The BYU Cougars enter Saturday’s contest against the Idaho State Bengals playing, by most measures, as well as they have all football season.
The Cougar offense has poured in season highs in points for four consecutive games. The defense is causing multiple turnovers and consistently stopping the run. To top it off, punter Riley Stephenson has been nearly out of work the last two games.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall, however, knows his team has a long way to go and requires extensive polishing before the Cougars can claim they have “arrived.”
“Our improvement is showing not only to our players but to our coaches,” Mendenhall said. “[But] there is a sense of urgency to see how fast we can help this team reach its potential with five regular season games to go. That is our focus and our mindset.”
Perhaps the biggest improvement the team has made since its 1-2 start is the running game. Just a month removed from being held to a season low 11 yards rushing against Utah, the Cougars piled up nearly 300 yards on the ground against Oregon State.
The feature running back the last two weeks has been sophomore Michael Alisa, who is a pleasant surprise for the Cougars after getting only three total carries in the first five contests.
Mendenhall said there are similar elements in Alisa’s running game to that of Harvey Unga, who played at BYU 2007-09. Unga is the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“[Alisa] is a little bit leaner and probably has a little more top end speed right now,” Mendenhall said. “[We like] the mindset and how difficult he is becoming to tackle and being able to break tackles and fall forward.”
Since junior quarterback Riley Nelson was named the starter in relief of sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps, the Cougars have punted just once and scored 10 touchdowns.
“[Nelson] brings leadership that makes everyone want to play harder because everybody knows he is going to sell out for every play for them and so everybody wants to do the same to keep the momentum rolling,” sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman said.
Nelson has added 214 yards on the ground during that period of two and a half games, to bolster the rushing attack.
“I think above anything else when [Nelson] has the ball there is always a chance that even when things don’t go right he can make something happen with his feet,”offensive lineman Matt Reynolds said. “It changes the way you feel about it and it has been a great experience to have him back there.”
The Cougars look for an opportunity to roll up another season high at LaVell Edwards Stadium this Saturday at 1 p.m. when they face struggling FCS opponent Idaho State.