This is Part 2 of my “First Look” series, in which I take a quick peek at each of the Air Force football team’s 2010 opponents. We’re going in order, one per week. Last week we checked out Division I-AA Northwestern State, the Falcons’ victim – er – opponent in its opener.
Things get pretty serious in week two with a visit from the BYU Cougars.
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (Sixth year)
2009 Record: 11-2 (7-1, second place in the MWC)
2009 vs. AF: BYU won, 38-21.
2009 in a Sentence: It was a season of spectacular highs – a 14-13 upset victory over then-No. 3 Oklahoma in the season opener, an overtime victory over arch rival Utah and a bowl win over Oregon State – with two big-time stumbles – a 54-28 loss to Florida State and a 38-7 blowout loss to league champ TCU, both of which came at home..
Off/Def Starters Back: 7/4
Roster Report: The big question at BYU is who will replace graduated three-year starter Max Hall, who won the most games of any quarterback in program history.
The Cougars wrapped up spring practices last Saturday without a definitive answer, as three players performed well – junior Riley Nelson, sophomore James Lark and highly touted incoming freshman Jake Heaps.
“I like them all,” Mendenhall told The Salt Lake Tribune. According to the paper, Mendenhall said Heaps is a “natural, poised pocket passer,” that Nelson “gives you the element of mobility and grit and leadership” and that Lark “is just a hair behind” because he returned in December from a mission.
The most intriguing option seems to be Heaps, who was widely regarded as the country’s top high school quarterback prospect and enrolled at BYU for the spring semester after graduating early from Skyline High in Sammamish, Wash. Heaps led Skyline to a 40-2 record and three straight state titles. And, according to an article in The Seattle Times, he already is extremely popular with BYU fans.
“He’s like a rock star around here,” BYU quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman told the paper. “And he hasn’t even sung a song yet.”
Mendenhall told reporters Heaps is “one of the brightest prospects at quarterback that I have seen.”
And that’s saying a lot, considering the quarterbacks that have played at BYU.
In addition to Hall, the Cougars must replace a pair of standout tight ends – all-American Denis Pitta and Andrew George, who were the all-MWC first- and second-team tight ends, respectively, in 2009.
The good news for BYU is standout back Harvey Unga – already the program’s all-time leading rusher – decided to return instead of going pro. And the offensive line should, as usual, be experienced, big and solid. If it’s healthy (it was riddled with injuries in the spring).
Defensively, the Cougars will be inexperienced up front with the graduation of starting linemen Jan Jorgensen and Brett Denney (and linemen Russell Tialavea on a church mission). They’ll also have to replace three of four starting linebackers.
Fast Fact: BYU has owned Air Force historically, winning 24 of the teams’ 30 all-time meetings. Since Air Force won two straight games in the teams’ series in 2002 and 2003, BYU has won six straight, and all have been by at least two touchdowns.
2004: BYU 41, Air Force 24
2005: BYU 62, Air Force 41
2006: BYU 33, Air Force 14
2007: BYU 31, Air Force 6
2008: BYU 38, Air Force 24
2009: BYU 38, Air Force 21
What Caught My Eye: BYU’s record under Mendenhall – 49-15. During the last four years under the coach, the Cougars are 43-9 (only Boise State, Florida, Texas and Ohio State had better records in that span), have won three bowl games and have finished in the Associated Press Top 25 four times. The Cougars had suffered through three straight losing seasons prior to Mendenhall’s arrival.
Jake’s Way Too Early Line vs. Air Force: BYU minus-4.5. The Cougars have had Air Force’s number of late, but the Falcons catch them early and at home.
Final Thought: This year’s game seems to set up pretty well for Air Force.
The Cougars traditionally have struggled early under Mendenhall – his first three teams (2005, 2006 and 2007) all started 1-2, and last season’s team started 2-1 (the 2008 squad was 3-0). And BYU will have a quarterback starting just his second career game (or first, if there’s a change from the opener) and facing an Air Force secondary that should be among the MWC’s very best. And Air Force will be at home.
Plus, the Cougars open up with Washington of the Pac-10 the week before they play the Falcons, and they and play at Florida State the week after. And while Mendenhall will make sure his team doesn’t look past Air Force to a potential revenge game in Tallahassee, those are three challenging games right out of the chute, which should work in the Falcons’ favor.