East Hartford, Conn. • The situations are strikingly similar, almost as if Friday’s season opener was purposefully set up for the BYU Cougars to get some redemption after last year’s debacle threw a damper on the season from which they never quite recovered.
After losing 19-16 at Virginia in 2013, the Cougars are back on the East Coast, some 2,000 miles away from home, and will take on upset-minded Connecticut at 5 p.m. MDT at Rentschler Field. ESPN will televise the first-ever meeting between the schools, a meeting that was set up in March 2013, five months or so before the Cougars laid an egg in Charlottesville.
The Cougars are 161/2-point favorites, a surprisingly high number considering they rarely fire out of the gates offensively in the Bronco Mendenhall era. Against opponents from the Football Bowl Subdivision, BYU has averaged just 16.6 points per game in the coach’s season-openers.
Mendenhall has expressed confidence in his 2014 team, and believes the Cougars learned some valuable lessons in last year’s rain-soaked loss in Atlantic Coast Conference country, but admits that nobody really knows how BYU is going to fare in enemy territory.
“I feel good about where we are, but gosh, you just gotta play,” he said. “And once we play, I will know more. You will all know more once we play. So, I am not sure what else I can tell you up to this point.”
All camp, Mendenhall wasn’t telling which BYU starters will be suspended in the opener for breaking team rules in the offseason, but it appears the number will be around a half-dozen. Running back Jamaal Williams, receiver Devon Blackmon and nose tackle Marques Johnson announced their own suspensions (or a teammate did, in Johnson’s case), while the cornerbacks listed on the depth chart as starters that Mendenhall released Monday — Jordan Johnson and Robertson Daniel — were not on the charter flight that left Provo on Wednesday.
Not the best way to start a season for a team that is 6-3 under Mendenhalll in openers — last year’s loss snapped a six-game winning streak in first games — but just 3-6 in its first road or neutral-site games of a season since he took over in 2005.
“To me, any loss has more value than a win,” Mendenhall said. “The lessons, man, they hurt, and they are applied usually faster. Always difficult to tell exactly where you are going into the opener. I was shocked that we didn’t score more points last year in our opener based on how our offense had moved it against our defense. I think I am more cautious than anything and maybe less accepting of exactly what I see and trying to predict what will that really look like. But the opener, there is always uncertainty. I think that is the takeaway. There is uncertainty in the opener. I didn’t think there was a year ago, and there ended up being a lot.”
Generally, BYU has been good in August, with an 8-3 record in summer-month encounters.
Connecticut went 3-9 last year, but won its last three games under interim coach T.J. Weist, who took over after Paul Pasqualoni was fired after an 0-4 start. New coach Bob Diaco shut down BYU’s offense as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013 games, holding the Cougars to 27 combined points.
BYU coaches aren’t sure what to expect from the Huskies and their new coaching staff, and offensive coordinator Robert Anae suggested “the first quarter will be an exploratory deal” as he adjusts to UConn’s defensive schemes.
“I have seen their personnel and they are certainly capable,” Mendenhall said. “What the team will look like, the focus has to go more back to us, because we can control that. Not sure what we will see from them, or in the game.”
BYU at UConn
O At Rentschler Field, East Hartford, Conn.
Kickoff • 5 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN. Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 0-0, UConn 0-0
Series history • First meeting
About the Cougars • They are a combined 16-2 against teams in the American Athletic Conference. They will also play the AAC’s Houston and Central Florida this season. … Coach Bronco Mendenhall is 82-34 heading into his 10th season. They are 12th in total wins in the country during Mendenhall’s tenure. … QB Taysom Hill rushed for 1,344 yards and passed for 2,938 yards while totaling 290 touchdowns.
About the Huskies • They went 3-9 last season, but won their last three games. … They averaged 20.6 points per game in 2013, while giving up 30.2 ppg. … Sophomore QB Casey Cochran played in eight games last season and started in four, including all three wins. He completed 111 of 175 passes for 1,293 yards and 11 touchdowns.
BYU openers under Mendenhall
Aug. 31, 2013 • Virginia 19, BYU 16
Aug. 30, 2012 • BYU 30, Washington State 6
Sept. 3, 2011 • BYU 14, Mississippi 13
Sept. 4, 2010 • BYU 23, Washington 17
Sept. 5, 2009 • BYU 14, Oklahoma 13
Aug. 30, 2008 • BYU 41, Northern Iowa 17
Sept. 1, 2007 • BYU 20, Arizona 7
Sept. 2, 2006 • Arizona 16, BYU 13
Sept. 3, 2005 • Boston College 20, BYU 3