In Bronco Mendenhall’s five-year tenure as BYU football coach, two quarterbacks — John Beck and Max Hall — started 63 of a possible 64 games.

Tonight against Washington (5 p.m., CBS-C) at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Mendenhall has said he will use two quarterbacks — junior Riley Nelson and freshman Jake Heaps — in the same game.

Oh, and the BYU football program is going independent in 2011.

It would seem that nothing would overshadow the biggest quarterback battle in Cougar Town in a decade, but for the past two weeks, fans and media alike have been in a furor over BYU’s proposed move into uncharted territory.

The quarterback race was almost an afterthought.

Ever since he became head coach, Mendenhall has professed a desire to name a starting quarterback coming out of spring. Since both Nelson and Heaps competed evenly during that time, no starter was named. All through fall camp the two completely dissimilar quarterbacks — Nelson the unpredictable runner, Heaps the classic drop-back passer — didn’t separate. So Mendenhall said he would start Nelson but Heaps — who played high school ball about 20 minutes from the UDub campus — would play, too.

If this was Northern Iowa or Eastern Washington, no big deal. But with Washington and Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Locker coming to town, it could be a very big deal.

Locker, BYU fans certainly recall, was a one-man wrecking crew two years ago in Seattle. As a sophomore Locker ran around, over and through Cougar tacklers all game long. But for a mistake of youthful exuberance after he scored a touchdown in the final seconds, the game would have almost certainly gone to overtime. Instead, Jan Jorgensen blocked a 35-yard extra point to preserve a 28-27 BYU victory.

Locker said he doesn’t think about when he threw the ball high in the air to earn a celebration penalty unless somebody else brings it up.

“I’m not sorry for what I did,” Locker said. ”I was having fun and I was not trying to embarrass BYU. I had just scored a touchdown and we were going to tie the game. To me that’s pretty exciting. I was just celebrated with my teammates. I felt bad because it put our team in a bad situation.

“I’ll take the ball to referee this Saturday, for sure.”

If Locker does get into the end zone frequently tonight, that spells trouble for BYU’s inexperienced defense. Seven new starters, including six of the new front seven, are tasked with keeping Locker from creating extra chances out of nothing.

“He’s a very big, athletic quarterback,” BYU junior linebacker Jordan Pendleton said. “If he would have come out in the NFL Draft, they’re saying he had a chance to be taken in the top five. He’s gonna be better than last year and better than when we played him. But it’s gonna be fun.

“Last year we had the opportunity to go against Sam Bradford (Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy winner) and that was a sweet opportunity. He ends up being the first pick. This is gonna be another chance for us to go up against a future first-round pick. Now we have to go out and do our thing.”

Returning to LaVell Edwards Stadium is Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, who quarterbacked BYU to a Cotton Bowl win in 1997. He said he hasn’t been back to Provo since he graduated but he has been busy, earning a prime offensive coordinator job at USC before leaving to take over a down-in-the-dumps Washington program in 2009.

“It’s a business trip, for sure,” Sarkisian said. “But I had some great moments and great wins there (Provo).”

Sarkisian is part of a BYU All-American Quarterback Weekend with seven other former Cougar greats to be honored at halftime. He joked about not coming out of the locker room for the ceremony if the Huskies are behind.

How does he think he’ll be received by the BYU crowd?

“I hope better than the first half against Utah in 1995 when they were booing me,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know how it will go. All and all, it was a great experience for me at BYU. They were good to me and my family.”

Washington has lost 12 straight road games and is hoping to break that streak tonight.

“BYU is a very physical, smart football team,” Sarkisian said. “They’re extremely well coached and it will be a great challenge for us to go on the road against a top 25 program.”

Quarterback factory: For the first time in school history, eight All-American quarterbacks are returning to Provo to take part in a fundraiser for the BYU football program. The Y Quarterback Weekend is Friday and today and will feature Virgil Carter, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer and Sarkisian. Activities include a golf tournament at Riverside Country Club and a dinner and auction hosted by LaVell Edwards. The eight quarterbacks will provide unique items for the auction.

A special ceremony will be held at halftime. All money raised during the weekend will be used to endow scholarships at BYU. On fully endowed scholarship is approximately $250,000.

The series: Washington leads 4-3 but BYU has won the past two games. One memorable BYU-Washington matchup was in 1999, when Chris Hale’s 38-yard reception for a late touchdown gave the Cougars are thrilling 35-28 win in Provo. BYU’s only loss during the historic 14-1 season of 1996 was at Washington. The Cougars quarterback that year? Sarkisian.

Ode to the familiar: The obvious ones — Sarkisian and Heaps — have already been mentioned. The only other Evergreen State player on the BYU roster is sophomore quarterback Jason Munns (Kennewick). Former Judge Memorial (Salt Lake City) standout Court Dennison is a junior linebacker for Washington. One of Heaps’ teammates at Skyline High in Sammamish last year — Cooper Pelluer — is a freshman linebacker for the Huskies.

BYU freshmen linebackers Alani Fua and Zac Stout are former high school teammates of Washington backup quarterback Nick Montana – yes, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana. All three played at Oaks Christian High School (Westlake Village, Calif.) last season.

∫ Daily Herald Sports Editor Darnell Dickson can be reached at 801-344-2555 or by e-mail at