BYU football: Mistake-prone Cougars put away Panthers
PROVO - With all due respect to the gritty but outmanned farmboys from Northern Iowa who rode into LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday for a season opener against 16th-ranked BYU, the outcome felt a little bit like eating corn on the cob for the Cougars:
Satisfying, but with that nagging feeling that there's something still stuck in your teeth.
Sure, the 41-17 victory over a power from a lower college football division they were favored to beat by three touchdowns will look OK to those pollsters today when they fill out their ballots. But the Cougars and the sellout crowd of 64,108 went away knowing it was not nearly that easy.
And they slept with the knowledge that the mistakes they made against the Panthers - including four second-half turnovers - were easily swept away on this day but might prove costly to their BCS dreams against a more formidable opponent, like the Pac-10's Washington, whom the Cougars travel to play next Saturday.
The quest for perfection started with quite a few flaws, leaving coach Bronco Mendenhall, well, pleased in his own unique way.
"We made enough plays to win, and I think we showed signs of being the kind of team we are capable of being," he said. "We also saw enough mistakes and things to improve on that we can certainly leverage and improve next week and for the rest of the year."
Mendenhall said he likes teaching moments almost as much as he likes winning games, and the error-filled frolic that was opened when former coach LaVell Edwards himself sauntered onto the field with the big Y flag Saturday had him already plotting his Monday morning speech to his team.
"As this team moves forward, they might listen more closely to their coaches, rather than the outside," Mendenhall said, reminding those in his postgame press conference that he predicted Northern Iowa would give the Cougars all they wanted. "It's a great thing when a coach prepares a team, and then his word is substantiated."
In the first half, Mendenhall could find nothing to complain about, except perhaps a blocked extra point and a 69-yard run by Northern Iowa quarterback Pat Grace that set up the Panthers' only points of the first 30 minutes - a 33-yard field goal.
The Cougars scored touchdowns on four of their six possessions and went into halftime with a 27-3 lead. Few believed the second half would be any different, especially when the Cougars took the third-quarter kickoff and marched to the UNI 21.
But with fullback Fui Vakapuna sitting out because he didn't practice last week, backup running back Wayne Latu fumbled the ball away on first-and-10, and the game went from laugher to competitive in a matter of moments.
The Panthers executed a trick play for a 76-yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to 27-10. Midway through the third quarter, they struck again. Max Hall was hit in the end zone and lost the ball, and Panther Mark Huygens pounced on it for a quick TD.
Suddenly, it was 27-17, and the crowd was getting uneasy. It got worse a few minutes later when J.J Di Luigi fumbled on the UNI 30.
The Panthers even drove into BYU territory after that, but were stopped on fourth-and-3 from the 30 when a successful field goal would have cut BYU's lead to seven.
"I wouldn't say there was panic," said tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught 11 passes for 213 yards, both career highs. "We knew we could move the ball on them. We had been doing it all game. We just can't afford that many fumbles, especially in one quarter. I don't think that we panicked at all."
Hall had his second-best passing day as a Cougar, completing 34 of 41 passes for 486 yards and two TDs. He was rocked twice, though, saying one particular hit caused him to get "woozy," and he was feeling nauseous enough after the game to cause BYU officials to cut short his interviews.
"Everyone is happy to start out 1-0, but we realize the game shouldn't have looked quite like that," linebacker Matt Bauman said.
Date Opponent Comp-Att Yards TDs
Sept. 15, 2007 Tulsa 34-57 537 4
Nov. 3, 2007 Colorado State 22-31 355 3
Nov. 8, 2007 TCU 26-44 305 1
Nov. 16, 2007 Wyoming 26-37 331 3
Aug. 30, 2008 Northern Iowa 34-41 486 2
See more images from BYU's win over Northern Iowa at sltrib.com
BYU offensive lineman David Oswald, left, stares down Northern Iowa cornerback Darrell Lloyd after a play Saturday.