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Cougar Tracks: Bronco's Boys

Cougar Tracks: Bronco's Boys

By Greg Wrubell | Posted - Sep. 14, 2012 at 9:39 a.m.



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It was after four straight losses early in the 2010 season that head coach Bronco Mendenhall had seen enough. His team was not only dropping games, but his defense had seemingly lost the ability to stop anyone--particularly on the ground.

The four-game losing streak featured the opposition averaging 32 points, and 292 rushing yards per game. Following a desultory defeat at Utah State, defensive coordinator Jaime Hill was let go, and Mendenhall re-claimed his old responsibilities. The impact was immediate.

The next week, BYU not only snapped the four-game skid, but held San Diego State to 21 points and 53 rushing yards.

After the game, linebacker Kyle Van Noy said of Mendenhall: "He's our leader, he's the man. He tells us what to do and we do it, because we trust him."

Mendenhall's defensive leadership reversed the course of the 2010 campaign, and has continued to define the character of the BYU defense, into the 2012 season. If BYU is to win Saturday night's meeting with rival Utah, "Bronco's boys" will play a significant, and probably starring role.

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Mendenhall has identified the run game as a central focus of his team's identity on both sides of the ball. Rushing for at least a hundred yards and keeping the opponent below the century mark is a weekly goal.

Under Mendenhall, when BYU rushes for 100+ yards, the Cougars are 59-9, with wins in 16 of their last 17 games when reaching that plateau. When allowing fewer than 100 yards on the ground, BYU is 35-4, with wins in 21 of the last 22 such games. And since Mendenhall became head coach in 2005, BYU is 31-1 when both marks are achieved in the same game.

"The kind of team I want to have is a team that's impossible to run the football on, and we can run the ball anytime we want against anybody," Mendenhall said recently. "And that's the direction we're moving."

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BYU has played 23 games since Mendenhall stepped back into the defensive coordinator's role, and the Cougars' run defense has been among the nation's very best over that span--essentially two complete seasons, by the numbers.

BYU has allowed an average of only 91 rushing yards per game over those 23 games. If that number were plugged into 2010's full-season stats, it would have ranked 3rd nationally; in 2011, 91 yards per game would have ranked 6th. In 2012, BYU's 55 rush yards per game allowed through two games stand the Cougars 12th nationally, but their toughest test of the young season awaits at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

While Utah is off to a semi-sluggish start on the ground (144.5 yards/game; ranked 72nd), John White IV is the lynchpin to a Ute offense having just lost its starting quarterback to injury. White's 51 carries rank him sixth nationally in workload, and when he is running well, the Utes are winning games.

Since White joined the program, Utah is 9-0 when he runs for a hundred yards or more, and 0-6 when he does not. Last season in Provo, White ran for 174 yards, with 117 of those yards coming on only three runs in the fourth quarter (20 yards, 62 yards and 35 yards).

BYU, meantime, has allowed only three 100-yard rushing performances in the last 23 games, with all three coming last season, as White, Utah State's Robert Turbin and Idaho's Princeton McCarty all turned the trick. While the yards all count equally, it's notable that all three backs busted big runs as part of their big day against BYU:

100-yard Rushers v. BYU, Last 23 Games

PlayerTotal Rush YardsLong RunYards per Carry on Remaining Carries
John White (Utah)174625.3
Robert Turbin (Utah State)123805.4
Princeton McCarty (Idaho)127823.5

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Random numbers and notes re: BYU and Utah--

Wire-to-wire winners are rare over the last seven seasons of the rivalry. In only two of the games has the eventual winner not trailed at some point in the game.

BYU v. Utah, Last 7 Seasons

SeasonWinnerFinal ScoreTrailed?Large DeficitLarge LeadLatest TieLead Changes
2005Utah41-34 (OT)No-2134-34, 4:50 4th0
2006BYU33-31Yes1014-4
2007BYU17-10Yes173-3, 9:45 3rd2
2008Utah48-24No-2417-17, 6:29 2nd0
2009BYU26-23 (OT)Yes61420-20, 0:29 4th3
2010Utah17-16Yes131-1
2011Utah54-10Yes344-2

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BYU has excelled as a front-runner in the Bronco Mendenhall era, and the team getting out on top has also had the edge in the rivalry games.

Under Mendenhall, BYU is 52-7 (88%) when scoring first, and has a losing record of 16-17 (48%) when giving up the game's first score.

In the last seven years of the BYU-Utah rivalry, the team opening the scoring has won five of the seven games. In 2010, BYU scored the game's first 13 points and lost 17-16; in 2009, the Utes scored the first six points and lost 26-23 in overtime.

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I've already hit the ball security angle in this space, but aligned with it is ball control, and while time of possession has minimal value as a stat in determining wins or losses, it will be an interesting number to follow tomorrow night.

BYU's higher tempo and more efficient offense has resulted in the Cougar offense doing more than Utah, in less time on the field.

BYU v. Utah, Time v. Productivity, 2012 Season (two games)

TeamTotal Possession TimeTotal PlaysTotal YardsPlays/MinuteYards/MinutePoints/Minute
BYU62:001579582.515.51.2
Utah72:001577392.210.30.8

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In the Mendenhall era, BYU has never finished lower than 21st nationally in 3rd down conversion percentage, and the Cougars are off to another solid start when it comes to moving the chains.

BYU has converted 53% of 3rd-down conversion attempts, to rank 17th nationally; Utah is converting only 34% of attempts (100th). BYU's defense has allowed only 33% of 3rd down attempts to be converted through two games (40th), while Utah is even more stingy, at 21% (6th).

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BYU's special teams are ranked highly; the Cougars are 7th nationally in net punting (45.7 yd avg), 17th in punt returns (17.5 yd avg), and 6th in kickoff returns (39.0 yd avg). Utah's corresponding special teams are ranked 20th, 93rd and 95th. Field position is heavily influenced by special teams performance, and as I shared earlier in the week, Utah has held a pronounced field position edge in the last seven meetings with BYU.

BYU's 53-6 Mendenhall-era record with the advantage in average starting field position includes a current streak of 12 consecutive wins when BYU holds the ASFP edge. If the field is tilted in BYU's favor tomorrow night, it bodes well for the Cougars.

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Greg Wrubell

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