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In the wake of a second successive heartbreaking setback, the BYU Cougars are left to pick up the pieces and proceed with a season that has devolved from one of promise to one of pathos, all in the space of two games, over six short days.
Two straight losses. A failed two-point conversion. Another two-quarterback situation. The number "two" figures prominently in assessing the Cougars' current predicament, so let's break it down:
Once BYU opened 2-0 with wins over rebuilding Washington State and over-matched Weber State, it was all going to come down to the next two games, at Utah and Boise State—two of the four toughest contests on the BYU schedule. If BYU was going to become a national story into the month of October, the Cougars would have to win on their rival's home field and on Boise's blue turf.
Anything less would relegate BYU to college football's back burner, as just another team trying to pick up wins, qualify for a bowl, and regain a Top 25 ranking. A single loss would effectively remove BYU from the BCS mix, as no non-BCS conference team with a loss has ever played in a big-money bowl.
The much-analyzed defeat at Utah took the air out of BYU's balloon, just as early-season defeats have done, in most years, for the last four decades. The way to get on to the national radar is to win early, and win often. Yet, only once in the Bronco Mendenhall era have the Cougars managed to get out of September undefeated. The year was 2008, when BYU opened 6-0 before getting trounced at TCU--a loss that started a season-ending swoon, as the Cougars went 4-3 in their final seven games.
Prior to 2008, the last time BYU took an unblemished record into October was 2001, when under Gary Crowton, the Cougars won their first 12 games. Before that, in 1993, BYU finished September 4-0 but lost in game five, and previous to that, you have to go back the perfect season of 1984 to find a perfect opening month.
Since LaVell Edwards took over as head coach in 1972, opening 6-0 (the arbitrary standard for a "news-making" start) has happened only four times. That's four times in 40 years. Going into October undefeated has occurred only seven times in 40 years.
"Be Ye Therefore Perfect": BYU's Undefeated Starts (through September) Since 1972
|Season||Record Through September||Record at time of First Loss||Season Record|
While BYU fans should be used to early-season disappointments, they have become increasingly more difficult to handle, as for BYU the stakes have increased in the BCS--and now, the FBS independent--era.
What Boise State, Utah, TCU, and even Hawaii have managed to do in recent seasons is start strong, then go on to withstand the mounting pressure that comes with rising national media attention and an expanding target at which other teams can than aim. Those programs have accounted for seven undefeated seasons, all while members of non-BCS conference leagues.
The Broncos, Utes and Horned Frogs perfectly navigated the college football mine field not once, but twice, each. In the last decade, BYU has still yet to experience that high-tension, bright-lights dynamic, because it hasn't been able to get into the second half of the season without an entry in the "L" column.
The 2012 season presented BYU with an opportunity for unprecedented national acclaim. ESPN networks would televise three of the Cougars' opening month games--two against Pac-12 foes and another against the winningest team in college football since the turn of the century.
Moving forward, into October, BYU would play a Pac-12 team (Oregon State) which has made some national news, and would go on to visit Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The Cougars would do all of this with a senior-laden roster featuring a senior quarterback--historically all but a guarantee of success.
The outline of the painting was well-defined; all that was required was to fill in the picture. After a couple of strong brush strokes, came the equivalent of a ripped canvas.
Two hits to the back
Following a strong start to the season (25/36 passing, 285 yds, 2 td, 0 int) v. Washington State, BYU quarterback Riley Nelson got off to a sluggish start the next week at home to Weber State. He misfired on passes, made wrong reads, and generally looked out of sorts to start the game. So, offensive coordinator Brandon Doman called a QB draw to get him going--have him take a hit, maybe, to wake him up.
With 6:34 remaining in the first quarter, on 2nd-and-9, Nelson took the shotgun snap and took off, gaining five yards. At the end of the run, he was held up by Weber State's Tony Epperson, and then hammered by the Wildcats' Luke King, right in the back.
The play had the desired effect, as Nelson got on a bit of a roll, completing his next five passes--the last of which was a 37-yard TD strike to Cody Hoffman, as the Cougars opened the scoring on their way to a 45-13 win. But the simple run play also had an unanticipated impact, as Nelson's back was hurt on the hard tackle.
