BYU senior Andrew Rich and true freshman Jake Heaps both played big roles in BYU's success in 2010. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Winning five of its final six games, BYU capped the 2010 season with a dominating 52-24 New Mexico Bowl victory over UTEP to finish the year 7-6 overall and become one of only 11 programs in the nation to win four bowl games over the past five seasons.
The Cougars came into their 29th bowl appearance and first-ever New Mexico Bowl after tying for third place in the Mountain West Conference with a 5-3 league record. Coming back from a 1-4 start to the season, BYU earned its sixth straight bowl invitation and became the first Cougar teams to win four bowls in a five-year span since LaVell Edwards-led teams do so from 1980-84. A mainstay in the college football postseason, only Michigan, Nebraska, Florida State, Ohio State, Tennessee and Georgia have gone to more bowl games than BYU in the last 33 years.
BYU’s bowl victory highlighted the progress and momentum the relatively young team gained over the course of the season as several freshmen played big roles in the season-ending victory.
True freshman quarterback Jake Heaps became the first frosh signal caller in BYU history to start in a bowl and completed 25-of-34 passes for 264 yards and four touchdowns to be named New Mexico Bowl Offensive MVP. During the game, Heaps broke Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer's BYU record for freshman touchdown throws, finishing with 15 on the year to Detmer's 13. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Cody Hoffman caught three touchdowns on eight receptions for 137 yards in the bowl win, while true freshman running back Joshua Quezada ran for 101 yards on 15 carries and one touchdown.
BYU set or tied 42 BYU or New Mexico Bowl records in the victory. The Cougars established 31 New Mexico Bowl records during the game and set 11 BYU bowl high marks, including most points (52) and most rushing yards (219).
Heaps started the final 10 games of the season and set BYU freshman quarterback records for wins (6), touchdowns (15), passing yards (2,316), pass attempts (383), completions (219), games played (13) and games started (10). Nineteen freshmen saw the field for the Cougars in 2010, including seven earning starts. In all, 23 players without prior starting experience started at least one game for BYU during the year, including 13 on defense where several starters suffered season-ending injuries.
The biggest news surrounding the Cougars entering the season opener against Washington was the team’s two-quarterback rotation. BYU defeated the eventual 2010 Holiday Bowl winner as both junior Riley Nelson and Heaps finished with exactly 131 yards passing in a 23-17 win.
With its win against Washington, BYU defeated a team from a BCS automatic-qualifying conference for the fifth-straight year, the third-longest streak in the nation. The Cougars have defeated at least one AQ school 14 of the past 15 years dating back to 1996. BYU received a Top 25 ranking during the season for the fifth-straight season with a No. 24 coaches poll rating after week one.
The Huskies, however, were just the first of what would become a tough stretch of games for the Cougars, including competition against some of the best quarterbacks in the country. Five of their next six opponents would go on to qualify for and win a bowl game and finish in the top three of their respective conferences. Working through the quarterback rotation and some injuries, BYU lost four of those games, including road contests at Air Force (Independence Bowl winner over Georgia Tech), then No. 23 Florida State (Chick-fil-A Bowl winner over South Carolina) and then No. 3 TCU (Rose Bowl winner over Wisconsin) along with a home contest against No. 13 Nevada (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl winner over Boston College).
The Cougars played one of the nation’s toughest early schedules in 2010 and faced eight teams overall that qualified for a bowl game. Six bowl-qualifying opponents—all but Utah and UTEP—won their bowl matchups and four teams—No. 2 TCU, No. 11/13 Nevada, No. 17/16 Florida State and No. 23 Utah—finished with a final Top 25 ranking.
Junior running back JJ Di Luigi and senior safety Andrew Rich each led BYU on their respective sides of the ball early on, with Di Luigi’s rushing and all-purpose yardage and Rich’s tackle and solo tackle totals ranking near the top nationally.
After Nelson underwent season-ending shoulder surgery following his injury in the Florida State game, Heaps was handed the full-time reins of the offense. Hampered by injuries, particularly on defense, the Cougars lost their next two games. Three regular starters suffered season-ending injuries while four others missed multiple games.
After starting 1-4, BYU broke through at home against San Diego State (Poinsettia Bowl winners over Navy), earning a 24-21 homecoming win. The Cougars racked up 271 rushing yards while holding the ball for a record 45 minutes of possession time. The defense held the MWC’s leading rusher, Freshman All-American Ronnie Hillman, to just 53 yards on the ground.
BYU would win five of its next six, including a four-game win streak, due in part to head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s decision to become the defensive coordinator following the loss at Utah State.
The Cougars came on strong after Mendenhall took over the defense for the final eight games. After ranking 101st nationally in total defense following the 1-4 start, the Cougars showed significant improvement under Mendenhall’s leadership to earn the nation’s No. 24 overall defense at year’s end, ranking only behind No. 1 TCU in the MWC. The defense’s statistics continued to shoot up after each game—rushing defense went from last in the nation at 259.2 per game through BYU’s first five games to 71.5 yards per game over the next six. Over the same time, total defense went from 433.4 ypg to 267.5 ypg and scoring defense drastically improved from 28.8 ppg to 11.3 ppg.
