Monson: For BYU, season is on the line in Logan
Blowing straight past the turn-offs to Winner's Alley and Victory Lane, Bronco Mendenhall this week has continued steering down a street that is a difficult one to cover for a proud football program accustomed to winning.
It's a street known as: the Road to Improvement.
And it's a metaphorical boulevard usually driven and dominated by losers.
No matter how hard he is pressed, Mendenhall has chosen, at least publicly, not to classify any game this season as a must-win. Not even against Utah State, a team, with all due respect to Gary Andersen and his Aggies, to which BYU does not lose.
Asked beforehand about the chances of beating Nevada last week, Bronco said, in so many words, that he did not see that game as any more critical than any other. He said, instead, the Cougars' challenge ahead included "a season's worth of work."
And he said the same thing this week before Utah State:
"It's certainly, in my mind, not a make-or-break game, nor are any games this season. It's the next chance to improve. It's the next chance to measure. It's the next chance to develop. Certainly, a win is what we're shooting for, that's what we'll prepare for. But I've said all along that this step is going to be a longer process than many would like it to be. But I think the direction is the right direction."
Somewhere Vince Lombardi, whether he was misquoted or not on that winning-is-the-only-thing thing, is reaching for a stomach-distress bag. Herm Edwards is scratching his bean. You play to win the game, right?
Or do you play to head in the right direction, give everyone a ribbon for trying real hard, and pass out the Otter Pops?
Let's say it the way it is here: If BYU loses Friday night to Utah State, and falls to 1-4, and then has to face a San Diego State team that just beat USU, 41-7, and, thereafter, TCU on the road? The Cougars are staring six straight losses in the teeth.
They have to beat the Aggies.
If they don't, the only exit left is the highway to hell.
They should be that desperate. And, the funny part is, Utah State couldn't care less about poor, poor, pitiful BYU. The Ags have their own troubles, but nothing that can't be solved by a win right now over a team it hasn't beaten for the better part of two decades. This game matters to them, big time, as it should. They say it, straight up.
How much does it matter from the other direction?
For the pure psyche of the team, this may be one of the most significant games in Mendenhall's time at BYU. Not because the top end this season is so vast, but because the bottom is so deep.
Not even a post-TCU run that includes some of the worst teams in college football, including UNLV and New Mexico, will save the Cougars' self-respect, regardless of whether it's just a set-up for subsequent seasons.
And Mendenhall, of course, knows this. After his team started 1-3 his first year as head coach at BYU, the Cougars came back to barely win their next game, and the coach said that single outcome altered the course of the season, even though they still ended up at just 6-6. It beats 3-9.
There are a couple of ways, then, to view and interpret what's going on with Mendenhall now soft-shoeing every bump ahead. He has a young team with a bunch of sophomores and freshmen he's trying to nurse along. Killing them every day might not be the best track. Putting more pressure on them might cause more imprecision, and, as everybody knows, that's been a nasty county two-lane head-on, especially on offense, where third-down conversions are vapor and touchdowns from the red zone are piles of crunched sheet metal.
Still, one of the hallmarks of Mendenhall's coaching, at least at a bygone juncture, was holding players accountable, holding them to certain expectations, week in, week out. They are, after all, scholarship athletes playing Division I football.
Remember when Mendenhall had his players sprawl themselves out on the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium, listening to piped-in highlights of championship seasons past? Honor? Spirit? Tradition? Winning? Zillions? Of? Games?
Circumstances change a bit. Winning might not be the only virtue here, nothing wrong with progress, but relegating games to mere experiments where increased good effort becomes the measure of success is, at this level, running away from a coach's sanction.
BYU's season, mediocre though it may be, is on the line here. The road to 6-6, after all, beats the back street to 3-9.
But somebody behind the wheel has to steer the car.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 The Zone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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