Nelson kept playing, when late into the second quarter, this time with 6:10 to go until halftime, Doman again called a draw, and Nelson ran up the middle for 11 yards and a first down. But as King dragged Nelson down by the legs, a host of tacklers arrived at the same time, with Weber State defensive lineman Siamani Harris landing hard on Nelson's back.
This time, Nelson was slow to get up. He motioned to the sidelines that he did not need a replacement, but he was clearly laboring. The series ended a few plays later with another BYU touchdown, and the Cougars were cruising, 21-0.
Nelson came back out on the field for one final series to end the half, completed three of his next five passes, then threw his first interception of the season. It would be his last play of the day, as he did not return for the second half. The official postgame explanation was "back spasms."
With only one day of press availability the following week, before the Utah game, the media were told that Nelson was sore but that his reps would increase as the week went along. Nelson did not do very much live work during that week, and backup James Lark was told to be ready to go on Saturday.
Nelson started and went all the way at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but did not play very well. A sub-50% passing day included another interception and three fumbles, none of which were lost. While Nelson completed a dramatic 47-yard pass on 4th-and-12 to keep the game alive late, he did not look much like himself on the whole.
Possessing a career yards per carry average of nearly five yards per rush, Nelson entered Boise State week with a season rush average of 2.4 yards. Nelson's pass completing percentage had dropped every week, from week one through week four. He was clearly playing hurt, and hurt to an extent that his effectiveness was being compromised.
Yet, from the BYU side, Nelson's injury was hardly being acknowledged, let alone used to explain any shortcomings. A senior captain, Nelson's toughness through turmoil had earned considerable capital with the coaching staff, and those coaches were going to trust Nelson to "grit" his way through any physical difficulties, even as murmured reports surfaced that he was dealing with not just a back injury, but a few cracked vertebra.
Monday after the Utah loss, Nelson was expected to be considerably hobbled, but he surprised staffers with his mobility and energy to start a short week of preparation for the Thursday night game at Boise State. Nevertheless, Doman was making provisions. He demoted Lark to third-string, and elevated return missionary freshman Taysom Hill to back-up, allowing BYU's play sheet to remain relatively intact, as Hill's mobility mirrors that of Nelson.
Nelson and Hill split snaps in practice, and BYU went to Boise.
It was clear from the start that not only was Nelson still not right, but that sticking with him that night was wrong. BYU had 20 yards of offense in the first quarter, and only 68 yards of offense in a scoreless first half. At the break, Nelson was 4-for-7 passing for 19 yards and an interception. He had three rushing yards on five carries.
Nelson started the second half with a interception on his first series. Taysom Hill warmed up, took practice snaps, and was ready to enter the game, when Nelson asked for, and was granted, one more series. Four plays later, he threw his third interception of the night, and he left the game for the final time, with a pass efficiency rating of -4.49. Exactly three weeks earlier, he began his senior season by putting up a passer rating of 154.28. While Washington State and Boise State may differ in defensive caliber, this was not a personnel-driven differential. This was Riley Nelson trying to tough it out, when the decision of those in charge of the program should have been to take him out--and much earlier than they did.
Nelson is hurt, and is hurting the team as a result. This is not to say he should be blamed. Nelson knows only one speed, and only one way to play. He is exactly the kind of guy you want leading your team. But the last two weeks of play provide clear evidence that he cannot be himself in his current state. It is up to a coach, trainer or doctor to take the ball out of his hands, because he won't give it up on his own.
Bronco Mendnenhall stepped into a rebuilding situation when he took over as head coach in 2005, but the cupboard was not bare behind center, and stayed well-stocked. Mendenhall's first five seasons featured the last two years of John Beck's career, and all three seasons of Max Hall's quarterbacking tenure. With the exception of a single game Beck missed while nursing a sprained ankle in 2006, he and Hall took every meaningful snap over a five-season span.
There were no position battles in summer and spring, there were no platoon systems in place, and most importantly, there were none of the kinds of QB struggles that would lead coaches to consider making a change.
BYU had quarterbacking stability for five straight years, with signal-callers asked to run a quick-fire yet relatively conventional offensive system. Beck and Hall were older, more mature quarterbacks. Beck was finishing up his career, while Hall had a redshirt season at Arizona State, a church mission and then a scout team season to prepare him for his time as the no. 1 QB at BYU. Neither Beck nor Hall were asked to make too many plays with their feet, which contributed to their durability.
