado State (3-9) and New Mexico (1-10). The real measure of BYU's improvement comes Saturday when the Cougars travel to Utah (9-2).
One month ago, a BYU victory over Utah seemed inconceivable. Utah remains the clear favorite, but BYU at least now has reason to believe it can pull the upset.
"There always are high expectations for BYU football," Heaps said. "We definitely didn't live up to the bill at the beginning of the season. We've really shown the resilience of this team and what we're made of this last bit of the season. It's time to finish the season off right."
Best matchup: BYU rush offense vs. Utah rush defense. As we've already mentioned, BYU's rushing attack has sparked the Cougars' resurgence. BYU has rushed for at least 200 yard in each of its past four games and has reached that mark six times this season, the Cougars' highest total of 200-yard rushing performances since the 2001 season. Of course, those four games have come against Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico, which are all ranked 100th or worse in run defense. Utah ranks 10th nationally in run defense and just limited MWC rushing leader Ronnie Hillman of San Diego State to 54 yards on 14 carries. BYU needs to establish a solid rushing attack Saturday to take some pressure off QB Jake Heaps.
Player on the spot: BYU QB Jake Heaps. He has shown tremendous improvement over the course of the season, but how will he fare in the white-hot intensity of the BYU-Utah rivalry? BYU probably won't run the ball as effectively against Utah as it has the past few weeks, so this game could rest on Heaps' shoulders. If Heaps shows the poise of an upperclassman, BYU has a shot at pulling the upset. If Heaps reverts to his early season form, the Cougars have no chance.
Numbers game: San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley couldn't deliver a victory last week against Utah, but he still put his name in the MWC record book. Lindley produced 518 yards of total offense to set an MWC record for most total yards in a game against a league opponent. The previous record was held by former BYU QB John Beck, who had 509 yards of total offense against TCU on Sept. 24, 2005. Former BYU QB Max Hall owns the record for most total yards by an MWC player in a single game, regardless of the opponent. Hall had 548 total yards against Tulsa on Sept. 15, 2007. What do these three performances have in common? All three came in losing efforts. BYU lost 51-50 to TCU in 2005 and fell 55-47 to Tulsa in 2007.
What they're saying
"It would be great if the fans would take on a stronger spirit of sportsmanship and be able to compete against one another, but do it in a civil way. I think it certainly is possible and I think it's desirable and would add a lot more class to the rivalry. Again, I'm speaking for both sides, not just one." -- BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, on the increasingly heated nature of the BYU-Utah rivalry
"I know we've got our swagger back." -- Utah CB Brandon Burton, to The Deseret News, on the importance of ending a two-game losing streak with last week's 38-34 victory over San Diego State
"We are 0-2 the last two weeks, and that is not acceptable. Considering the way we are playing, the talent we have and the way our coaches are putting us in a position to win, it is just unacceptable for us not to execute." -- San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley, to The San Diego Union-Tribune
"The last two weeks, we just haven't shown up to play. I think [we] were obviously under-confident, and I didn't have them emotionally ready to play." -- Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild, to the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune after the Rams closed the season with a 44-0 loss to Wyoming
"Just because you play in the SEC doesn't make you a great school. Do they have good football teams in the SEC? Yes, they do. … They [also] have a lot of teams in that league that haven't won a lot of ballgames." - TCU coach Gary Patterson, to the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram in response to LSU coach Les Miles' contention that the SEC's highest-ranked team deserves a spot in the national championship game
Etc.: Air Force RB Asher Clark is just the third tailback in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The others are Brian Bream in 1970 and Chad Hall in 2007. … BYU's Mitch Payne set an MWC record last week for most career points by a kicker. Payne made two field goals and four extra-point attempts against New Mexico last week and now has 314 career points to break the record formerly held by his older brother, ex-BYU K Matt Payne. … Saturday's BYU-Utah showdown could mark the last time the two in-state rivals face each other in the last week of the regular season. Utah's move to the Pac-10 next season means the teams no longer will face each other in November. BYU and Utah will face off Sept. 17 in 2011 and Sept. 15 in 2012. … One of the lone bright spots for Colorado State in a 44-0 season-ending loss to Wyoming came when LB Mychal Sisson forced a fumble for the FBS-leading seventh time this season. Six of Sisson's forced fumbles came in the last four games of the year. … Colorado State QB Pete Thomas ended his season by setting an MWC record for passing yards by a freshman. Thomas threw for 2,662 yards this season to break the mark previously held by San Diego State's Ryan Lindley, who passed for 2,653 yards in 2008. … UNLV QB Omar Clayton moved into second place on UNLV's list for career passing yardage last week. Clayton has thrown for 6,211 career yards. The record holder is Randall Cunningham, who threw for 8,020 yards from 1982-84. … New Mexico LB Carmen Messina went over the 100-tackle mark last week. He's the first Lobo to post consecutive 100-tackle seasons since Brian Urlacher in 1998-99. … San Diego State WRs Vincent Brown (1,113) and DeMarco Sampson (1,047) each went over the 1,000-yard mark during the Aztecs' loss to Utah last week. San Diego State last had two 1,000-yard receivers in 2002: J.R. Tolver (1,785) and Kassim Osgood (1,552). San Diego State also has a 1,000-yard rusher in Ronnie Hillman (1,152). The only other MWC teams to have two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same season are New Mexico in 2007 (Rodney Ferguson rushing, Marcus Smith and Travis Brown receiving) and BYU in 2008 (Harvey Unga rushing, Austin Collie and Dennis Pitta receiving). … Hillman has a chance to set the MWC freshman rushing record Saturday against UNLV. Hillman has rushed for 1,152 yards. Former BYU RB Unga owns the record with 1,227 yards in 2007. … TCU has a chance to set the school's single-season scoring record Saturday against New Mexico. The Horned Frogs have scored 454 points this season. They tallied a record 498 points last season. … TCU is the only FBS team to limit seven opponents to single-digit point totals this season. TCU is seeking to become the fourth team since 1990 to hold eight opponents below 10 points. The only teams to accomplish that feat since 1990 are Kansas State in 1998, Miami in 2002 and USC in 2008. … Utah DT Sealver Siliga is expected to return this week after missing the San Diego State game with a shin injury. … Wyoming RB Alvester Alexander tied an MWC record by rushing for five touchdowns last week in the 44-0 blowout of Colorado State. BYU's Luke Staley rushed for five TDs against Colorado State in 2001 ... TCU FS Tejay Johnson has been named one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's top defensive back.