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When you're not one of the BCS big boys, or more acutely, when you play as an FBS independent not named Notre Dame, your college football season is really a series of one-game seasons, relative to staying in the BCS mix. If you win the first game, you remain in consideration for the top five big-money bowls, into the second game, and so on, until you lose.
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has repeatedly acknowledged that BYU's BCS hopes are annually pinned on an undefeated season, and any prospective national championship hopes would ride not on a single, but multiple unblemished campaigns.
Those being the stakes, every season starts with a considerable amount of pressure. Boise State (twice), Utah (twice), TCU (twice) and Hawaii are non-BCS programs who have withstood that pressure, gone undefeated in the regular season and shone under the brightest lights on the biggest stage.
Of those four, three have since joined BCS leagues, although Boise State's Big East membership comes with an asterisk, as that conference will lose its most-favored status with the dissolution of the BCS after the 2013-14 bowl schedule.
Nevertheless, despite its position as a prominent program with a national reputation, cross-country fan base and world-wide media reach, BYU has remained on the outside looking in on college football's postseason power structure.
All it takes go from out, to in, is win--every game. Do that with a strong enough schedule, and you're dancing on the big floor. There is a chance that a non-BCS team with one loss and could conceivably merit top-shelf consideration, but since that has never happened, the undefeated standard remains the only entrée.
BYU entered the 2012 campaign with Bronco Mendenhall's deepest team. Among 29 seniors was included the team's starting quarterback, and BYU's record of success with senior signal-callers has been nothing short of stellar.
The team's defense was statistically among the nation's best in 2011, and was expected to retain if not improve upon that performance level this season.
From a personnel standpoint, the pieces were in place, and BYU's 2012 schedule was certainly strong enough to merit national consideration; road games at Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, with two additional Pac-12 home games plus an instate meeting with improving Utah State gave the Cougars' slate enough clout.
The only question coming into the season was how many of these hurdles the experience-laden Cougars would clear; could the Cougars become a national story worthy of inclusion in the weekly national college footballl discussion, or would their stated goal of BCS participation be transformed into acceptance of postseason consolation through only a single setback? The first four weeks of the season would most likely provide the answer.
Assuming safe navigation of BYU's two season-opening home games (versus Pac-12 lesser light Washington State and FCS member Weber State), BYU would go north and face its meeting with rival Utah at 2-0, quite possibly with the Cougars ranked. And that is exactly what happened, as BYU walked into Rice-Eccles Stadium with an undented record and Top 25 ranking in tow.
The Utes were 1-1, staggering off a loss at Utah State, with a new starting quarterback, and without its star running back and top two safeties, due to injury and/or suspension.
While BYU had its own quarterback injury issues to address, the situation was set up well for the Cougars, who were seeking to square at four wins apiece the rivalry ledger in the Bronco Mendenhall/Kyle Whittingham era.
More importantly, with a victory, BYU would improve to 3-0 for only the second time since Mendenhall took over as head coach, and would take a national ranking--and hope of perfection--to Boise State, for the only ESPN Thursday-nighter not to include at least one BCS-conference participant. Dreams of that "special season" would ride on 60 minutes in Salt Lake City.
The first of those minutes could not have gone much worse for BYU.
After allowing two quick first downs by the Utes, BYU's defense forced a punt that pinned BYU at its own five-yard line. And in an eerie flashback to the Cougars' first series against Utah in 2011, BYU's first shotgun snap went wide of its intended target, and like Jake Heaps last season, Riley Nelson (playing with a sore back) was chasing a bouncing ball.
Heaps' clumsy attempt to salvage a broken play resulted in a Ute touchdown last year, and Nelson appeared to have given up a safety while being thrown out of the end zone, but a Utah face-masking penalty kept points off the board and moved BYU to its own 20. The momentary good fortune was soon mitigated by BYU's lack of execution and sideline confusion, as the Cougars opening offensive salvo fizzled in a myriad of miscues.
Playing its first game in a rowdy road environment, BYU was nothing short of frazzled. The offense's first false start of the night put the Cougars in an unfavorable down-and-distance situation. A 2nd-and-11 pass from Nelson to Hoffman resulted in a Hoffman fumble, but disaster was averted on a quick recovery.
Two plays later, 4th-and-1 had Nelson and his teammates were preparing to sneak for the first down, but coaches on the sidelines were sending conflicting signals, with the punt team entering the field of play.
As Mendenhall saw Nelson ready to go and shouted "get ‘em off" to special teams coaches, the offense was running its play, and it would have gained a first down, but for the second false start of the series. BYU's ensuing punt was returned 57 yards to the BYU 17-yard line, and two plays later, Utah scored a touchdown to take the lead—a lead the Utes would never relinquish.
All of that occurred before the game was six minutes old.
While the Cougars would use every single second of the remaining 54 minutes to claw their way back into a game they actually had a chance to win, the opening moments set a mistake-filled tone that ultimately left BYU with more hope of contending than expectation of victory.