Then came 2010, and the ill-fated two-QB plan that had Nelson and highly-touted freshman Jake Heaps splitting snaps into the season. Mendenhall has since stated the plan was a mistake, even had it not been scuttled by Nelson's season-ending injury. Mendenhall determined that using two quarterbacks was not the way to go, and so after a season in which Heaps struggled but ultimately shone, he was anointed the starter heading into 2011.
Heaps' own struggles during his sophomore season led to Nelson's re-emergence, and after leading BYU to an 8-1 finish following a 2-2 start, Nelson was "the man," and Heaps was headed to Kansas.
2012 has now presented BYU with another two-QB dilemma, and not coincidentally, it comes concurrent with a third straight staggering start to the season. The week ahead will be filled with questions and conjecture: will Nelson start? How badly is he really hurt? Is Hill ready? Are Lark's days totally done?
Just when BYU had seemingly extricated itself from the prospect of quarterback controversy, it is most definitely back, and not at a good time.
Two sides of the ball
BYU's defense deserves better.
Bronco Mendenhall's charges are living up to the hype: this looks like his best defense ever. Yet, despite allowing only 12.5 points and 246.0 yards per game, the defense plays for a 2-2 team.
BYU just went to Boise State and held the Broncos without an offensive touchdown on its home field for the first time since the program joined the FBS in 1996. BYU's defense has now held ten consecutive opponents under 300 yards of total offense.
BYU has kept opponents to no more than 24 points in eight straight games, last allowing more than 24 on October 28th of last year, when special teams miscues led to short fields and a 38-point outing by TCU (the Horned Frogs gained a season-low 283 yards).
BYU's defense is allowing only 30% of 3rd downs to be converted, and has stopped seven of nine 4th down attempts, including all five of Boise State's on Thursday night.
Opponents have only eight red zone penetrations, and only three scores.
By any measure, Mendenhall's defense is among the very best in the country. Because of offensive woes that have gotten more pronounced with every successive week, the defensive rewards are currently limited to the statistical--and that's a shame, because this defense should be showcased.
Thursday night's game-turning decision to go for two after the Cougar's lone touchdown with 3:37 remaining has been and will continue to be dissected. On our postgame broadcast, the reasons for and against the decision were debated deep into the night.
I'll restate what I did on Thursday: I would have kicked the extra point.
The decision to try for two wasn't wrong just because it failed, just as a decision to go for one would not have been right simply if it had succeeded.
This isn't about what was right or wrong, as much as it was about what was best in the given situation.
Second-guessing is easy, and it's tough to criticize a coach for an aggressive mindset--for wanting to play for the win. Whether or not it was lip service, BSU head coach Chris Peterson said he would have done the same thing, and Bronco Mendenhall's decision had support from some media and perhaps other observers both inside and outside of the coaching fraternity. While not a consensus, most national analysts who took time to address the call, disagreed with it.
Mendnenhall told us after the game that not only would he make the same decision again, but that he did not even consider the reasons for kicking. Among those reasons:
1) this was not a David vs. Goliath matchup, in which the trailing team sees a solitary chance to record a statement victory. BYU was not a team that stood no chance of continuing to compete in overtime. It was not a "now or never" situation.
2) BYU's defense had stymied the Broncos all evening long. BSU had failed to score a single point on offense, and its kicking woes were evident throughout the game. BSU opted to go for it on fourth down on multiple occasions when kicks would have been prudent; the problem for the Broncos was that PK Michael Frisina had yet to convert a field goal attempt outside of 30 yards, and had already missed earlier in the game, from 33 yards. Were the game to go to overtime and BSU be forced to kick, the chances of Boise State actually booting a winning field goal were iffy, at best.
3) BYU had completed eight of 19 passes on the night. A two-point play, were it to require a throw, was not a high-percentage play. BYU's offense, in general, was by no means a well-oiled machine on the night, the preceding 95-yard Taysom Hill-led drive notwithstanding.
