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BYU is off to a sluggish start on offense (109th in scoring, 111th in yardage); Utah State is one of the most potent offenses in the country (14th in scoring, 16th in yardage). But one of those two teams is under .500, and it isn't BYU.
While some in Cougar Nation are dwelling on the Cougars' current struggles to score, there are enough other things going right and/or improving within the 2011 team to inspire confidence this Friday night versus the Aggies, and moving forward.
Football teams are composed of distinct units of responsibility, divided and distinguished by specific personnel. The other major sports' respective teams all feature individuals unified by their presence on the field of play and the need to be adept at all facts of the sport in question. In baseball, fielders hit and hitters field. In basketball, soccer and hockey, defenders or attackers are determined by ball or puck possession--everyone's role is determined by the flow of play.
Only in football do the rules of the game dictate a natural division, making it more likely that credit for a win or blame for a loss will be assigned to one or more of the three units of responsibility: offense, defense, or special teams.
The very essence of a football team's culture and its inherent routines make teamwork a sticky wicket at times. During camp, success for the offense means failure for the defense. In some instances (indeed, when Bronco Mendenhall was Gary Crowton's defensive coordinator in 2003-2004), those units will be pitted against one another to such an extent that the two sides will hardly interact with one another. Kickers are so often seen to be "doing their own thing," with practice schedules that are filled with vast stretches of relative inactivity. Some programs fill their special teams with players who otherwise would not see the field, creating a caste system whereby the best players are excluded from the comparatively menial tasks of coverage and return work.
As a result, college football represents the greatest challenge when it comes to truly creating a team of its 100-plus members. When things go well for one group, they may not be going well for another, yet all players are given the same collective task: that is, win a game by whichever means necessary.
Yes, BYU's offense is having a rough go of things, and had difficulty prolonging drives, gaining yards and scoring points against Central Florida. Good thing, then, that the defense was as stout as it was, and that the special teams executed as strongly as they did. In the end, the combined efforts were enough to defeat a rather highly-regarded team that carried every statistical edge into the matchup.
This is not to say that supporters don't have valid concerns about the offensive struggles, or valid observations regarding certain individuals, but the lasting remnant of that game is BYU's winning, 24-17 margin.
When a loss would have dropped the Cougars to 1-3 for a second straight season and amplified the chorus calling for change and questioning a program's direction, BYU required and received contributions from every unit of responsibility, at the times required to construct a win of the parts that individually would have been unable to secure triumph.
The phrase "team win" is tossed about liberally in sports, but I think it means the most in football--a sport in which team members are regularly asked to simply stand and watch their mates do different jobs. Watch, and hope their brothers either validate the job the watchers have done well, or boost them on a night when they weren't at their best.
An overly dramatic assessment, perhaps, but in various encounters during recent days, I found myself essentially feeling compelled to justify BYU's most recent win, when the ultimate justification came in the final score and the quality of the foe faced.
Improvements are needed, are being made and will hopefully continue to evidence themselves, in particular on the offensive side of the ball. In the meantime, enjoy what BYU's team accomplished last week.
Now, to some scattered stats and stuff...
BYU's rush attack is ranked 116th nationally at 68 yards/game, even after a 127-yard effort v. UCF. Yet, the last outing showed the Cougars getting back to basics in the run game, with head coach Bronco Mendenhall confirming the ground approach was simplified, and among the results were:
season highs in percentage of first-, second- and third down runs.
a season low in average distance-to-gain on third downs.
running backs Bryan Kariya and J.J. DiLuigi combining for all six of BYU's third-down conversions v. UCF (four while rushing), after combining for only three of BYU's 17 first downs in games one through three. As they did last year, Kariya and DiLuigi now once again occupy the team's top two spots in the tally of third-down conversions, by player.
the UCF game was the first this season to feature more first down runs than passes. At Ole Miss, 39% of first down plays were runs; 48% at Texas, 37% v. Utah, then 58% v. UCF.
while only modestly successful, BYU's first-down runs v. UCF generated a season-high 3.4 yards per carry, enhancing second down balance. Versus UCF, the second down pass/run proportion was 52% pass/48% run. At Ole Miss, it was 64%/36%, at Texas it was 60%/40%, and v. Utah it was 78%/22%.
third down play selection v. UCF was also the most relatively balanced it had been all season; 69% pass to 31% run. At Ole Miss it was 85%/15%, at Texas it was 79%/21%, and v. Utah it was 82%/18%.
