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Provo • For the BYU Cougars, opportunities like these don't come along every day. Heck, for a college football independent, they don't come along every season.
This one is set up on a big, fat tee, a huge expanse of lush green fairway before them. Will the offensively challenged, defensively inspired Cougars deliver a towering, massive drive down the middle, or will they shank one into the trees?
BYU welcomes undefeated, No. 10-ranked Oregon State into LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday afternoon for a "blackout game" to be televised regionally by ABC to most of the Western United States. Just don't tell anyone that the Beavers as presently constituted don't look the part of a top-10 team.
"It is a great opportunity for us to play in the national spotlight against a top-ranked team [for] homecoming, so we are just excited to compete and ready to play," said BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, who will start again after sitting out the last two games recovering from several vertebrae fractures in his back. "If nothing else, we feel confident in our opportunity to get a marquee win."
It is basically the same OSU team the Cougars took care of 38-28 last year in Corvallis, sans star sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, out with a knee injury and replaced by a junior making his first college start, Cody Vaz. No wonder the Cougars, who will wear all-black uniforms, with blue trim, are favored by nearly a touchdown, despite having scored just six points twice this drama-filled season.
Just maybe, it is a chance for BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman to earn a degree of forgiveness from their increasingly disgruntled fan base, after a handful of blunders and strategic mistakes not only cost them chances to win at Utah and Boise State, but also left them without freshman quarterback Taysom Hill, injured on the third-to-last play in last week's 6-3 win over Utah State when he should have been taking a knee.
Not all will be forgiven if the 4-2 Cougars can beat the so-called No. 10 team in the land, but giant strides will be taken in that direction. Take down No. 7 Notre Dame next week in South Bend? Sainthood for Mendenhall, perhaps.
As is his custom, the coach wouldn't acknowledge anything of the sort this week. But his players would.
"Having lost two close games in two tough venues, this is our chance to kind of earn some respect back by having a chance to beat a team like this," Nelson said.
There's also the pesky matter of former OSU player and assistant coach Mendenhall's eight-year tenure at BYU marked by the inability to consistently win big games. Mendenhall is 4-11 against ranked teams, including losses in the last four matchups with Top 25 clubs.
"Five wins is better than four," Mendenhall said when asked about the opportunities ahead. "It just so happens that it is a good opponent, undefeated coming in, and our next opportunity while we are gaining some momentum, and so I haven't really addressed all the other parts [with the team]."
The players know and will freely acknowledge what is on the line, however.
"Anytime you play a top-10 team, there is definitely an opportunity for you to propel your team, earn some respect, and move forward in the minds of sports fans," said linebacker Spencer Hadley. "My personal mind-set and preparation for the game, I am not focused on them being No. 10 in the country. But anytime you play somebody who is ranked that high, it is an opportunity to move your team forward from a national perspective. We get that."
BYU has relied on its defense, which ranks No. 5 in the country in total defense and No. 1 against the run, but Oregon State has the best passing offense the Cougars will see in 2012, with or without Mannion. The concern in Provo revolves around the Cougars' sluggish offense, which seemingly will have to start scoring more points if BYU hopes to repeat last year's win.
"We are making progress," Mendenhall said, defending Doman's work through six games. "I thought the game against Utah State, where we could easily look at the points and say there wasn't improvement, I saw a ton of improvement. The number of plays per drive, the time of possession, the consistency of play, and moving the football. Now we need to add points to it."
No. 10 Oregon State at BYU
P At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Kickoff • 1:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 4 Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 4-2; Oregon State 4-0
Series history • Tied, 5-5
Last reeting • BYU 38, Oregon State 28 (Oct. 15, 2011)
About the Beavers • Their No. 10 AP ranking is their highest ranking since they opened the 2001 season at No. 10. ... They have not started a season 5-0 since 1939 and they have not started a season 4-0 since 2002. ... Linebacker Feti Unga is the twin brother of BYU linebacker Uani Unga. Both brothers will wear Taumoepeau on the backs of their jerseys to honor their mother's maiden name. ... Junior quarterback Cody Vaz is expected to make his first career start. ... Reciever Markus Wheaton has caught a pass in 28 straight games, tied for No. 7 nationally.
About the Cougars • Coach Bronco Mendenhall was a starting safety for the last OSU team to win in Provo as the Beavers took a 10-7 victory in 1986. ... Receiver Cody Hoffman has caught a pass in 25 straight games, tied for the 10th longest streak in the nation. ... BYU's defense has not allowed a team to total more than 300 offensive yards in 12 straight games. The last team to surpass the mark was Oregon State last year. ... They have not defeated a ranked team since defeating No. 18 OSU 44-20 in the 2009 Las Vegas Bowl.