Reflecting On Bronco's First Big Victory

This weekend's game at New Mexico marks the first time that BYU will have played there since a fateful meeting with the Lobos in 2005. That game was Bronco Mendenhall's first big victory, and a game that paved the way for a return to glory.

The New Mexico Lobos have an odd habit of playing BYU in some of the Cougars' most significant games. LaVell Edward's 200th victory came against the Lobos. In addition, his final home game as head coach of BYU came against the Lobos, and that also happened to be the very first game played in LaVell Edwards Stadium after it was named in the legendary coach's honor. Then there was last year's game, which clinched an outright Mountain West Conference title for the Cougars, their first since 2001.

But with the Cougars set to visit Albuquerque this weekend, many are reflecting back to the last time BYU played there, and the significance of that contest.

Going into the 2005 New Mexico game, BYU was 1-3, with the only victory coming against I-AA Eastern Illinois. The Bronco Mendenhall era was off to a rough start, and it looked as though BYU would have its fourth-straight losing season. That seemed especially inevitable when New Mexico led BYU 24-13 in the fourth quarter and was driving down the field and threatening to score again and put the game away.

That's when BYU's season, if not its entire program, turned around. The Cougars forced and recovered a fumble to keep the game in reach. Then, current and former Cougars John Beck, Curtis Brown, Jonny Harline, Matt Allen, Todd Watkins and Manase Tonga - among others - came up with crucial plays, leading to two touchdown drives. The defense held New Mexico on fourth down late in the game, and BYU ran out the clock.

That improbable come-from-behind victory, accomplished by a team that was often maligned for not winning the close games, was Coach Mendenhall's first Division I victory, and created momentum for the program. Including the New Mexico victory, the Cougars would win five-straight conference games and finished second in the conference. In addition, BYU went to a bowl game for the first time since 2001.

While that was a memorable victory for BYU fans, Coach Mendenhall said he hasn't dwelled upon it, but does recognize the significance of that game.

"I haven't drawn on that [game to motivate the team]," said Coach Mendenhall. "It just seems like that's a long, long time ago and a completely different team. But it is a relevant point in terms of playing on the road and what it takes sometimes to win a game, and I have used it in terms of reference - not this week, but in the past - of what it's like to play in this league on the road."

Indeed, the Cougars will need to be ready to play on the road this week. They are 0-2 on the road so far this season, and Coach Mendenhall said he expects Saturday's game to be a battle.

"We know that [the Lobos are] competitive, they're tough, they're hard-nosed, and it seems like, with the exception of last year, the games have been very close - for I think the previous three or four years prior to that or maybe five years - and so it's a team that won't quit. They have a lot of heart and they're tough and well coached."

Perhaps Saturday's game against New Mexico will be a significant one, just like all the others listed. If nothing else, it might end up being a key victory that helps BYU win a second-straight conference championship - the Cougars haven't won back-to-back championships since 1995-96, and haven't won consecutive outright conference championships since 1990-91.

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