PROVO — Given their troubles of late, this week is a crucial one for the BYU football team. How will the Cougars respond after Saturday's 24-10 loss to Air Force?
Things don't get any easier from here for BYU, which has three of its next four games on the road, starting next Saturday at San Diego State. It will mark the Mountain West Conference opener for the Aztecs (3-2), who fell to UCLA, 20-10, Saturday night.
"Right now we're in adverse times. According to the way we react in these challenging times will determine how successful we will or will not be," said defensive lineman Brady Poppinga. "I guarantee you that we're going to continue to do our very best to get better and eventually we'll start winning."
BYU (2-3, 1-1) entered the season with high hopes of contending for a conference championship and going to a bowl game. The reality is, the Cougars must go 4-3 the rest of the way to be bowl eligible and avoid their second consecutive losing season. They need a 5-2 mark in their final seven games to have a winning season.
Coach Gary Crowton insists he sees victories on the horizon. "The wins will come," he said. "I promise you, the wins will come."
Crowton says he likes his team's character and heart. "It's early in the year. We have to start getting these wins one at a time," he said. "So we have to go to San Diego State, play well and get a win down there. It puts your back against the wall a little bit, but that's what we're going to try to do."
"I can promise you're going to see a difference in this team game by game," said freshman quarterback John Beck. "Each week we're going to keep working harder and harder and you're going to see an offense find its rhythm and put points on the board."
BYU is determined to bounce back, Beck explained. "Coach told us, 'This is where you see what kind of person you are,' " he said. "Every single person was mad about what happened (against Air Force), and every single person had a fire in their eyes to make it happen this next week. There's not a single person on this team who's thinking down right now. If you think down,
you're not going to get better. I can guarantee that on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, this week is going to be a big week of practice. Everybody's going to be giving everything they've got every single day."
BECK'S PROGRESSION: In his second career start, Beck showed marked improvement, particularly in the second half. He threw a nice 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Phillip Niu in the third quarter, and he didn't throw an interception against the Falcons.
Despite BYU's lack of offensive production the last two weeks, Crowton is still high on Beck. "This is a special player at quarterback. If people give him a chance to grow, he's going to be one of the greatest quarterbacks around," he said.
Beck acknowledges there is room for improvement. "I'm not making any excuses. I'm not going to sit here and say, 'I'm only a freshman,' because I don't want to be that kind of player ever," he said. "This is why you love football, because of the challenge. I don't think there's anything more challenging than being a freshman quarterback at BYU."
FREE TO ROAM: Poppinga popped up everywhere on defense against the Falcons. As part of his game plan, defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall decided to use Poppinga as a roving linebacker for much of the game.
Poppinga and middle linebacker Mike Tanner stood next to each other behind the defensive line, then, just prior to the snap of the ball, Poppinga moved into position. "I loved it. I felt free. Unleashed," Poppinga said. "Playing defensive end, sometimes I feel like a bronco that's fenced in. I felt like I was able to roam around and use my speed and quickness."
Poppinga finished the day with four tackles, including one for a three-yard loss.
"We were moving all over to give (Air Force) a look and create havoc," Tanner said. "It definitely was a good change-up. Coach Mendenhall is an absolute genius when it comes to calling plays. Nine out of ten times, he calls the right play."
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