ALBUQUERQUE — BYU is now officially the team to chase in the Mountain West Conference football race, but the Cougars need to run down an offense. They're going through quarterbacks quicker than California has candidates for governor, and against New Mexico here on Saturday the challenge on offense was nearly fatal.
The Cougars had to turn to a third-string quarterback, a guy more famous for being The Piano Man and making CDs than taking snaps. Coach Gary Crowton then leaned hard on a junior college running back to run and throw to defeat a fired-up New Mexico squad, 10-7.
This weird role-playing on offense almost overshadowed a spectacular performance by BYU's defense in the return of its creator — or installer — Bronco Mendenhall to University Stadium, where he learned his tricks. The Cougar defense gave up just one big pass play all night, a fourth-quarter pass that led to UNM's only score and excursion into the red zone.
That, folks, is championship defense.
Back to the strange BYU offensive cast. For a 10-7 grudge match that looked like a defensive fight between two pug-nosed dogs, there were plenty of stars, including quarterback Todd Mortensen, whose biggest feat of the night may have been getting a couple of first downs as the clock ticked down — with no turnovers.
Before going to University Stadium on Saturday, Gail Berry and Sherrie Pendleton traded mother talk about their sons in the lobby of the Albuquerque Marriott. Chatter centered on how each mom dealt with pregame jitters. Pendleton said her and her husband have literally been sick before games. Gail reported she hardly gets a blip on her cardiogram — she's cool as cactus guts.
To prove the point, Gail offered a handshake. "See, there's nothing there." Her dainty manicured hand was steady and dry as baby powder.
Berry the son took after the Mom in leading BYU to a 10-0 lead at halftime — good enough for a win, a big thanks to Mendenhall's Army.
But this pre-game chat should have included Shauna Mortensen. It was her son, Todd, who ended up helping the sputtering Cougar offense keep the ball as time wound down to secure the Cougar win.
Back in Provo, John Beck, the backup to Berry through fall drills and two games, watched all this unfold in his apartment while nursing a concussion. Berry possibly out? Beck recovered? Mortensen good enough to get game-point-match at the end of an early title game?
Then there was JC transfer running back Rey Brathwaite. If BYU ever needed one player on offense to step up, it was Saturday night in New Mexico.
Brathwaite carried the ball 18 times for 169 yards. He was simply BYU's big answer on a night playmaker tight end Daniel Coats was taken out of the game by UNM's sterling defense.
You wondered when the Cougars were going to hatch out a running game.
Enter the San Diego kid, Brathwaite. His first-quarter 89-yard run that started out as a disaster was almost a six-yard loss. Fortunately for the Cougars, Brathwaite turned a stopped play into the longest Cougar run play in 45 years — or when movies were a dime. He averaged nine yards a carry on a defense that had allowed a paltry 47 a game.
Generally speaking, against UNM's stingy defense the Cougar running game looked cumbersome and slow. Blocking plays took longer than a molasses drip. You could use time-lapse photography to document the moves. Most of the night the Lobos were on to Fahu Tahi, Brathwaite, Thomas Stancil and Fui Vakapuna the same time they got the handoffs, which were all deep.
It was never more stinky than the series after Brathwaite's spectacular reverse field sprint, in which he literally ran out of gas and got caught at the UNM two by Lobo corner Gabriel Fulbright.
The Cougars then lined up with their mammoth offensive line and couldn't punch it in on two Tahi handoffs. The Lobos dumped the big Tongan twice, the second for a three-yard loss.
Oh, well. Brathwaite's run nearly doubled the rushing yardage the Lobos gave up against Texas State and Texas Tech. In the end, Brathwaite had the energy to seal BYU's defensive win with several big runs and catches. He handled the ball on 23 of BYU's 66 plays, including tossing a 26-yard pass at the end to keep a drive alive.
Star? Dial him up.
Finally, here's the bottom line: Give UNM's defense a ton of credit, but the Cougar offense needs more fizz and pop.
For the third game in a row the defense took center stage and control of a ball game. BYU defenders bailed out the offense against Georgia Tech, got the Cougars back in the game at USC last week. And here they simply won the game by keeping the Lobos frustrated in a near shutout performance.