Brigham Young’s Bronco Mendenhall began his collegiate coaching career in 1989, spending time at places such as Oregon State, Louisiana Tech and New Mexico before joining the Cougars in 2003 as defensive coordinator.
The fifth-year head coach never has seen a tight end double-teamed as much as BYU senior Dennis Pitta this season. “No, not in my coaching career,” Mendenhall said.
BYU quarterback Max Hall and tailback Harvey Unga receive more publicity, yet when asked throughout the season which Cougar was most important to defend, Mountain West Conference coaches consistently named Pitta.
Oregon State coach Mike Riley won’t underrate him, either, so don’t be shocked if the No. 16 Beavers (8-4) throw their share of double teams at Pitta when they play No. 15 BYU (10-2) at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“I think you have to at times be able to double him,” Riley said. “You can’t always do it. You’re going to have to at times go after the quarterback with some pressure, so somebody’s going to have to cover him one-on-one once in a while.”
There’s a good reason opposing defensive coordinators want to know where Pitta is on the field. At 6 feet 5 inches, 248 pounds, he has tight end size but can catch passes like a wide receiver.
Because of the presence of wide receiver Austin Collie, now catching passes from Indianapolis Colts star Peyton Manning, Pitta faced much more single coverage last season. He caught 83 passes for 1,083 yards and six touchdowns.
When Collie left BYU early for the NFL, Pitta knew defenses would gear up to stop him. His suspicions were confirmed — his numbers are down to 57 receptions for 784 yards and seven TDs.
The one team, Air Force, that didn’t double team him paid the price. Pitta caught nine passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-21 victory.
“It’s always frustrating (facing double teams), especially when your production kind of drops off from the year before,” Pitta said. “But I understand my role on this team, and a lot of times that’s pulling coverage from other guys. It’s not something you can get upset about because it’s a team game. I have to be a team player, and that’s certainly what I am.”
At least he hasn’t been hurt with postseason honors. Pitta was named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association and Walter Camp, a second-teamer by The Associated Press and a third-teamer by Sporting News.
“I’m humbled by it and certainly grateful,” Pitta said. “It’s something that I’ll be able to look back on and really cherish here.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914.