EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Mitch Mathews missed the last four games of 2013 after a shoulder injury at Wisconsin last November required surgery.
He wasn’t caught up in making up for that span of lost time, though. BYU’s junior receiver thought back all the way to the start of the season, after a brief but important chat with head coach Bronco Mendenhall set the tone for him becoming a solid threat. Replicating that mindset was going to be critical to producing a good start, earlier in the year, against UConn.
How’s five catches for 62 yards and an early touchdown sound?
Pretty good, considering Mathews was coming off a harsh shoulder injury. And besides that, he caught just 23 passes last year – and never more than five (for 112 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State) in any particular setting.
“Mitch gave me exactly what I was expecting,” Cougar quarterback Taysom Hill said, praising Mathews’ rehabilitation (which Hill is no stranger to from a couple of seasons ago) and preparation.
BYU brought in a horde of new receivers, though two of the mostly hotly anticipated targets – Devon Blackmon and Nick Kurtz – were not available to be part of what turned out to be a 35-10 win against the Huskies in both teams’ opener.
The 6-foot-6 Mathews caught a couple early passes on third downs, complementing Hill’s increased ease – especially compared to this time a year ago – and rekindling the knack he was developing with his fellow junior before getting hurt on a cold, hard Camp Randall Stadium field in a disheartening loss at Wisconsin.
Mathews was stunned to return to Provo and learn that he would need surgery.
It was not a wasted year by any means. But he knew he lost some time at the bookends of the season.
"I made it my personal goal to start faster this year," he said.
He re-booted just fine. All of his catches came in the first half, which was not any big statistical surprise considering neither team did much in the second half.
But Mathews found a “dream” scenario in the first quarter. The Cougars already led, 7-0, when UConn had a turnover at their own 26-yard line.
Then Mathews immediately found himself in 1-on-1 coverage with a safety.
“Every receiver’s dream,” he said with a smile, running his hand through his helmet-matted hair. “A great time to take a shot.”
He ran a simple slant and wasn’t touched near the end zone.
Not that he was wary of upper-body contact to the scar tissue.
“We have had a little bit of scrimmaging, we have had a little bit of contact,” Mathews said about fall camp. “But what I was looking forward to most was turning up and blocking the corners and making contact with the safeties to get myself mentally ready for a tackle.”
Mendenhall said he would be surprised if all five suspended players – including Blackmon and running back Jamaal Williams – don’t get themselves back in the program’s good graces before heading to Texas next weekend. However, Kurtz is injured and out for a few more weeks.
But it stands to reason Hill will have even more targets available. Mathews at least made himself known to his quarterback and coaches.
The pair nearly connected on a second-half touchdown pass near the back left corner of the end zone.
Nine Cougars caught passes as of late in the third quarter. Could Mathews be a favored one?
“Mitch is 6-foot-6, and really hard to defend,” Hill said.