As fate would have it, the New Mexico State Aggies are in the news this week. Due to the collapse of the Western Athletic Conference, NMSU will be playing as an FBS Independent next year. Along with Idaho, they are the only WAC teams that didn’t have a “landing spot” for the 2013 season.
As for how this will affect them on the field, it probably won’t matter. MNSU was 4-9 last year, and 2-5 in the WAC. The Cougars beat them handily last year in Provo, 42-7. Despite a feeling by many that fourth-year coach DeWayne Walker has them headed in the right direction, they still haven’t really done anything to indicate that they are anything more than a tomato can in the FBS.
The Aggies return only five starters on offense and three on defense. If this was an elite program, we would probably think that this was a good thing, because their fourth-year head coach would finally have a team with his own upperclassmen. The sad reality for the Aggies, though, is that they just aren’t very good.
On the positive side of their ledger, they won’t suffer repeat losses to Nevada, Hawaii, or Georgia this year, because they are not on the schedule. They did replace Georgia with Auburn, though, which is a sure loss for them. Luckily for the Aggies, they replace the other two teams with first year FBS programs UT-San Antonio and Texas State.
With a little bit of luck, they could be 5-5 going into the game with the Cougars. If that happens, we fully expect them to be 5-6 when the game is over, leaving the Aggies one game against Texas State for a .500 record and bowl eligibility. We don’t expect them to actually be selected for a bowl at 6-6, though.
So, who do the Aggies have coming back? They pretty much lost everyone who meant anything to the team. They also lost both their defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator. If this was a professional team, we would compare it to an expansion team. There are just so many wild cards that it is impossible to predict who is going to be playing where by the time they face the Cougars.
Last year’s starting QB, Andrew Manley, returns, and was named the starter after spring practice. Two WR’s, Austin Franklin and Kemonte’ Bateman, return with a total of 66 receptions and 7 TD’s between them. Other than that, it’s a crapshoot. They lost most of their offensive line from last year, and lost their best running back. We don’t think they have enough backups, juco transfers, and recruits to replace their losses.
On defense, it’s more of the same. The Aggies lost their five top tacklers, and their two best returning players on that side of the ball are DT Walton Taumoepeau and LB Bryan Bonilla. They may be able to stop somebody, but since they allowed 42 points to the Cougars last year before losing their top five tacklers, we don’t think they will be able to stop the Cougars.
This game looks like a great way for the Cougars to end the season and start getting ready for a bowl game. Even if the Cougars try to keep the score down, we can’t see them scoring less than fifty points against the Aggies. We’re guessing this game should be somewhere around a 56-7 victory for the Cougars.
News and Notes
Coach Mendenhall has continued his policy of tightly controlling all information coming out of “Fort Mendenhall,” and won’t announce the depth chart until Monday of game week. The biggest development is that there have been no major injuries. Many players, including Ross Apo, Cody Hoffman, Brandon Ogletree, and Kyle Van Noy, have been held out of serious contact to ensure their health for the season.
It can be stated with certainty, though, that most of the battles for starting positions have been decided. At this point, the Cougars are concentrating on preparing for Washington State. This is problematic because head coach Mike Leach was out of the game the last two seasons. One can reasonably surmise that he will be running most of the same offense he ran at Texas Tech, but there will probably be a few added wrinkles.
If there are two things Leach has shown over the years, it’s that he is always searching for new plays and he isn’t afraid to run them. Leach has had two years as a commentator to study film and exchange ideas with numerous coaches. We would be quite surprised if he hadn’t added a thing or two to his bag of tricks.
To us, though, the important questions going into the game are classic football questions. First, can senior QB Riley Nelson make this a senior year to remember? The BYU archives are filled with stories of quarterbacks who have had great senior years. While Nelson won’t be mistaken for a prototypical, rocket-armed BYU quarterback, he is turning out to be one of the best leaders the program has ever had.
The main goal concerning Nelson is keeping him healthy. His lack of fear and his proclivity to tuck the ball and struggle for every extra yard when he doesn’t have an open receiver is his best friend for production, but can be his worst enemy for keeping him on the field. It is very important that Nelson stays healthy this year, at least for the first nine games. While the Cougars could win all of them with Nelson, they could lose five of them without him.
The other question is how the Cougars will respond to the relative lack of contact during camp. Football fans, players, and coaches alike, all cling to certain adages about the game that may or may not be true. One of the most cherished traditions among the macho culture of college football is to run a tough camp. The underlying idea is to make camp so tough that players don’t face anything in a game that they haven’t already faced in camp.
Coach Mendenhall wanted to start out with all of his players healthy and able to play, and went against one of football’s most sacred commandments to keep his team healthy. We’ll know on the 30th whether it worked out or not.
It was an interesting week in the WCC. The Cougars went 2-0, with victories over San Francisco and Santa Clara. Gonzaga went 1-1, beating Santa Clara but losing a stunner to San Francisco. St Mary’s had the greatest fall from grace of all, going 0-2 with near-blowout losses to LMU and Murray State.