4) BYU has an ongoing team record of 68 consecutive PATs, and counting. Getting to overtime was all but a lock if the decision was made to go for one. Here's a thought: had BYU wanted to go for the win, it would have been a great time go to its bag of tricks; a two-point attempt is much easier to defend if the opponent knows it is coming. If you're going to gamble on two, why not do it in a way that carries with it the element of surprise? Taysom Hill's ability to kick is precisely what had BYU experimenting with gimmick special teams formations in camp. Like I said, just a thought.
5) Hill had to gather his thoughts to run the two-point play--something he was not expecting. Everything from his post-touchdown demeanor indicated that he expected a PAT attempt. Celebrating while coming to the sideline, Hill was sent back on the field. Mendenhall said he knew that the team would go for two once the drive got to the Boise State 20-yard line. That knowledge was not shared with Hill until after his TD was scored. He had to come back to earth in a hurry.
6) The time/time-out factor. With only 3:37 remaining and no time-outs left, a failed two-point attempt would necessitate forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing Boise State possession. Any BSU chain-mover would essentially end the game.
7) Game vibe. This is a hard factor to put in empirical terms, so I won't try. The Cougars had played very poorly on offense through 52 minutes, yet thanks to four-and-a-half minutes of inspired football, were in a position to extend the game with a fresh QB and still-dominant defense. To risk that extension seemed to be pressing one's luck. I was surprised the kicking team was kept on the sidelines, since the flow of the game told me BYU had righted the ship, and could now sail it into the extra session with some confidence. Again, it's a vibe thing, and my vibe read differed from that of the decision-makers.
Parenthetically, had Boise State been intent on avoiding overtime following a game-tying BYU touchdown (if BYU had taken the extra-point), the Broncos would have been moving to get into position for a late score, with plenty of time (and time-outs) to do so. They of course would have adopted the same approach if trailing by one.
While unlikely, given the aforementioned kicking troubles, a successful last-second scoring kick (a recent rarity in Boise, much to fans' dismay), would have beaten BYU, either way. The value of a one-point advantage with almost four minutes remaining would have been greater than that of a tie, obviously, but not nearly what it would have been had less time remained.
In a game played Saturday in Atlanta, Miami (FL) led Georgia Tech 19-0, only to see the Yellow Jackets score 36 straight. The 'Canes rallied to get to within one point at 36-35, with 27 seconds to play in regulation. Miami, with considerable momentum, on the road, decided to kick the extra point. It was good, the game went to overtime, and the Miami defense did its job--stopping Tech on a 4th-and-1 outside the goal line.
Miami's lone offensive possession ended in a TD run, and the the Hurricanes won the game, 42-36.
I only bring it up because I was watching it live and I had an uncomfortable flashback. Miami did what I would have done, and what I thought BYU should have done the other night. It worked out for Miami, and it did not work out for BYU. Was either decision right or wrong? While it is easy to judge by the outcome, we can simply say the safe play paid off, while the risky one did not.
Now to BYU's two-point play call itself, which was not a bad one at all, and might have looked a lot like Hill's TD pass to Kaneakua Friel v. Washington State, had the play worked the way it was designed.
Like that play in the opener, it was called to give Hill a run-pass option on a sprint-out to the right, and seeing as Hill had just dragged tacklers into the end zone from the four-yard line, a run play for Hill from the three would have been a strong play, the way I saw it.
Unfortunately, the option to run, and the best angle to pass, were both taken away when left guard Brock Stringham got literally thrown off the line by BSU lineman Mike Atkinson at the snap. Stringham had no leverage, was immediately pushed back four yards, and just like that, a well-designed play was blown up. Hill had to retreat as he moved laterally from left to right hash, and as a result, the ball was simply in the air too long. It was batted down before reaching its intended target, and BYU would never touch the ball again.
The offensive line failure to properly block the play only underscores the issues that the line has struggled with this season. I am not capable of breaking down proper technique, but I, like many others, recognize bad snaps, false starts, spotty run production, and players getting pushed around in the trenches. All of those shortcomings have been evident in BYU's shaky start to the season.
A question I failed to adequately address on game night was why, since Mendenhall had been aggressive only moments before, did he not call for an onside kick in an attempt to get the ball immediately back. Only 3:37 remained in the game after the Hill TD, and with BYU possessing no time-outs, all it would take was a single first down for Boise to ice the 7-6 win. The Broncos got that play with a 15-yard crosser on 2nd-and-10, and the game was over.