(note: BYU is still very pass-heavy on third down; 81.7% of third down attempts [49 of 60] have been passes. Last year, only 64.8% of third down attempts were passes.
On third-and-short, BYU is learning to rely on the run this season. Of 15 3rd down attempts of 3rd-and-3 or shorter, BYU has run on only 7 of 15 (46.7%), converting 6/7 (85.7%). Last year, BYU ran on 45/63 downs of 3rd-and-3 or shorter (71.4%), and converted 33/45 (73.3%). In short (and noting a smaller sample size), BYU is by percentage more reliable rushing on third and short this season, but is not rushing as frequently on third and short. Note: BYU has had exactly five downs of 3rd-and-3 this season; zero runs, five passes (2/5 converted).
BYU's offense committed five penalties and had six of the team's seven turnovers v. Utah. One week later, v. UCF, the offense committed zero penalties and had only one turnover. The importance of infractions can be debated, but since I started tracking penalties by unit in 2007, last week was only the second time in 56 games that the offense did not commit a single penalty. The other occasion was at CSU last year (W 49-10).
After accounting for only 17% of BYU's total receiving yards in 2010, the tight ends are responsible for 29% of this season's yards through the air. The return of the TEs is the good news; see the note at the end of the post for some not-so-good news that needs erasing.
Utah State brings in the nation's 5th best rushing offense, at 316 yards/game. BYU has played 12 games since Bronco Mendenhall assumed DC duties, and in those 12 games, BYU is allowing an average of 88.1 rushing yards per game, and more than 100 yards only three times (at TCU, at Texas, and v. Utah).
In the aforementioned 12 games, BYU has allowed 21 points or fewer nine times. The 54 points allowed to Utah represent a distinct outlier, and not reflective of the defense's true identity. In the Utah game, two touchdowns were scored with the BYU defense on the sidelines, while two Utah scoring drives began at the BYU six- and three-yard lines after offensive turnovers.
Since Mendenhall became head coach in 2005, BYU has allowed 100 or fewer rushing yards 33 times in 81 games; the Cougars are 29-4 in those games.
Only 17 teams have forced more turnovers than the nine BYU has gained through four games.
BYU is 13th nationally in red zone scoring defense; allowing scores on only 10 of 16 penetrations (five rush TDs, zero pass TDs, five FGs). On UCF's last two forays inside the BYU 20-yard line, the results were a missed FG and an interception (prior to those two possessions, the Knights had been 19 for 19 in the red zone, with 14 touchdowns). BYU is one of only 12 teams yet to allow a red zone passing TD.
44% of BYU's kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks; that figure ranks 7th nationally.
When the opponent attempts a return, BYU's kickoff return defense is statistically very sound, allowing opponents an average of only 19.6 yards per return (37th nationally). BYU's own kickoff return performance ranks 30th, at 24.6 yards per return (boosted by Cody Hoffman's 93-yard KOR TD last week).
Punter Riley Stephenson ranks 32nd nationally in punt average (42.0), and has set career-longs in back-to-back weeks (65 yarder v. Utah, 67-yarder v. UCF).
A few extra notes:
BYU has gone 17 games without a touchdown pass to a tight end. The last TE TD catch was from Dennis Pitta in the 2009 Las Vegas Bowl v. Oregon State.
All of Jake Heaps' 18 BYU career TD passes have been to wide receivers.
Heaps is only two TD passes away from tying "Arvada Flash" Marc Lyons for 16th on the BYU career list. Lyons sits in 16th with 20 scoring tosses.
Lyons also sits just in front of Heaps in career passing yards. Marc racked up 3,345 leather-helmet yards; Jake has 3,171.
In BYU's last 14 wins, the opponent has scored 24 points or fewer.
BYU has won 16 consecutive games when scoring 24 or more.