So, where does this leave the Cougars? They are tied for second place in the conference with Gonzaga at 11-3, while St Mary’s still leads at 12-2. At this point, BYU, Gonzaga, and St Mary’s are all projected to get into the NCAA Tournament, but losses to lesser teams hurt both Gonzaga and St Mary’s in the rankings.
At this point, Jerry Palm at CBS has Gonzaga as a seven seed, St Mary’s as an eighth seed, and the Cougars as an 11-seed. The losses by Gonzaga and St Mary’s have left St Mary’s as the only team ranked in a major poll; they are 23rd in the coaches’ poll. Inexplicably, the Cougars are still shut out of all of the major polls.
We find it especially curious that the MWC currently has three teams in the coaches’ top 25. We feel that the WCC is as good as the MWC this year, and that a two and two distribution would be a better indication of the relative strength of the two conferences.
The worst factor here is that the Cougars went 2-0, and fell from 46th in the RPI last week to 50th this week. For comparison, Gonzaga is still at 21st, and St Mary’s fell to 40th. With the amount of small conference champions in the grid, 50th in the RPI is still squarely on the bubble. Apparently, RPI won’t be the only factor involved.
The way things are shaking down, the game at Gonzaga on Thursday, while not a “must-win,” is extremely important. The Cougars could knock the Zags out of top 25 consideration, and might even be able to take their place. If the Zags win, though, they will probably be back in the top 25.
We hope the selection committee does the right thing in regards to the Cougars, but winning the conference tournament is the only sure way to take it out of the committee’s hands and guarantee an NCAA Tournament berth.
So, how did the Cougars get their wins last week? The near-upset loss on the road against San Francisco was the Matt Carlino show. Carlino scored 30 points and had the game-winning basket with only 21 seconds left on the clock, as the Cougars pulled out an 85-84 victory.
Noah Hartsock added 16 points and Charles Abouo had 15 points. The Cougars shot 36-67 for 53.7 percent from the field, and 7-17 for 41.2 percent from the three point line. This was a lot better than they had been shooting, and they needed every single point.
On defense, the Cougars held USF to 33-70 for 47.1 percent from the field and 10-32 for 31.3 percent from the three point line. This game was a lot faster-paced than usual, with the Cougars scoring 49 points in the first half for their best first half of the year.
Carlino scored 22 of his points in the first half, including his first six shots, and 20 points in the first eight minutes. He also added 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals. Carlino’s 30 points were the most scored by a Cougar since Jimmer Fredette’s last game, when he scored 32 against Florida.
The inside game could have been a bit better, though, and it was what allowed USF to stay close and almost pull off the upset. The Dons outrebounded the Cougars 42-32. On the surface, it was just “one of those games” that the Cougars were lucky to win. Really, though, it just illustrates that the Cougars will do whatever it takes to win. Some days they win with defense and inside play, and Thursday night they won with timely outside shooting.
Either way, a win is a win, and is always welcome.
On Saturday, the Cougars returned to their more familiar game of slower tempo, tough defense, and good rebounding, as they ground down Santa Clara 82-67. Noah Hartsock had 21 points, Brandon Davies had 20 points, and Charles Abouo contributed 14 points along with a game-high 8 rebounds. Matt Carlino fought off an injury all night and only scored two points, down from his previous 30, but had a game-high seven assists. Brock Zylstra took up some of the slack with 12 points off the bench, including 2-3 from the three point line.
The Cougars shot 31-53 for 58.5 percent, with most of the shots coming from inside. They only went 3-12 for 25 percent from the three-point line. Doing the math, that works out to 28-41 for 68.3 percent inside the line. Rebounds were even on the night at 30 for each team. On defense, BYU held Santa Clara to 23-56 for 41.1 percent shooting, and 5-17 for 29.4 percent from the three point line.
This game was very closely contested for the first thirty minutes before the Cougars were finally able to pull away from the Broncos.
The only bad part of the Santa Clara game is that both Noah Hartsock and Matt Carlino limped away from the game. Carlino plans on being close to full strength on Thursday, while Hartsock is being listed as “day-to-day.” Our forecast: Hartsock would rather play on crutches than miss this game. If there is any way he is able, he will talk the coaching staff into letting him try to play.
If Hartsock can’t play, however, it will make the Gonzaga game a lot tougher to win. The only good thing to come of it would be that he can be fully rested and healed for the WCC Tournament next week.
Either way, we expect the game at Gonzaga to be closely-contested. The Cougars have had their number so far, beating them in last year’s NCAA Tournament and then beating them at home earlier this year. We’ll see what the Zags can do with home-court advantage. Win or lose at Gonzaga, a victory at home over Portland to end the regular season is a must.
The only thing that can be said for sure is that if the Cougars keep winning, they will have a spot in the NCAA Tournament in their first year AJ (After Jimmer). That would be a very nice accomplishment.
