This Looks Familiar



Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes

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back on the blogwatch, after a couple of days to fully digest what went down Saturday night, as a Hurricane left the Cougars sorting through the debris of a September that feels a lot like the last two under Bronco Mendenhall.

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consider that in 2005, BYU suffered a high-scoring overtime loss to fall to 1-2, then in 2006, BYU lost a high-scoring overtime game to fall to 1-2, then this season, BYU lost a high-scoring game that could very well have gone to overtime in dropping once again to 1-2.

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in each of the previous years, the Cougars lost games they could have (perhaps should have) won early on, only to bounce back and salvage the season. In 2005, Bronco's 1st team ended the regular season with a winning record and a bowl bid. In 2006, BYU never lost again after falling to 1-2, so there's still plenty of hope for the season ahead.

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among the common threads in all three sluggish starts is the propensity to commit crucial penalties at the very worst time in very close games.

In 2005, BYU had 27 penalties after 3 games, and in both 2006 and 2007, BYU racked up 30 penalties in the first 3 games of the season.

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I know what you're thinking: "some of Lavell's best teams were very penalty-prone. They don't really matter." You might also be thinking: "BYU was a highly-penalized team last season, too. And they won 10 straight games to end the season. Penalties are just something you overcome with a good team."

There is enough statistical evidence to support that position, generally-speaking. I will note that Florida won the national title while getting flagged more than any other team in the country last season. Of the last five national champions, only USC (27th in 2004) was ranked higher than 82nd in the category "fewest times penalized per game."

Indeed, take Texas Tech. ('ll use the Red Red Raiders as an example since they are another high-scoring, no-huddle, high win total team, and the team at which BYU's offensive coordinator learned his craft.)

Tech has ranked worse than BYU in each of the last 5 seasons in the penalty rankings.

2007: BYU-109, Texas Tech-116

2006: BYU-107, Texas Tech-113

2005: BYU-101, Texas Tech-114

2004: BYU-87, Texas Tech-114

2003: BYU-80, Texas Tech-94

yet, the Red Raiders just keep on rolling.

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Bronco is well aware of the statistical evidence supporting the theory that penalties are not prominent predictors of a team's win/loss record. But he also knows that in each of his three seasons:

a) being 1-2 and

b) picking up an average of 10 penalties a game in the first three games

are not unrelated facts.

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What has to concern Bronco most is "who's picking up the penalties," and "when they're happening."

Without breaking down the time of every infraction's occurrence this season, timing of penalties has been crucial, with BYU being flagged either immediately after momentum-changing plays (big gains, forced turnovers), or once in scoring position (blue zone false starts on 1st down in each of the last two weeks, for example).

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Of BYU's 30 penalties, 20 have been committed by the offense, 6 by the defense, and 4 by players on special teams.

That fact in and of itself is telling. One might surmise that the defensive players' penalty tally should be higher, considering the "aggressive" tendencies on that side of the ball (personal fouls, pass interference, offsides calls would be the most common fouls of aggression).

Yet, Bronco's boys on defense have been well-behaved and disciplined, accounting for only 20% of BYU's penalty total.

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Robert Anae's offensive players, on the other hand, have been extremely undisciplined--picking up 19 penalties in the last two games (both losses), after only one penalty in the opener (the one win). The correlation between offensive discipline and the end result cannot be coincidental.

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Of the offense's 20 penalties:

6 have been for holding

5 have been for false starts

4 have been for personal fouls (3 by offensive linemen)

2 have been for delay of game

and there have been single flags for:

pass interference

illegal block

illegal participation

so, obviously, the offensive line bears the brunt of the responsibility for the penalty problems on offense.

Consider once again the reference to Texas Tech. Does the hurry-up, no huddle, spread offense lend itself to the numbers of penalties BYU is picking up on offense? It's a good question, considering the silent counts and wide splits and other variables common to those kind of attacks (even though BYU may not be a "spread" team to the extent the Red Raiders are). However, Tulsa (no huddle, hurry-up, spread) only committed 4 penalties on Saturday, using their "come to the line, look at the flash cards, set and snap system." Tulsa was disciplined despite the organized chaos of the system, and it helped them to victory.

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Now, a more likely contributor to BYU's 1-2 start: TURNOVERS!!!!

After ending up 4th nationally in turnover margin last season, BYU is currently 110th, going from +14 at the end of last year to -6 to start this season.