BYU’s improvement in stopping the run perhaps most profoundly illustrated the team’s overall progress on defense. After ranking last in the NCAA in run defense after five games, the Cougars became one of the nation’s best run-stoppers over the final eight games. Their ability to stop the run was made evident at the outset of games as the BYU defense set the tone for the contest. In the final eight games the defense held its opponents to first-quarter rushing totals of minus-10 (SDSU), 20 (TCU), minus-31 (Wyoming), zero (UNLV), 8 (Colorado St.), 30 yards (New Mexico), 8 yards (Utah) and minus-26 yards (UTEP), respectively. All totaled, that’s minus-1 yards rushing for BYU opponents in the last eight games during the opening quarter.
The defense also proved successful at limiting points. After holding New Mexico to seven points, BYU held three-straight opponents to 10 points or less, the longest such streak since 1984. The Cougars held Colorado State to 10 points and UNLV to seven points the previous two games, matching the streak 17 years ago. BYU would go on to be ranked 24th in pass defense (192.2), 32nd in scoring defense (21.6 points allowed) and 45th in run defense (138.6) at year’s end after rankings of 28th, 87th and 120th, respectively, through five games.
Offensively, several games were breakout-scoring games. After leading UNLV 38-0 at halftime, the Cougars took a 35-0 lead into the half at Colorado State. It marked the first time BYU has scored at least five touchdowns in the first half in back-to-back games since the Cougars scored seven touchdowns against Tulane and five touchdowns against Nevada in the first two games of the 2001 season.
BYU bumped up its 15.2 ppg average to 32.6 ppg after wins over SDSU (24-21), Wyoming (25-20), UNLV (55-7), Colorado State (49-10) and New Mexico (40-7). Highlights included senior wide receiver Luke Ashworth’s four first-half touchdown receptions at CSU, setting BYU and MWC records for most touchdown receptions in a half, and Quezada’s three touchdown runs versus UNLV.
Going independent in 2011, BYU finished its 12-year tenure in the MWC with 64 conference wins—the most of any MWC school. The Cougars nearly earned a second-place finish in the league in 2010 after controlling nearly the entire game at Utah in the regular-season finale before suffering a one-point defeat. After Utah came back to take its only lead in the closing minutes, Heaps drove BYU into scoring position but Utah blocked the Cougar field-goal attempt to secure the 17-16 win.
BYU finished the season ranked 42nd in rushing offense at 168.1 yards per game while achieving seven 200-yard rushing game on the year—the most 200-yard rushing games in a season since 2001.
After the slow start to the season on offense, ranking 114th in scoring at 15.2 points per game through five games, the Cougar offense put up an average of 33 points per contest while going 6-2 over the remainder of the season. In so doing, the offense teamed well with the defense in getting out to strong starts. BYU scored at least 14 points in the first quarter in four-straight games to become the first-ever Cougar teams to do so in program history. BYU scored 14 in the first quarter seven times during the season overall, equaling the 1977 Cougars for the most ever in a season. BYU outscored its opponents 121-47 in the first quarter on the year.
Individually, senior safety and team captain Andrew Rich led the team in tackles (110), interceptions (5), pass breakups (8), forced fumbles (3) and tied for the team lead in fumbles recovered (1). He led the MWC and ranked No. 22 nationally in interceptions. Only one player in the MWC had more than Rich’s 110 tackles, which tied for the third-most by a BYU player in the last 20 years (Rob Morris 155 in 1998 and 110 in 1997, Aaron Francisco 116 in 2003). Senior defensive end Vic So’oto led BYU with five sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries. He ranked No. 6 in the MWC in sacks and No. 4 in tackles for loss.
Junior offensive lineman and captain Matt Reynolds joined Rich and So’oto on the All-MWC First Team. An Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award candidate, Reynolds surrendered only one sack all season from his left tackle position. Di Luigi was selected to the All-MWC Second Team while seven additional Cougars received all-conference honorable mention (WR Luke Ashworth, OL Terence Brown, OL Braden Hansen, OL Jason Speredon, LB Shane Hunter, CB Brian Logan, K Mitch Payne).
Di Luigi led the team in rushing (917) and all-purpose (1,422) yards to rank No. 4 in the MWC in both categories. His 45 receptions also led the team while contributing 443 receiving yards. Freshman wideout Cody Hoffman led BYU with 527 receiving yards and added a team-best 380 kick return yards.
Kicker Mitch Payne scored nine points on seven PATs and one field goal in the New Mexico Bowl to finish his career as BYU’s all-time career scoring leader with 334 points, breaking the record previously held by Owen Pochman of 333 career points.
In addition, Payne and junior running back Bryan Kariya earned a place on the ESPN Academic All-District VIII First Team for their efforts in the classroom while Kariya went on to be named to the ESPN Academic All-America Second Team. A Chinese major with a 3.87 GPA, Kariya was the only running back from an FBS school to be named an Academic All-American. He was the sixth Cougar to earn Academic All-America accolades in the past three seasons. Only Penn State has had more honorees than BYU over that span.
The success and momentum gained in 2010 should help the Cougars as they embark on football independence in 2011 with most of the team returning.