So, we all knew that Idaho, bless their souls, was a tomato can. Sadly, one of the realities of modern football is that even a tomato can can injure your starting quarterback if things suddenly go wrong. Consequently, at the beginning of the second drive, starter Riley Nelson was injured. He played until the end of the series with the injuries, but was taken out for the rest of the game after completing a 32-yard touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman for the first score of the game.
Enter Jake Heaps, who did a great job in relief of Nelson. Heaps was 15 out of 20 with two touchdowns and one interception for an average of 9.3 yards per attempt and 12.3 yards per completion for a stellar efficiency rating of 175.7, just a touch better than Nelson’s 171.49 rating. Heaps will now get to play the next two games, first against another tomato can in New Mexico State, and finally against Hawaii, which is the most Jekyll/Hyde team in the history of football.
I’m sure there will be a lot of people who clamor for the return of Heaps to the starting position. Once again, though, there will be no QB controversy. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has stated that the starting job is still Nelson’s, and that Nelson will play as soon as he is able. Heaps still has the best upside for the future, but Nelson is a bit more efficient right now.
There are many reasons that those in the Heaps camp can cite for awarding the starting job to Jake Heaps. Heaps throws the ball a lot better than Nelson, and has a higher upside. After losing his starting job, he didn’t whine, cry, or act like a diva. Instead, he worked hard to get better. He is now following through on his play fakes much, much better, and has made his throwing motion a bit more compact, giving him a slightly quicker release.
Also, while Heaps was playing against the tough teams at the beginning of the schedule, Nelson has gotten to play the weaker teams in the middle. Both have losses to good teams, and have cleaned up on the lesser teams. Ultimately, though, the two most important reasons will be in Nelson’s favor. First of all, the upperclassmen are more willing to follow Nelson than they are Heaps. You can call it leading by example or whatever you want, but the fact is that the team just plays better when Nelson is in there.
Secondly, during the season, it is against the “code” to let a player lose his starting job to an injury. Nelson’s performance has been very good, and Coach Mendenhall won’t take Nelson’s job away from him just because Heaps shows he can beat up a few lesser teams. Also, there is a reason why the team will do anything for Nelson: he is tough. He played the entire second series with two broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung, and drove the team in for a touchdown.
Basically, we have Riley Nelson’s toughess, maturity, running ability, and attention to detail against the arm, playmaking, and potential of Jake Heaps. There will be a time for Jake Heaps to shine. We thought it was this year, but it wasn’t to be. There is no sin in that, nor is there any reason for Jake Heaps to hang his head. He is young, and was beaten out by an older player. Besides, Heaps has two more games this season to make it a good one.
In an ideal situation, Heaps shouldn’t have had to be force fed the offense last year, anyway. Most quarterbacks in good programs get to watch for a couple of years and learn everything about the offense from a seat on the bench, applying it against other teams’ scrubs at the end of blowouts. In that ideal situation, Heaps would be learning and progressing right now, making him ready to contribute somewhere down the line.
Instead, Heaps has had to shoulder the responsibility of being THE man at a marquee program for quarterbacks at a younger age than he should have. And when he sits on the bench, it feels like it is because he failed instead of because that’s just the way things are done. Ultimately, the way events have gone this year will help Heaps grow at a faster rate than he would have, but at an emotional cost. For now, his responsibility is to get ready for the next game and do as well as he can. Then, he can get ready for the next game. That is really all he can do right now, and all he should have to do.
We expect Nelson to come back for the bowl game, and then the battle starts all over again next spring and summer. We don’t know which quarterback will win, but the team will win either way by having two quarterbacks with different strengths capable of starting.
The best-case scenario for the Cougars would be for Riley Nelson to have one great year as a senior and for Heaps to have one great year as a senior the following year. It might seem sorta unfair to Heaps to only have one “season in the sun,” but Brigham Young University isn’t about individual glory, and it never was.
There are 120 teams playing Division 1 or Football Bowl Subdivision football right now. They range from football factories to schools that know they can’t win and have football almost as an afterthought, or because they know how much it means to a school to be perceived as a “major college.” The Cougars are different from all of them.
At BYU, the coaches can’t just recruit anyone like a big football factory can. They can’t overlook “minor” transgressions because those students would be almost a lock to break the honor code sometime down the road. And they can’t overlook low GPA’s, SAT’s, and ACT’s, because those players probably won’t be able to hack actually having to go to their own classes and do their own school work.
At most colleges, players supposedly represent their school, but usually end up representing themselves more than their schools. At BYU, they not only represent the school, but the LDS, even if they aren’t yet members. They may represent themselves, but they can only do it by being sportsmen and citizens of whom the LDS and BYU can be proud.
Both Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson have represented BYU and the LDS in a way of which everyone can be proud. In other words, the program is in great hands, no matter who starts and who sits on the bench.