PROVO — In each of its past three games, BYU has rushed at least 40 times. While that emphasis on the running game is not common for the Cougars, it's a trend a certain segment of the offense can get used to.
"We'll never complain as running backs," said senior Manase Tonga with a smile. "We always want to carry the ball. It just shows our coaches have faith in us and know we can get the job done."
The Cougars rushed a season-high 45 times for a season-high 227 yards in their 24-14 victory over UNLV last Saturday. Redshirt freshman Harvey Unga led the way with 177 yards while Tonga added 36 and Joe Semanoff had 14.
BYU, which hosts Eastern Washington of the Big Sky Conference this week, ran 43 times for 112 yards in a win over New Mexico and 44 times for 159 yards in defeating Air Force.
Not that the Cougars are abandoning their fabled passing game. BYU ranks No. 1 in the MWC (and No. 6 nationally) in passing offense, averaging 329 yards per game. The Cougars are No. 8 in the MWC (and No. 81 nationally) in rushing offense, averaging 133.8 per contest.
Still, BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae is turning more to the running backs — and tight ends — for production. Against the Rebels, the running backs and tight ends combined for 188 receiving yards out of 214 total passing yards. BYU's wide receivers combined for four catches for 26 yards.
"We're going to continue to focus on keeping the backs and the tight ends involved in the offense," Tonga said.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said the passing game will always be an emphasis at BYU and that the offense is even more difficult to stop when the Cougars are able to run and pass effectively.
"We're not shifting from one to the other," he said. "We're simply looking for a higher level of execution in both."
The Cougar running backs are ready to carry the offensive load when needed.
"We've always been taught that when pressure situations come, we want to be the ones that carry the ball and take on that burden because we feel we're capable enough to do it," Tonga said.
VAKAPUNA'S STATUS: Junior running back Fui Vakapuna, who broke his hand in the Tulsa game on Sept. 15, probably won't be ready to play until Oct. 27 at San Diego State, according to Mendenhall.
In other injury news, linebacker David Nixon suffered a "bell-ringer" (a milder form of a concussion) and a bruised shoulder against UNLV while offensive linemen Dallas Reynolds and David Oswald sustained sprained ankles. Cornerback Kayle Buchanan has a strained neck.
ON THE CORNER: Due to an ankle injury, cornerback Ben Criddle did not travel to the New Mexico game. Senior Andre Saulsberry started in his place and performed well.
He performed so well that even though Criddle is cleared to play, Saulsberry, who started against UNLV, remains the starter at boundary corner for this week's game — for now.
"He's playing very well," Mendenhall said of Saulsberry. "He's done everything we've asked him to do. The competition will be heated (this week in practice) because Ben really would like his position back. But it's Andre's to lose at this point.
BYU on the air
E. Washington (4-2, 2-2) at BYU (4-2, 3-0)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 1160AM, 102.7FM
TV: The mtn.