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Give Cougars credit for sticking together

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Whew, did the Cougars ever need this one.

BYU scored five second-half touchdowns to race past Air Force 41-24 Saturday, a game the Cougars played under a bright sun for the first time this season.

Perhaps the sunny day was symbolic for BYU players and their head coach, Gary Crowton.

Did this win turn BYU's program around?

Maybe. Certainly, it didn't hurt.

The win keeps the Cougars on track for a winning season and bowl appearance and a crack at a piece of the Mountain West Conference title. If the Cougars can defeat San Diego State and New Mexico at home, such a run could be enough to save Crowton's job.

More immediate, it ended some bad trends and started some good ones.

When freshman tight end Dennis Pitta blocked a third-quarter Air Force punt and junior college transfer linebacker Gary Lovely picked it up and raced eight yards for a touchdown, you could almost see the Cougar squad levitate off the ground with a 24-10 lead and their 21st straight point.

Receiver Chris Hale said you could feel the momentum. It gushed forward.

With a ton of negative karma swirling around the program since August, Hale said the players had worked in spite of it all. "But that play, getting it going, that certainly lifted us up and is something to build on the rest of the season."

In short, the Cougars won back-to-back games for the first time in two years.

They burped at home against UNLV with turnovers and lost, but since leaving Boise last month, they avenged losses to Colorado State and Air Force on the road — no easy task. The Cougars hadn't won in those two MWC towns since 1995 and 1994.

"We still have a long ways to go. I don't want to make too much of this right now because we have a ton of work to do and we've got three more games down the line that are really important," said Crowton.

The past two weeks, since that UNLV setback, players have chanted a mantra that's perhaps cemented the squad. You saw it against Wyoming.

It was evident in Falcon Stadium when trailing 10-3.

"We're in the playoffs. This is the playoffs. We've got to win out."

Could they? Saturday is only a start. Games left are against teams picked to finish ahead of the Cougars. Air Force, you might remember, was picked seventh and lost to Utah 49-35.

Crowton deserves credit for keeping his squad on an even keel the past two months.

He's had at least six star players banged up. One, corner Brandon Heaney, is out for the season with a broken arm. His quarterback and both receivers Todd Watkins and Austin Collie are playing hurt and safety John Burbidge belongs in surgery.

Crowton never made it an issue. Now, he's got a bye and some of these injuries can heal up.

On Saturday, Crowton's offense made adjustments and put on a real display in gaining 527 yards. In the second half, the BYU offense was as efficient as it's been since last year's win at San Diego State.

You'd have to go back to 2001 to find a better effort, and after Beck struggled in the opening two quarters, his second-half passing efficiency rating stood at a sizzling 324 points, 187 for the whole game.

Defensively, this was the best Cougar effort against the Force since 2001. Bronco Mendenhall had his squad prepared to absorb some new wrinkles by the Falcons. Air Force failed to score on their first possession for only the second time this year.

Matt Payne continued to lead special teams play with a pair of field goals, one of them a 53-yarder, tying his career best for the third time.

Add it all up and what does it mean?

"It's a big step for us," Crowton said. "But we've still got a lot of steps ahead."