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Provo • When he took over a program coming off three straight losing seasons in 2005, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall dropped his first two season-openers, at home against Boston College 20-3 and on the road at Arizona, 16-13.
Since then, he's gone 7-1 in openers, beating the likes of Arizona, Oklahoma, Washington, Ole Miss and Washington State. BYU's only loss in a first game the past eight seasons came at Virginia in 2013 in a game interrupted by a massive rain and lightning storm.
This week, Mendenhall and the Cougars face perhaps their most challenging opener since that 14-13 win over Oklahoma in 2009. They will take on powerful Nebraska at 87,000-seat Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. MDT in a game that will be televised nationally by ABC.
Nebraska will be breaking in a new coach former Oregon State boss Mike Riley replaced Bo Pelini but hasn't lost a season-opener since 1985. Big Red usually schedules a breather for its opener, but not this year. Nebraska opens as a six-point favorite, but a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the contest because both schools have said key players will miss the game due to suspensions.
The Cornhuskers will play BYU a cool $1 million for the visit, according to the game contract obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune last January, and won't be returning the visit. The game will be officiated by referees from the Big Ten Conference, the conference to which Nebraska belongs.
Mendenhall said last Wednesday as the Cougars wrapped up fall camp that he didn't know anything about Nebraska and had put "zero time" into studying its personnel. But, he added, "My staff has. They have done initial background work, et cetera."
The Cougars turned their full-time attention to their first-week opponent on Thursday, although quarterback Taysom Hill acknowledged he has studied its defensive players and their tendencies for several months now.
"Yeah, they are a really good football team," Hill said. "I think they are going to be big and physical. You know, it is tough to beat a team like that on the road. What I have seen from us, as a team at BYU, I think we are very capable of it, and we know what we have ahead of us, and we have been preparing for it."
BYU and Nebraska have never met, but Riley and his coordinators, which he brought with him from OSU, are familiar with BYU, having played the Cougars in the 2009 Las Vegas Bowl and in 2011 and 2012.
New Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker coached at OSU from 2003-14 and was the defensive coordinator since 2012. New Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf coached at OSU from 2005-13, the last five as the offensive coordinator, before coaching quarterbacks for the New York Giants in 2014.
"Man, we are becoming masters at this," Mendenhall said. "With independence, we have had so many new staffs [to become familiar with], and first games. Our results are strong. You just do the best you can."
He defended his lack of Nebraska knowledge 10 days before the game, saying it is a mistake in preseason camp to focus too much on an opponent.
"The first game is still mostly about us, and how we execute," Mendenhall said. "We have to adjust to some things we haven't seen, and there will be a few surprises, but I don't think the game plan is really what controls the opener. It is usually how well you have prepared your own team."
Hill, who played poorly in the 19-16 opener at Virginia as a sophomore, but well last year in a 35-10 win at UConn, credits BYU's coaching staff for having the team ready to face unfamiliar opponents.
"We know exactly what to expect," he said. "And then when we come out, there are no surprises. So what we have to do is continue to make plays and keep doing what we have been doing in practices."
Season opener BYU at Nebraska
P Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
TV • Ch. 4