Despite a determined and heart-stopping BYU comeback in the game's final quarter, Utah prevailed 24-21. For the valiant Cougars, a 13-0 season would not be possible, because yet again, a 3-0 start proved to be too elusive.
Utah by no means played a perfect game; the Utes' 112 yards on ten penalties were at times extremely detrimental to the home team. Except for a handful of plays, the Utah offense struggled on the night, gaining only 245 yards, and converting only four of 16 third-down attempts. Minus White, the Ute run game was inconsequential.
As Utah scored a touchdown on defense, the Ute offense was only responsible for 17 points-—well within the BYU defense's weekly goal for points allowed. What the Utah offense did not do was turn the ball over, and again that proved to be a determining factor in the outcome.
BYU turned the ball over twice, and both miscues were harmful, resulting in 10 Utah points: three off a field goal that followed a Nelson interception, and seven directly off a 47-yard Moe Lee fumble return. The two BYU giveaways and zero takeaways make this the Mendenhall era turnover tally (eight games):
Turnovers Lost: 22
Turnovers Forced: 8
Turnover Margin: -14
Turnover Margin (three wins): +1
Turnover Margin (five losses): -15
Turnover-free games (Utah): 4
Turnover-free games (BYU): 2
Games with more than three turnovers (Utah): 0
Games with more than three turnovers (BYU): 3
How does that happen? How is Utah the cleaner team almost every time the two teams meet? I am certain that BYU coaches and players are very aware of the importance of ball security, yet the Cougars are consistently putting the ball on the ground at a rate exponentially higher than that of their rivals.
One could argue that only the bounce of the ball kept BYU from putting up another truly ugly turnover number on Saturday night; the Cougars actually fumbled five times, and recovered four—-this after losing all of their ten most recent fumbles against the Utes.
Mendenhall says he preaches no more or less about turnover trouble during Utah week than he does any other week, regularly noting BYU's success rate against any and all teams when possessing a positive turnover margin (under Mendenhall, BYU is 38-3 when on the plus side of the ledger; 17-19 on the minus side).
That approach regarding the giveaway epidemic is in line with everything else Mendenhall, his coaches and players say when it comes to the annual game with Utah: it's just the next game on the schedule, and to treat it any differently would be to allow that certain opponents demand a higher-than-usual level of preparation, when weekly preparation should be at a consistently high level for all opponents.
That philosophy and practice has resulted in a great deal of success over Mendenhall's tenure, yet the Cougars' concentration, focus and discipline issues remain evident and magnified in the Utah game, with the Utes now on a three-year win streak. Those shortcomings are most evident in the turnover number, but also showed up Saturday night in the form of 12 penalties, with an overwhelming number of them for false starts.
Including one illegal motion penalty whistled as a false start, BYU had eight such infractions on the night. BYU offensive linemen blamed crowd noise and the Utes' deceptive line shifts and cadence calls for the tendency to jump, but BYU has seen this tactic* for years, and the Cougars were flagged for only seven false starts in the five previous meetings with Utah, combined. BYU's line was completely undone last night, and it cost the Cougars—almost always in high-pressure situations:
(*NCCA Rule 7-1-5-a-3 and 4: "No (defensive) player shall use words or signals that disconcert opponents when they are preparing to put the ball in play. No player may call defensive signals that simulate the sound or cadence of (or otherwise interfere with) offensive starting signals. Player(s) aligned in a stationary position within one yard of the line of scrimmage may not make quick or abrupt actions that are not part of normal defensive player movement.)
BYU False Starts v. Utah
Drive start: 11:47 remaining 1st quarter, 0-0
2nd-and-6 from BYU 24 became 2nd-and-11 from BYU 19
4th-and-1 (and planned sneak) from BYU 29 became 4th-and-6 from BYU 24 (punt on 4th down; 57-yard Utah punt return sets up Utah TD pass two plays later)
Drive start: 0:26 remaining, 1st quarter, BYU down 7-0
1st-and-10 from BYU 32 became 1st-and-15 from BYU 27 (first play after BYU blocked a Utah FG--BYU misses FG on this drive)
Drive start: 1:06 remaining, 2nd quarter, 7-7
2nd-and-9 from BYU 9 became 2nd-and-14 from BYU 4
2nd-and-14 from BYU 4 became 2nd-and-16 from BYU 2 (BYU punted on 4th-and-16)
Drive start: 7:20 remaining, 3rd quarter; BYU down 10-7
1st-and-10 from Utah 20 became 1st-and-15 from Utah 25 (first play after 3rd-down conversion; bad snap on ensuing play resulted in Utah 47-yard fumble return TD)
Drive start: 1:49 remaining, 3rd quarter; BYU down 17-7
1st-and-10 from BYU 17 became 1st-and-15 from BYU 12
2nd-and-15 from BYU 12 became 3rd-and-20 from BYU 7 (punt on 4th down; next Utah play from scrimmage was Utah TD pass to go up 24-7)
Note that six of the eight false starts came inside either the BYU or Utah 25-yard line, with four of the infractions occurring inside BYU's own 20. When BYU was under pressure and backed up, or driving and threatening, the crowd got loud, the Utes got jumpy, and BYU's offense got panicky.
