BYU football: Momentum abounds on both sides in clash of Cougars
Houston • Their last venture out of the state of Utah to play a football game didn't go so well for the BYU Cougars.
Months of preparation, all that sweat in the sizzling summer sun and hopes for a potential BCS-busting season swirled down the drain as the Cougars sputtered mightily in a 19-16 loss at woeful Virginia.
But that was seven weeks ago. Will Saturday's road contest against another team they are supposed to beat go differently?
Rolling along with a three-game winning streak, BYU (4-2) takes on 5-0 Houston at Reliant Stadium (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPNews) in the first matchup between schools known for offensive prowess.
Both coaches naturally are counting on their defenses to deliver a win that would secure bowl eligibility. Houston's calling card is forcing turnovers it is No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin, having produced 18 takeaways in five games while BYU's identity the past few seasons has been wrapped up in its defense.
BYU plays host to FCS school Idaho State next month, so blue-clad fans can begin making reservations for San Francisco and the Fight Hunger Bowl if their team downs Houston.
Of course, Saturday's game appeared to be one of the easier ones on BYU's schedule last summer, but coach Bronco Mendenhall's team has shown vulnerability when the offense isn't clicking, and Houston has bounced back well from last season's 5-7 showing. Houston is one of the more pleasant surprises in college football in 2013, albeit against a schedule that ranks as the 125th most difficult in the country.
"It is just exciting to change venues," Mendenhall said about the first game that will require a flight since the Aug. 31 encounter in Charlottesville. "We love playing at home, but part of college football is getting to travel and play in unique cities. It is not like in the Mountain West when we go to the same places year in and year out. We get to go to new places each year, which I kinda like, and I think the players do, too."
No question, BYU will be Houston's toughest test of the season to date, but coach Tony Levine said his Cougars "are prepared for whatever the game turns into a defensive battle or a high-scoring shootout.
"They have been team wins," Levine said. "Our defense is playing outstanding, creating a bunch of turnovers. Offensively, we are playing well, too. Through five games, we have only turned the ball over four times. And then we are playing good special teams."
If the game turns into a shootout, BYU believes it finally is equipped to put enough points on the board with its passing game after some early season struggles. Sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill has completed 65 percent of his passes in the last three games after completing just 33 percent in the first three.
All told, he's completing 47 percent (90 of 191) of his throws, and he should get over the 50 percent mark with his fourth straight strong performance. He said the offensive line's improvement has coincided with his jumps in accuracy.
"Our offensive line has progressively gotten better from week to week, and they are getting a lot of things thrown at them," Hill said. "So they are coming along really nicely, and I am pleased with those guys."
The offense almost is back to full strength, although starting center Terrance Alletto most likely won't play due to recurring stingers in his neck.
The defense also is healthy, and the only question is whether starting free safety Craig Bills is good to go after suffering a concussion in last week's 38-20 win over Georgia Tech on the first play from scrimmage. Hill said things are in place to continue the three-game winning streak, but stumbling at Houston could derail the turnaround.
"Looking at our schedule, we have a lot of really big games coming up," Hill said. "That is something we really didn't have to look forward to last year, and so we still have a lot of games left to be played. We can still get a lot of attention on the national level ... but we are not looking past Houston. No way."
BYU at Houston
O At Reliant Stadium, Houston
Kickoff • Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPNews (207 DirecTV, 142 DISH)
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 4-2, Houston 5-0
Series • First game
Last meeting • N/A
About the Houston Cougars • This is their homecoming game. ... They are 5-0 for the fifth time in program history, which spans 67 years. ... Their depth chart includes 23 underclassmen, including five true freshmen. ... Freshman QB Mike O'Korn will make his fourth career start, taking over when junior David Piland's career was cut short due to concussions.
About the BYU Cougars • Senior WR Cody Hoffman has caught a pass in 36 straight games and 42 of his last 43. He needs one catch to become BYU's all-time career receptions leader and two TD catches to become the school's all-time TD catches leader.