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Provo • Three things were in the offing for BYU on Thursday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium and two of them were bad: a shot at a big, impressive win, a shot at a small, unimpressive win, a shot at – shut your mouth – a loss.

The first would be acceptable, the second disappointing, the third a competitive disaster. As it turned out, the Cougars could gain only a bit of satisfaction in the middle ground they found.

The final numbers on the board reflected their ho-hum discovery: BYU 33, Houston 25. After winning its first two games, each on the road – over a bad UConn team and a storied, struggling Texas outfit – by the combined score of 76-17, BYU was on the verge of planting a flag for a great season in its home opener. Only once before in Bronco Mendenhall's 10-year tenure had the Cougars broke out of the gate with three straight victories. And they accomplished that much here.

But there was more at stake against Houston. There was perception, there was the opinion of pundits and poll voters, alongside a national television audience. Only a dreamer would include college football playoff committee members in that group of the interested.

Still, BYU had a lot going for it heading into Thursday night. It had momentum, a fresh Top 25 ranking, and a quarterback rocketing up a lot of Heisman watch lists. It had an emerging star in Taysom Hill, who had grabbed a share of the CFB spotlight with his athletic dual-threat abilities: He could run and throw, throw and run. He could hurdle over tacklers for 30-yard touchdown runs. He could fire 35-yard scoring passes. He could capture, it seemed, the imaginations of millions of viewers, interested in seeing and getting more from the BYU quarterback.

The significance of that kind of star power is large for any college football team, especially an independent like the Cougars, who are attempting to impress darn near everybody, including Power 5 conferences that might not be all that respectful of BYU's legacy and one particular P-5 league that Mendenhall has flat out said for all to hear he would love to be a member of.

But, as mentioned, winning isn't enough. Not with the weak schedule BYU is facing this season. Squeaking by UNLV, Middle Tennessee, Nevada, Savannah State, Virginia and Houston won't give the Cougars the kind of pop they want and need to qualify for a postseason opportunity they've never had – a major bowl. Even an undefeated BYU won't make the playoffs' Final Four – unless it starts beating everybody by 50 and some prominent conference champions lose a minimum of two games en route.

What happened against Houston was an underachievement.

"There were some things I was pleased with," Mendenhall said, afterward. But much work is left undone.

BYU blew out to a 23-zip lead and it looked poised to put on a show on both sides of the ball. Zac Stout started the scoring with a safety. Jamaal Williams followed with an 11-yard touchdown run. Then came a Hill TD run, followed by a Hill scoring pass to Mitch Mathews. The Cougars defense initially looked like the Steel Curtain. Next thing, things got screwy. UH put up 15 straight points, some of them taking advantage of bone-headed BYU errors.

The blue Cougars' secondary, a group that was supposedly deeper and better than defensive backfields in past seasons, repeatedly was beat by Houston's quarterback John O'Korn, who wound up with 307 passing yards and 3 touchdowns.

The second half was a struggle throughout, and BYU hung tough, with a field goal and another Williams TD run, which punctuated an 8-play, 56-yard drive.

Hill's performance was somewhere south of Heisman-like. He threw for 200 yards, completing 21 of 34 passes, with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Too often, he reverted to his MO of a year ago, depending on his legs to bail out the offense. He rushed 26 times for 160 yards and the 1 score. But most of what happened in front of ESPN's cameras here was unpleasing to the eye. It was that middle ground, a lot like sipping a stale beverage that quenches the thirst, but tastes bitter.

BYU got the win, but it wasn't comely or convincing, against a team that was more thoroughly dominated by the UTSA Roadrunners a couple weeks ago. Just when everybody thought BYU was ready to burn down the onramp to a freeway of dominance this season, it bumped and skidded to victory. That road remains wide and open, but the Cougars will have to dial in with more attention to detail, game by game, in the weeks ahead. The wins are there for them – if they have the focus and fortitude to take them.

How attractive they'll be, though, is now very much in question.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM.

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