While BYU claims to treat Utah the same as any other opponent, it's reasonable to infer that the Utes approach the BYU game a little differently. Furthermore, it's equally reasonable to infer that by claiming to expend no additional mental energy on Utah, BYU has sacrificed a certain mental sharpness in their meetings.
Indeed, with Utah now on an 8-3 run against the Cougars, you could argue that despite BYU protestations to the contrary, the Utes are now in the Cougars' heads.
Other notable infractions included delay of game for a defensive player kicking the ball on the Utes' first possession, a personal foul that followed a BYU interception and got the Utes into field goal territory on their one field goal drive, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty wiping out most of BYU's kickoff return after Utah took a 17-7 lead--a penalty followed by three infractions (two false starts, one holding) on the ensuing drive.
As you can see, almost every infraction BYU committed had some sort of negative impact. It is equally important to note that BYU's only three scoring drives were penalty-free.
Through two games, BYU has been penalized 28 times 256 yards; only six of 120 FBS teams have more penalties or penalty yards per game. While penalty totals and yardage have never been a reliable indicator in the win/loss column, more discipline should probably be expected from a BYU team that is nothing if not experienced and mature (as opposing coaches frequently note).
Special teams miscues were a theme in BYU's 2010 and 2011 losses to Utah, and again on Saturday night, they showed up to torment the Cougars. However, while two field goals were missed and another was blocked, and while BYU gave up 85 yards in punt returns, the Cougars also blocked a field goal, tackled the punter (setting up a short TD), and returned a punt 34 yards, so the overall special teams play was inching from negative toward neutral on the night.
That said, the contest-ending sequence included game-tying field goal attempts from 51 and (after a field-storming penalty) 36 yards, neither of which was successful. While the longer try is typically low-percentage, the shorter attempt should have been made, and the ball's wobbly flight indicates a lack of routine execution that might be expected in a 36-yarder.
The last-second drama was only made possible by a furious fourth-quarter rally that had Riley Nelson completing six of nine passes for 82 yards and a touchdown on an otherwise shaky night throwing the football.
Through three quarters, Nelson was 11-for-26 for 124 yards, a TD and an interception, with 21 rush yards on 10 carries (he finished with 34 yards on 14 rushes). Nursing an injured back suffered in the Weber State win, Nelson after the game refused to admit any injury, but to almost any observer, Nelson was not himself, as a passer or runner.
Mendenhall said after the game that he never considered pulling Nelson, applauding his senior signal-caller for his toughness and leadership. Had BYU managed to make one of its last-second field goals and win in overtime, Nelson's reputation as a whatever-it-takes winner would only have grown. His almost picture-perfect 47-yard completion to Cody Hoffman on 4th-and-12 would have taken its place next to the Hall-to Collie "4th-and-18" connection from 2007's Utah game.
Instead, too much attention is now likely to focus on the plays not made by Nelson under adverse conditions, and perhaps, on his limitations. I hope that at the same time, his traits as a team leader can be recognized and acknowledged.
Riley Nelson is a special player, and was on the verge of leading BYU back from the brink in the most hostile of environments. That we never got a chance to see what might have happened in an extra session is the regret of that night at Rice-Eccles.
It has been hard for some BYU fans to come to terms with the reality that Nelson is simply not a conventional QB, but it is his lack of convention that makes him such a valuable weapon. Nelson's play-making ability as a ground threat is a chain-mover and momentum builder. However, something has been missing in Nelson's runs this season.
Through three games (two-and-half, really), Nelson has only 71 yards on 29 carries—an average of 2.4 yards per rush. In 2011, his season number was 4.5 yards per carry. Whether on scrambles or designed runs, the production has been inconsistent, and an under-performing offensive line has exposed Nelson to more than his fair share of pocket punishment.
While last season it was commonly heard that Nelson took more shots in the passing pocket than on the run, the hits that knocked him out of the Weber State game were on called draws. His current health status is the cost of doing business with a mobile QB whose mobility is part of the game plan.
A top 20 passer in 2011, Nelson's 2012 completion rate of 60% is only marginally better than 2011's 57%, and his pass efficiency rating is down considerably, from 152.9 last season, to 134.2. Notably, Nelson's completion percentage, pass yards and completions total have all dropped from one game to the next, through three games. Jake Heaps' completion percentage also dropped every game, from one through five, in 2011—and it got him replaced as the starter, by Nelson.
Clearly, Nelson is not 100%, but on a short week before the Boise State game, it's debatable how much his condition is likely to improve between between now and Thursday. Can BYU patiently wait for Nelson to work his way through the pain and hope for steady recuperation, or will other plans be considered?
The answer will come shortly, in the last weeks of a September that began with so much promise. While some of the Cougars' most prominent program goals still remain within reach, others have been necessarily discarded, after this season's pursuit of perfection was halted on a most imperfect night up north.
Photo: Tom Smart, Deseret News