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Mendenhall investment proves wise

LARAMIE, Wyo. — In businesslike fashion, BYU snagged its fifth conference victory at Wyoming, a 35-21 win that could have been prettier but never felt sweeter for Bronco Mendenhall after his first stop here as a head football coach.

It was an accomplishment the 1999 MWC champions, a ranked team led by Kevin Feterick bound for the Motor City Bowl could not do: win at Laramie in front of an emotionally charged Wyoming crew.

With Cowboy fans screaming insults and flipping single-digit salutes, Mendenhall walked as stoic as an officiating mortician to the BYU sideline after a handshake with Wyoming coach Joe Glenn. He then accepted praise from a small army of Cougar fans at the rail leading to the end of the stadium and headed for the locker room.

He may have managed a smile, but it was hard to tell. You could have cracked his face with a hammer and chisel. He was stoned faced as something from Michaelangelo.

In 10 games of 2005, Mendenhall accomplished what his predecessor and friend Gary Crowton could not the past three seasons in Provo in 12, 12 and 11. Where three previous teams of yore tripped, missed field goals, dropped key passes or fumbled the ball, when even one of those miscues could have made the difference in a winning record the past three years, the Mendenhall cadre of invested players did just the opposite.

Saturday Wyoming had five turnovers. BYU had zero.

Cougar players made plays. If they were any more invested to Mendenhall's mantra about being invested, he'd have to issue stock certificates and eyeball an impending split.

The Cougars got on the bus Saturday night in Laramie with a 6-4 record, 5-2 in the MWC. They have played the toughest schedule in the league. A few bounces here and there, they could be 7-3, working for an eighth win. They occupy second place in the league all alone heading into a season finale against rival Utah in LaVell Edwards Stadium next Saturday.

A guy with a salary in the middle of the pack of the league - you could say BYU got a bargain. Check that, from where they've been the past three seasons (5-7, 4-8 and 5-6), they stole something in a fire sale last December.

The Cougars are headed for a bowl. It most likely will be in Las Vegas, but could be in San Diego or San Francisco. Since it looks like the SEC can't fill its bowl obligations, the Houston Bowl could also be a possibility if the MWC qualifies four teams.

Mendenhall's confidence, his focus, his foundation of simple commitment to obvious principles paved the way. Some how, he got discouraged and sometimes disorganized and mutinous players to follow in 2005. Yes, you could say Bronco it witnessing a flywheel effect to all his preaching.

Last August, assistant coach Paul Tidwell was walking off the practice field when he stopped and was asked his overall of 2005. "I don't know how we'll finish, or what the record will be, but I know one thing, these players will play hard for Bronco."

In the past few weeks, Mendenhall tweaked his secondary coverage. Saturday, fir the first time this year, he played press bump and run with his corners. He shuffled up punt protection blocking. He polished his team's game.

Acknowledging Wyoming moved the ball and made all kinds of plays (407 on 58 plays to BYU's 446 on 79), Mendenhall said getting turnovers proved the storyline. When it counted, his team got nearly a dozen from the Cowboys and that was the game.

"It wasn't pretty but it was effective,' he told reporters.

Bowl eligible for the first time in four seasons?

"It feels good to have a winning season - more so than being bowl eligible," Mendenhall said.

"You're talking about a team that's lost for three straight season. That's over with. And I'm proud of that."

Mendenhall said he isn't sure what is morre important than winning except what is his team's prime directive from BYU's ivory tower and glass house - that he has to transcend winning.

"It's how we are winning and that's winning with young men who are behaving right, who are going to class, who are living the way they are supposed to and being held to high standards," Mendenhall said. "To win on top of that, that's a combination that makes it special."

The Cougars have won five of their last six and Mendenhall said the fact his team has made plays in key situations and gained momentum rather than faded is what pleases him on the field of battle.

"One of the criticisms of the program was that we started fast and didn't finish when it mattered and I don't think that is a statement that can be made about this team."

Now comes Utah week, one that will by hyped the next six days like a two-headed circus monkey.

Certainly, Mendenhall's work isn't done.

But obviously, the man surely has begun.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com