A well-rested Cougar football team that gave its fans plenty to talk about even during its bye week will end the long wait for more football Saturday at 7:15 p.m. when they return home to square off with the Idaho Vandals.
From the loss of senior linebacker Jordan Pendleton to a knee injury, to coach Bronco Mendenhall’s comments regarding discussions with the Big East conference and a possible redshirt season for quarterback Jake Heaps, the flames of fan speculation have certainly been fanned since BYU last played.
However, the Cougars’ main focus is on the game itself.
BYU will be playing its third of five total games against WAC opponents this year and are favored to defeat the Vandals, who have struggled to a 2-5 record.
Mendenhall said he was satisfied with the way his team handled the bye week and has been preparing for Idaho.
“We had a great chance to heal and a great chance to do some quality work,” Mendenhall said. “We did a lot of work in self-scouting, finding what has worked for us offensively, worked for us on special teams and what has worked defensively and really hone in on those things to finish the year with.”
Because the Cougars are finishing against a fairly soft lineup — remaining opponents have a combined record of 10-17 — team coaches have been asked whether the final stretch of the season might offer an opportunity to see backups play, particularly Heaps.
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman dismissed the idea that the Cougars have enough of an advantage over their opponents to switch starters for backups with impunity.
“We’ve got to prepare for a football game. If we were super studly, [Heaps could play more off the bench] but we’re not super studly right now,” Doman said. “We’ve played good this year, but not consistently. We haven’t played great. I’d like to see us go play great.”
Mendenhall indicated Heaps was “actually excited” about the prospect of redshirting next season to gain another year of eligibility as the likely starting quarterback.
“What is easy to forget is that he was a true freshman last year. … He is just young,” he said. “There were a lot of expectations because of the way he played in his freshman year. I think just time and continued maturity and age will help him.”
Mendenhall created a stir among BYU faithful earlier in the week with an uncharacteristically candid remark that BYU had been contacted by the Big East. However, while fans discuss the implications of a possible invite to a BCS conference, Mendenhall said the team cannot afford to dwell on anything but improving their play and figuring out the Vandals on Saturday.
“Any team we play is capable of beating us,” Mendenhall said. “I believe anywhere in Division I sports and on any given Saturday if you are not ready to play you can get beat. … We have three weeks left to do it in the regular season and I would like to see significant jumps.”
The focus of the Cougar defense will also be tested to finish the season. Pendleton, who provided senior leadership to a talented core of linebackers, hurt his knee against TCU and has played his last game at BYU.
“I just found out a couple of days ago,” senior linebacker Jadon Wagner said. “Coach texted me and it’s just sad. … I feel bad for him personally and for the team.”
But Wagner, who is also Pendleton’s roommate, also said depth at the linebacker position will help the defense make up for the loss.
“We have the players to step up and do the job,” he said. “Last year [when Pendleton was injured] the defense continued to play well. There are guys that will step up.”