BYU has thrown 3 interceptions, and lost 5 fumbles. Now, 3 ints in 150 pass attempts is a completely acceptable number, but having two of the three returned for touchdowns is a problem.

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BYU's 5 lost fumbles are an amazing number, considering BYU lost 4 fumbles ALL OF LAST SEASON.

Max Hall has been hit from behind on 3 of the lost fumbles, Vic So'oto was dragged down for a controversial fumble lost at UCLA, and Andrew George was separated from the ball on a play that looked illegal at Tulsa.

So, there are your 8 turnovers.

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Again, 2.7 turnovers per game is not a good number, but if the BYU defense had forced more than 2 turnovers through 3 games, the margin wouldn't be as bad.

The Cougars have forced no fumbles, and after scoring a touchdown on the drive following their first interception of the season (Buchanan at UCLA), they failed to produce points after Criddle's pick at Tulsa--picking up an immediate 15-yard penalty on offense, and eventually missing a 44-yard field goal.

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Another fumble note: of BYU's 16 fumbles lost since Bronco took over, only 3 have been by running backs. BYU backs have not lost a fumble since last season's San Diego State game (it was BYU's only running back fumble of 2006).

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BYU's running game breakdown at Tulsa was as follows:

1st quarter: 24 yards

2nd quarter: 24 yards

3rd quarter: 100 yards

4th quarter: 9 yards

Did BYU give up on the run too early in the 4th quarter?

The Cougars got the ball with 11:39 to play, and down 12 points. BYU passed on the next 4 downs, and then punted, after allowing only 1:03 off the clock. BYU next got the ball back with 8:22 to play, and executed a touchdown drive that took 1:38--a drive featuring 2 Harvey Unga runs of 6 yards apiece. Following a Tulsa field goal, BYU got the ball one final time with 4:15 remaining, and found itself at the Tulsa 12-yard line with 3:30 remaining. Plenty of time to run the ball a few times and get into the end zone, right? Yes, until back to back false start penalties made it 1st and 20. BYU may indeed have been trying to run on that 1st and 10 from the 12, but on 1st and 20 from the 22, BYU then threw 4 consecutive incompletions.

The Cougars' ground game might have indeed carried the team to victory, but going away from it perhaps too early in the 4th, then not getting the chance to use it (or being uneasy using it on 1st and 20) late in the 4th helped influence the outcome.

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Here are some interesting numbers from Saturday night:

Austin Collie set a BYU and MWC record with 366 all-purpose yards.

Collie also set an MWC record with 257 kickoff return yards.

Max Hall set conference records for total offense yards (548) and passing yards (537).

BYU as a team set conference records for passing yards (537), and passing first downs (25).

BYU set a team record for most yards of offense in a loss (694).

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Final thoughts--

After BYU's loss at Tulsa, Arizona's home loss to a New Mexico team that scored 6 points at UTEP (!), and UCLA's abject humiliation on the hill, we really have no feel for just what this Cougar team is going to turn out to be, or how good the Cougars even are to this point.

My personal feeling is that after the season-opening win, BYU players figured: "Well, that was easy. We just beat a good Pac-10 team by 13 points, and could have won by 30+. Now, we have to go to UCLA, clean up our mistakes and beat the Bruins! We do that, and our BCS goals are in sight!"

Fast forward to post-UCLA...

Now, the players are thinking like this:

"We should have won that game. We were the better team (a fact that gained credence after UCLA's game at Utah). We let it get away, and now we have to deal with the fact that we could have been a national story, and now we're not. But, we can still go undefeated, we can still get back in the BCS race, and we can still win our league. We can still raise the bar! Let's go kick some Tulsa tail and get back on track."

Fast forward to post-Tulsa...

Now, it might go something like this:

"We are not as good as we thought we were. We've been exposed. We've been guilty of thinking we were just going to roll into Tulsa's dinky little stadium, and walk out with a win. We got slapped in the face, and it better get the attention of everyone on this team. Yes, we're good enough to run the table and win this league, but we're wearing a big ol' bullseye, and everybody wants a piece of us. Unless we improve our play in every facet of the game, Air Force, and almost every other team in this league, is going to give us a run for our money."

Anyway, that's just a little "broadcast booth psychoanalysis," for what it's worth. Who knows how close that is to reality, but if I were a player, I think I would have been thinking those things.

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