ALBUQUERQUE — Tonight's BYU-New Mexico football game and Mountain West Conference opener pits a pair of aggressive, pursuit-oriented defenses that are the spittin' image of each other.
More "spittin' " with the Lobos in Albuquerque, and more "image" with the Cougars traveling from Provo. And more on that in a moment.
Both teams enter today's 6 p.m. contest at University Stadium with identical 1-1 records. The two are coming off near-mirror defeats, faltering to favored foes after falling behind 21-0 early and drawing almost even late in the game — BYU losing 35-18 to No. 4 Southern California and New Mexico 42-28 to Texas Tech.
Much of the week's focus has been on the UNM and BYU defenses — the former for its top-30 national rank the past three years and the latter for luring ex-UNM defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall to implement the same 3-3-5 scheme.
In Albuquerque, the UNM faithful are spittin' mad that Mendenhall would leave head coach Rocky Long and the Lobo family after five seasons — and rush off to a conference rival, no less.
In Provo, Mendenhall's arrival is seen as a reuniting of him with Cougar head coach Gary Crowton — who had brought Mendenhall to his Louisiana Tech staff a half-dozen seasons ago — as well as a return home for the Alpine native. And BYU has welcomed the new defensive image — attacking and proactive rather than reactive.
Yes, the defenses are the same. So much so that Long spent a good share of his weekly media briefing voicing concerns that UNM defensive signals and play calls — relayed from the sideline to the players on the field, rather than brought into a huddle by a substitute — could possibly be stolen by BYU coaches and players on the other side.
Not only do both teams boast similar defenses, they'll bring out offenses that have long practiced against the 3-3-5 format — their own defenses — in drills and scrimmages.
The fruits of familiarity have already paid off for sophomore quarterback Matt Berry. "With us practicing against this same style of defense through the spring and fall, the quarterback has seen it more," Crowton said. "He's got a feel, he's faster and quicker in recognizing it." Offensive lineman Quinn Christensen agreed: "Last year it messed us up a little bit — we weren't as confident," he said. "This year, we've been going against it all spring ball and all summer, and I think it's definitely going to help us a lot."
But the Lobo offense is just as prepared for BYU, having practiced the same against its own defense. "I think there's a lot of people going to watch this game to see what happens," Crowton said. "These are two good defenses, especially in our conference."
WHEN BYU HAS THE BALL: Crowton said he saw increased confidence by Berry and the offensive line. It first manifested itself late in the first half of the USC loss, carried over into the second half and continued into practice this week with an effective and efficient showing in drills by the offense. Tailback Marcus Whalen and tight end Justin Jory are out for the Cougars.
The Lobos have all but stopped the run (48.5 yards) in their first two games, but both opponents — I-AA Texas State-San Marcos and Texas Tech — preferred the pass. The middle of the UNM might be a little weaker, with starting nose tackle Guillermo Morrison — who abruptly quit this week — being replaced by Kyle Coulter, who is 40 pounds lighter.
WHEN UNM HAS THE BALL: The Lobos seemed balanced and potent, given their average of 500-plus yards of total offense and 50-point scoring average after two games, but how much of it came on feasting against a I-AA foe in a 72-8 rout? Last week, D.D. Cox filled in as tailback for an injured Don Trell Moore — the 2002 MWC freshman of the year — and ripped off a 187-yard, three-TD performance, while third-year starter Casey Kelly threw for a career-high 349 yards.
It's no secret the Cougar defense has set the tone — and the table — for its offensive counterparts in the first two games. BYU held USC — aka Tailback U. — to 71 yards rushing last week, scored the team's first points with a safety and picked three passes.
BYU (1-1) at New Mexico (1-1)
Saturday, 6 p.m.
Radio: KSL 1160-AM
(KSL Ch. 5)