When the Brigham Young University Cougars take the field on Thursday night against San Diego State in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, everything that has occurred prior to this point will not matter.
To say the least, this season has been one of the more trying in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s eight-year tenure in Provo.
It isn’t as if people were predicting the Cougars to compete for a BCS bid. But with a roster of 26 seniors and a 10-3 record in 2011, not many were expecting BYU to finish with the third best record of the four independent teams in the FBS division.
Most of the problems for Mendenhall this season could be traced back to the offense. Despite having a returning starter in quarterback Riley Nelson, the Cougars were bogged down by a quarterback controversy the entire season.
Oft-injured and even more inconsistent, Nelson could be held primarily responsible for BYU’s four losses between September 15th and October 20th, in which the senior was responsible for nine turnovers while completing slightly less than 53 percent of his passes.
The Cougars have experimented with alternative options all season, from speedy freshman Taysom Hill to senior James Lark.
Due to a rib injury Nelson suffered in the team’s regular season finale, it appears that Lark could be the starter for BYU when the team takes the field against San Diego State on Thursday night (via Desertnews.com). This may end up being the best thing for the Cougars offense, as Lark has thrown for eight touchdowns and no interceptions, despite seeing the least time of the three quarterbacks this season.
However, if BYU is to beat the San Diego State Aztecs in what is essentially a home game for Rocky Long’s squad, the defense will again have to come through as the heroes of the night.
Although the offense has only started to come alive, the Cougars defense has been playing at a high level all season. BYU is third in yards given up per game (266.3), fifth in points allowed (14.7) and allows just 84.3 yards on the ground, which is second only to Alabama’s vaunted run defense.
This is good news considering that San Diego State’s offensive success this season has been a result of the run game. Led by sophomore Adam Muema, the Aztecs boast the No. 16 rushing attack in the nation, averaging 229.2 yards per contest. The strong run game is one of the reasons San Diego State came out of nowhere to win a share of the Mountain West Conference title this season.
Running on the Cougars will be a tough task, though. Leading a stout defensive line is Ezekiel Ansah, a 6’6", 270 pound monster from Ghana who despite starting only nine games during his career at BYU is considered a potential first round NFL draft pick. His combination of size and speed are unlike anything the Aztecs have seen this season, and it is safe to assume that Ansah will be playing with a purpose, trying to impress any NFL scouts that may be present at the game.
Then there is Kyle Van Noy, the vocal leader of the defense. Although he is only a junior, Van Noy may also be playing his final collegiate game as he too has NFL potential.
Talent isn’t the only thing that makes this squad dangerous. Three times this season BYU’s defense has given up less than 20 points and lost: against Boise State, Notre Dame and San Jose State. Currently, all three of those teams are ranked.
That alone makes this team hungry for a win it can hang its hat on this season. Disrespect isn’t necessarily the right word to describe what this team is feeling. Unfulfilled might be a better word.
Too many times, the defense has done its job, only to be heartbroken by the inability of the offense to put points on the board. Expect this game to be hard-hitting, with the Cougars setting the tone defensively.
If BYU can stifle the running game, it may be able to pressure San Diego State quarterback Adam Dingwell into making mistakes. Dingwell has been serviceable during his time as the starter since Ryan Katz went down with an injury on October 20th, but one can wonder whether that has been because he hasn’t been asked to do too much.
BYU has precisely the kind of defense to expose a quarterback like Dingwell. If Ansah and Van Noy stuff the running game, the offense has shown glimpses this season of being able to capitalize, as it did against Georgia Tech in a 41-17 blowout in late October.
One thing is for sure: BYU’s defense will be looking to make a statement. Whether their offense does the same will determine if the Cougars come away from San Diego with bowl game hardware.
A win over San Diego State could erase some of the disappointments of the tumultuous 2012 campaign for BYU.