Provo, Utah — BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia remembers a staff meeting shortly after he was hired that focused on having a resilient team filled with a certain type of player. Three years later, that focus seems to be paying dividends.
No. 22 BYU moved into the rankings by beating Nebraska and then-No. 20 Boise State with last-minute, come-from-behind efforts. The Cougars (2-1) lost to No. 9 UCLA 24-23 last week, but not before driving into Bruins territory late in the game before an interception ended the comeback hope.
Trailing late in the fourth quarter has become no big deal for this BYU team.
“Grit is what Bronco (Mendenhall) refers to it as,” Atuaia said. “And so that’s been the gist of what we’ve done for the last three years together as a group — building that so when that times come (we’re ready).
“Last year, man, we’ve been on the opposite end with Central Florida and Memphis, where we lost really close games. … Got close last year. Now, of the last three games we came out on top twice. It’s been the structure we’ve been going through for the last three years.”
Part of that has been teaching and emphasizing the need to finish games and situations strong. Another part has been recruiting players with that kind of mindset. Coaches try to instill that mentality, but it helps to have that already.
“We’re trying to find those kids on the front end, the resilient ones,” Atuaia said. “We’ve targeted those kids that have really good character and they show that grit. If they have a job or come from disadvantaged backgrounds, what type of kids are they? Are they still, regardless of their circumstances, trying to find the better avenue to go? Those kinds of kids, we sell the farm for them in recruiting.”
Receiver Terenn Houk credits offensive coordinator Robert Anae for keeping the offense energized and confident. Running back Adam Hine said you can feel it on the sideline — a belief that, regardless of the time on the clock, they can score.
And everyone points to freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum, who was three months off a two-year Mormon mission to Chile when he was called on to replace the injured Taysom Hill. Mendenhall called him, “poised beyond his experience.”
“He’s a playmaker,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who hosts BYU on Saturday. “He’s been in there with no shyness whatsoever. Already been in big situations and prevailed. Sometimes it takes years before something like that happens, but he’s already been through it. So he’s already been battle-tested and won in those situations. Impressive.”
Mangum said their confidence has just continued to build, but teammates said they gain that determination from the quarterback. He’s naturally easygoing and always has a smile on his face. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder has all the physical attributes teams look for in a quarterback, but his mettle has set him apart.
“You want to have confidence as much as possible, but when you’re looking at the score and maybe the time of game and you’re like, ‘Man, how are we going to do this?’ ” Houk said. “But then you have a guy like Tanner, who just like Taysom, will look you in the eye and just reassure you that we’re going to get this done. It’s an awesome feeling.”
The bottom line is the Cougars are simply confident in adverse situations. Some of that is just who they are. Some has been coached into them over years. Part of it is that they’ve have exceeded expectations against nationally respected programs. Part is the quarterback.
Anae acknowledged what they’ve done, but didn’t want to start patting guys on the back. He’s still upset BYU couldn’t finish UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
“That’s what confidence is, building on past success,” Anae said. “It grew because last year we had two overtime losses and a couple close ones. It has grown from that. We have improved in that regard. That kind of stuff is an earned quality. It’s an internal dynamic that’s earned among themselves. Some of that, coaches can facilitate. The majority of that is who the dudes are in the locker room. I just think that’s who they are.”