BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall guns for his 10th win of the 2011 campaign, as he and the Cougars challenge the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas, Texas.
Mendenhall and the Cougars operated as an Independent this season after spending many years as a member of the Mountain West Conference, and should Mendenhall pick up his 10th victory of the season he would become just the third active head coach (Bob Stoops and Mark Richt) to have recorded at least five years of at least 10 victories during his first seven seasons as a head coach.
In the early going this season, it didn't appear as though the Cougars would be heading in the right direction, losing back-to-back games against Texas and Utah in the middle of September. However, the squad rattled off five straight wins and victories in eight of the last nine contests overall in order to finish 9-3. The lone loss during that stretch was to TCU (38-28).
As for the Golden Hurricane, they are under the direction of first-year head coach Bill Blankenship, who guided his squad to an 8-4 overall mark and an impressive 7-1 ledger versus the rest of Conference USA. Like the Cougars, Tulsa began the year a bit shaky as well with three setbacks in the first four games, although that's understandable given that those three defeats came at the hands of nationally-ranked programs in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State.
But after that, Tulsa nearly ran the table by generating a winning streak of seven straight and nearly ran the table before Houston got in the way and dropped a 48-16 final to keep the Golden Hurricane out of the Conference USA title tilt.
In terms of a bowl history for Tulsa, this is the 18th game for the squad and a win would push the group to an even 9-9. The first school to play in five straight New Year's Day Bowl games, Tulsa took part in the Hawaii Bowl last season and posted a 62-35 win in the process against hometown favorite and 24th-ranked Hawaii.
The Cougars, playing an Oklahoma-based program in the postseason for the fourth time, have just 11 bowl wins in 29 opportunities. Four of those victories have come in the last five appearances for the team, BYU picking up a 52-24 win over UTEP in the 2010 New Mexico Bowl.
In terms of the all-time series between these two teams, the Cougars have won all but one of the previous seven matchups. Tulsa's sole victory came in the most recent battle back in 2007, a wild 55-47 final in Provo. In the last seven matchups the teams have combined to average a whopping 73.3 ppg.
The offense sputtered quite a bit early on this season for the Cougars as they failed to score more than 16 points in any one of their first three outings, but the team picked up the pace later on and eventually finished 41st in the country with an average of 30.6 ppg. Part of the problem was that the Cougars were trying to find a comfort zone with a quarterback and eventually it happened when Riley Nelson took over in the middle of the season for Jake Heaps.
Nelson appeared in 11 of 12 games for BYU and wound up throwing for 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions, which was a vast improvement over Heaps who tallied just nine scoring passes and was picked off eight times. With the team opting for Nelson, Heaps announced early this month that he planned to transfer to Kansas.
"Jake has decided to leave the program in pursuit of a fresh start for he and his young family," Mendenhall said. "Jake is a great young man with tremendous potential and someone I deeply care about. I am sorry to see him leave this wonderful institution yet anxious to follow his future development and success."
With Nelson now in control of the offense, receivers like Cody Hoffman (53 catches, 821 yards, seven TDs) and Ross Apo (34 receptions, 453 yards, nine TDs) might even get better.
On the ground the Cougars rely on JJ DiLuigi to move the ball as he gained a team-best 546 yards and scored three TDs for the group, while Bryan Kariya finished with just 271 yards but ended up in the end zone a team-best six times. Nelson actually ranked third on the team in rushing with 376 yards as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, the BYU is led by Kyle Van Noy who recorded 10 tackles for loss, five sacks, three interceptions and a blocked kick as he also placed second on the team in total tackles with 58.
The Tulsa defense has a similar type of disruptive presence in Tyrunn Walker who led the program with 12.5 TFL and eight sacks, not to mention a couple of blocked kicks of his own. Cory Dorris was actually slightly better than Walker when it came to blocking kicks, recording three such plays this year. Helping defend the pass down the field, Dexter McCoil and Milton Howell both tallied four INTs for the program, Tulsa recording 16 picks as a whole. However, the team finished second-to-last in C-USA and 118th in the country as it allowed a whopping 289.3 ypg through the air.
Quarterback G.J. Kinne converted 64.1 percent of his pass attempts for the Golden Hurricane, generating 239.7 ypg and a total of 25 aerial scores, against 12 interceptions. Bryan Burnham started all 12 games for the Golden Hurricane at receiver and placed first on the unit with eight TDs on 50 receptions. Willie Carter tallied 61 catches for 868 yards and landed in the end zone seven times.
On the ground, Tulsa followed the lead set by Ja-Terian Douglas and Trey Watts, both of whom ran for more than 800 yards and scored a combined seven TDs, but the one who often grabbed the glory for the Hurricane was Alex Singleton who, despite carrying the ball just 82 times and gaining 279 yards, scored eight TDs.
Staying relatively close to home should give the Golden Hurricane a solid fan- base to perform in front of this weekend, and that's not something that is lost on coach Blankenship.
"It's very exciting to be invited to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Anytime you're partnered with anything having to do with our U.S. Military is a wonderful thing. There has been very good history in this bowl. Selfishly, we're excited to be going to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I think it gives us an opportunity to engage our fan base and the timing couldn't be better. Fans will have time to celebrate a little holiday time and then finish that up with a Friday morning Bowl game."