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BYU stumbles to a win

With Cougars in a QB shortage, offense is mostly Brathwaite

ALBUQUERQUE — As the eighth-largest football crowd in University Stadium history filed out following BYU's 10-7 victory over New Mexico, the public-address announcer informed the 33,606 that the postgame fireworks had been scuttled by Saturday night's high winds.

Seems as though the gusts and gales also took the wind out of the sails of both offenses and any aerial attack possibly thrown against the mirror-image defenses of the Cougars and Lobos, both of which feature the aggressive, pursuit-oriented 3-3-5 defense.

Except for a couple of long plays from both teams and a few shoves in what is becoming an intense rivalry, the Mountain West Conference opener featured few of the anticipated fireworks. There was just one turnover — a New Mexico fumble — between the two teams and relatively conservative playcalling on offense.

For the Cougars, now 2-1 overall and 1-0 in the conference, two of their key plays — both featuring tailback Reynaldo Brathwaite — were key in BYU's lowest-scoring road victory since a 1986 win at Hawaii by the same 10-7 score.

In the first quarter, Brathwaite started on a left-side sweep, only to be met by a couple of linemen and a Lobo defender in the background for a mini-collision. He quickly reversed directions and headed down the right sideline, finally running out of gas and getting pulled down at the Lobo 2-yard line after an 89-yard gallop.

"I'll be hearing about that all week from my teammates," said the 5-foot-10 junior, crediting tackle Brandon Stephens with a key block to free him up. "The only way to go was to my right."

Brathwaite didn't get a touchdown out of his long-distance ramble, but then, neither did the Cougars. They had to settle for a 20-yard Matt Payne field goal for a 3-0 lead.

And in the fourth quarter, with BYU trying to nurse a 10-7 lead and run out the game's final five minutes, they turned to Brathwaite. He carried four times on the drive's first six plays. On the seventh play, he passed.

Brathwaite took a pitch from backup QB Todd Mortensen — in the game because starter Matt Berry went out with an injured hand — and heaved a 26-yard pass to fullback Kyle Wilson for a game-clinching first down.

"It was win or lose, basically," said Brathwaite, agreeing that his throw was about as unbecoming as BYU's victory. "If I complete it, we win. I threw up a punt, but it's a completition."

With it, BYU (2-1 overall, 1-0 MWC) won the Battle of Bronco, or so it shaped up this week, given that defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall had switched to the Cougars after five seasons on the Lobo sidelines.

"Mixed — all mixed up," said Mendenhall of his emotions during the game. "I'm proud of the current players I coach, and I'm proud of the former players that I coached. I felt myself watching both sides, and I found it hard to be professional and objective tonight."

His defense helped hold a Lobo offense that was averaging 50 points and 500-plus yards a game to game totals of just seven points and 312 yards. But then, BYU managed just 10 points and 308 yards.

BYU coach Gary Crowton said Saturday night's winds played a major factor, eliminating some of the options to throw the ball long. With a 10-0 lead at halftime, Crowton and his coaches went conservative to maintain field possession and have the wind at their back in the fourth quarter.

"We played it close to the vest — it's not my personality," Crowton said, adding that when he and his assistants mulled over the possibility of going for a first down on fourth down, assistants "had to talk me out of it."

He added: "We won the game on field position."

Once again, the Cougar defense needed to step up and cover for the conservative and sometimes struggling offense.

"Our defense is going to get better and better," Crowton said. "I hope our offense does the same."

But Brathwaite, who finished with 169 yards rushing on 19 carries, said injuries took their toll on his unit.

"We had so many people go down, it was ridiculous," he said. "It wasn't the complete BYU offense."

Berry suffered his hand injury — a spiral fracture to the pinky finger on his right (throwing) hand in the first half. He'll have surgery this morning to insert pins into his hand, and he's expected to be out two to three weeks. Center Scott Jackson suffered an MCL injury to his knee — he'll be out two to three weeks as well. And fullback Tafui Vakapuna suffered an injury to his right leg — he should be ready for Saturday's game against Stanford.

This all added to an offense already missing tailback Marcus Whalen (foot fracture), backup QB John Beck (concussion) and tight end Justin Jory (ankle sprain). Beck is expected to be ready to start Saturday, with Mortensen backing him up.

Trailing 3-0 in the first period, New Mexico threatened a couple of times, driving once down to the BYU 25 before Colby Bockwoldt covered a Lobo fumble — the game's sole turnover.

BYU added to its lead in the second quarter, driving 68 yards on nine plays, with Berry finding tight end Phillip Niu for a 29-yard scoring pass on Niu's first career reception. Payne's PAT made it 10-0.

New Mexico (1-2, 0-1) scored its touchdown in the third quarter, aided by a 66-yard wide-out screen from Casey Kelly to Adrian Boyd, who was finally tackled at the 5 by Jernaro Gilford. Two plays later, DonTrell Moore scored from the 3, with West Zunker adding the conversion kick.

The Lobos threatened several times in the fourth quarter, but Kelly couldn't connect with open receivers. Also, the Cougar defense stiffened on one Lobo drive that went inside the BYU 30.

Berry's first-half performance was 12-of-20 for 102 yards and a TD, while Mortensen was 7-of-16 for 44 yards. Kelly completed 11-of-23 for 141 yards.

After being sidelined last week against Texas Tech, Moore gained 104 yards on 21 carries.

Brathwaite's 89-yard run was BYU's longest since a 93-yard gain by Wendell Jackson against Fresno State in 1958.


E-mail: taylor@desnews.com