Provo • As is his custom, coach Bronco Mendenhall is downplaying the importance of Thursday night’s season opener against Washington State for his BYU football program, saying it is not any more relevant, or any less, than the 11 other games on the schedule.
“Your first game is always one you would love to win and play well in, but I don’t see any more intrigue, or anything else,” he said. “This is just another good opponent in our opener. So that is what we are preparing for.”
Some of Mendenhall’s players see it that way as well. Others don’t.
“Everything is on the line, every week,” said running back Mike Alisa. “Being an independent team, every week, all of our hopes for a potential BCS bid are on the line. It’s a huge [game].”
Kickoff is at 8:15 p.m. MDT at upgraded LaVell Edwards Stadium, as the school unveils its new video scoreboards and ribbon video displays installed this summer. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN, probably joined in progress.
“It is really cool, just knowing there will be a lot of eyes on us,” said senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree.
New WSU coach Mike Leach, the 1983 BYU graduate who brings his Air Raid offense to Provo, talked a few days ago about how Pac-12 games are still the most important to the program he is trying to revive after years of subpar seasons.
BYU doesn’t have that luxury, Ogletree said.
“Obviously, as an independent we have a lot harder road to get to where we want to go, meaning to gain national attention and to be the program we want to be,” he said. “We can’t lose any games. And we know that. … We know that to come out of the gate early, and put our stamp on the season early, that will be huge for us because we will carry that through the early part of the season.”
In other words, a loss would be devastating for the blue Cougars, who are nearly two-touchdown favorites, even if Mendenhall and senior quarterback Riley Nelson won’t acknowledge the first of three games against Pac-12 foes carries extra significance.
“Coach Mendenhall would have us approach it as just another game. That’s what it is,” said Nelson, who got the start the last time BYU played host to a Pac-12 team in its opener, 2010 against Washington. With Nelson rotating with Jake Heaps, BYU eked out a 23-17 win.
The team’s unquestioned leader, Nelson will go it alone against the red Cougars, barring injury or a blowout. He said keeping his emotions in check will be of huge importance.
“Hopefully I can just stay calm and within myself and not make it bigger than it is,” he said. “I recognize that. It is my senior year, home opener, and all those things. First game, against a Pac-12 opponent, and all that comes with it. If I can just stay calm and within myself, that is going to give myself the best chance to play well. So that is what I hope my emotions are like.”
Having studied Leach’s offense from his days at Texas Tech, and Washington State’s returning personnel, BYU players and Mendenhall say the other Cougars are a mysterious, dangerous team that is totally capable of pulling off an upset. Although it went 4-8 last year, Wazzu beat Arizona State and took Utah to overtime.
“We have to go out there and play this game like it is like any other,” said cornerback Jordan Johnson, who will primarily be responsible for covering WSU’s phenomenal junior receiver, Marquess Wilson. “We can’t just think because they are a Pac-12 team they are going to come in and push us around and whatnot. It is going to be fun.”
Washington State at BYU
P At LaVell Edwards Stadium (Provo)
Kickoff • 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Series history • BYU leads 2-1
Last meeting • BYU 50, WSU 36 (Sept. 15, 1990)
About the BYU Cougars • They have won four straight games, and nine of their last 10. … They have won five straight season openers. … They are 2-1 against Pac-12 teams in openers under coach Bronco Mendenhall. … Junior WR Cody Hoffman has caught a pass in 19 straight games, the 21st-longest streak in the nation. … They held opponents to 14 first-half points or fewer in 12 of 13 games last year.
About the WSU Cougars • New head coach Mike Leach graduated from BYU in 1993 with a degree in American Studies. … Outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons played linebacker at BYU from 1993-96. … Junior WR Marquess Wilson has caught a pass in 24 straight games, the ninth-longest streak in the nation.