PROVO — Months after a coaching change, which led to uniform changes and a host of other changes imposed by first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall, BYU finally has experienced a taste of public, tangible success — a victory.
Even if it did come against Division I-AA opponent Eastern Illinois.
Not that it mattered to Mendenhall, whose team registered a resounding 45-10 win over the Panthers Saturday, one week after a season-opening loss to Boston College.
Leave it to him to put it all in perspective.
"It's a great feeling, but, again, much like last week when I was asked why I appear so calm as there appeared to be raging stories about BYU football and its state of affairs, I see the end in mind and this is just another step in the direction I'd like this football program to go — to grow our team, to develop our team, to handle adversity, to have some success," Mendenhall said. "This is just the next step. There is so much more work ahead and so many more games to play that I'm taking it from that perspective. Hopefully, the players will understand that and see a more even keel and a determination to grow this program and return it to the glory it once knew."
His players knew the win had additional significance.
"It was Mendenhall's first victory as a head coach, so that was a moral victory for us," said wide receiver Todd Watkins, who caught a pair of first-half touchdown passes.
In the week leading up to the game, Mendenhall didn't mention the name of the upcoming opponent to his team. It wasn't until assistant coach Barry Lamb addressed the team prior to kickoff that Eastern Illinois was mentioned. All week, BYU was focused on itself.
"It was about our improvement," Mendenhall said.
In terms of scoring, it was a 42-point improvement over the previous week. And the Cougars wasted little time getting into the end zone, taking the opening kickoff and marching 67 yards in eight plays, highlighted by a 23-yard catch by Matt Allen. The drive culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run by Curtis Brown — the first TD of the Mendenhall Era.
"The No. 1 thing that we wanted to do was score," Brown said. "We wanted to start the game fast and get things rolling. We didn't want to give Eastern Illinois the chance to stay in the game with us. To score on the first drive inspires us to do it every time."
"It's great to start out with a touchdown and get things rolling," said quarterback John Beck, who completed 26-of-40 passes for 255 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. "Things were definitely clicking at the beginning of the game. That's how we should have looked for four quarters. It's a huge boost to score on your first drive. That set the tone for the game. Our goal is to make every quarter like that first quarter, where we're running on all cylinders."
BYU eventually jumped out to a 31-0 halftime advantage, thanks in part to three Eastern Illinois turnovers on which the Cougars capitalized.
"I think we lost to a superior football team. There's no question about that. We knew that coming in," said Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo. "The thing we couldn't afford to do, we did. We gave them 17 points off of turnovers. Those are things you have to eliminate against a team that is superior to you. I was a little disappointed in that aspect of it."
At intermission, Mendenhall implored his team to not let up. Yet the Cougars stumbled in the third quarter, which featured a Brown fumble and a 12-yard punt by Derek McLaughlin. It was the only quarter the Cougars didn't score in, while the Panthers got on the scoreboard with a 23-yard field goal.
"I didn't like the way we played in the third quarter at all," Mendenhall said. "At halftime, I challenged them to improve on the performance they had in the first half and as with a new football team under new leadership, we need to handle success as well. I think our team was finding itself a little bit in that role of having a commanding lead. I did my best to prepare them at halftime."
Mendenhall was pleased with how his team finished, however, as the Cougars' Fahu Tahi punched the ball into the end zone twice in the fourth quarter — once on a 7-yard catch and again on a 6-yard run.
Now, the Cougars will enjoy a bye week before entering conference play on Sept. 24, at home, against Texas Christian, who upset Oklahoma a week ago.
"We have a real tough game in two weeks against TCU and that will prove more realistically where we're at as a team," Watkins said.
Beck said the offense made considerable improvement over last week, despite the step down in competition.
"Just being able to complete a drive and scoring is an improvement," he said. "We didn't come out thinking this is just a rag-tag team. We came out wanting to execute at our best level, no matter who was out there." Then, he added, "I think we should have scored more points on them."
"I think we made a lot of progress," Brown said. "To be successful against conference teams, we're going to have to play four quarters of football. It's good to get out with a victory. We learned from this."