If going for two was the no-doubt-about-it correct decision, albeit a decision with some risk, an onside kick should have been in the same general philosophical vicinity. Mendenhall said he thought too much time remained to qualify the onside call as a no-brainer, and I recall believing the defense could indeed get the ball back for the offense. Didn't happen.
Two season-ending injuries
BYU's offensive line troubles were not helped by the news early last week that guard/center Houston Reynolds was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the Utah setback.
Reynolds was among BYU's most experienced and versatile linemen, and while he had some health concerns in the off-season/early in camp, and was coming off bench to begin the season, Reynolds was one of the Cougars' top six O-liners. Bench experience is now very thin for a group that is having a hard time getting sufficient performance levels from its starters.
The defense's tremendous showing so far is more impressive considering that projected starting right end Ian Dulan hasn't played a single snap while dealing with a back injury. Now, stating left end Eathyn Manulameuna is done for the year (6-12 weeks, officially) with a knee injury suffered on Thursday night.
Ziggy Ansah, Bronson Kaufusi and Remington Peck will now be called on to complement Russell Tialavea at defensive end, and despite the fact Ansah is still learning the game and Kaufusi/Peck are just off their missions, BYU should be okay. Mike Muehlmann's decision to quit the team last week comes at an interesting time, all things now considered.
Two seasons on the job
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman thought he had it figured out. After a rookie season after which he admitted he had guessed wrong on the 2011 Cougars' team identity, he game-planned around a mobile Riley Nelson for his second OC campaign in 2012, and both he and Mendenhall acknowledged that future BYU QBs would likely be shaped in Nelson's mold--perhaps bigger and stronger, but just as able to make a play on the run as with their throwing arm.
Clearly, Doman's architecture required a healthy Riley Nelson, and that has not been the case since early in the Weber State game. Doman has decided to take pocket passer James Lark and send him deeper down the bench as BYU now goes with Hill, his speed, strength and athleticism--in the Nelson role.
He is older and more mature than an everyday freshman, but Hill is still a rookie, and as recent experience has shown, greenhorn QBs will make their fair share of mistakes. I am excited for Taysom Hill, but assuming that Nelson will spend some time on the bench (as he should), fans should moderate their expectations. Hill may surpass those expectations, but it wasn't long ago that Mendenhall was all but swearing off freshman QBs, and here we are again--much to Lark's chagrin, I am sure.
This is not meant to start a Hill v. Lark debate, since I think Hill will be special and Lark doesn't fit Doman's new QB model. That said, I am sure Lark thought he would be Nelson's insurance policy--a policy that was ripped up early last week with his demotion to third-string. It has to be hard for Lark, who has been a loyal solider over the years of his BYU tenure. That's sports, and that's life.
QB issues aside, Doman has yet to call a single game in which a BYU rusher has gone for 100 yards on the ground--not a hard standard to reach, but one that has not been met at BYU over the last 17 games (the longest such streak at BYU since 1994-1996). The last century mark runner was now-transferred Joshua Quezada, in the final game of the 2010 season--the last game of Robert Anae's tenure as OC.
It's not one of Doman's job requirements that a BYU back gain 100 yards on the boss' watch, but the fact that a marquee back has not been identified or performed as such in a season-and-a-half of work is somewhat notable. Running backs coach Joe DuPaix has said he does not prefer the "committee approach" in the backfield, but to this point, the next Curtis Brown or Harvey Unga has yet to be found.
In one respect, it is almost unconscionable that a BYU offense which gained almost a thousand yards in weeks one and two should be held to roughly half that amount in the ensuing two weeks.
On the other hand, Nelson's injury was clearly a contributing factor, which begs the question: how can the offensive coordinator allow a physically hampered QB to play and start, when it is clear that his performance is not up to the standard the team requires?
Either way, it's Doman's offense, and whether running it with able bodies or otherwise, it has not looked good--and in fact, BYU's offense has rarely looked worse than it did on Thursday night. The 61 passing yards at Boise State were a Mendenhall-era low, and the 200 yards in total offense represent the worst total since the Cougars gained only 147 yards at TCU in 2010.
(Minus)-two in the turnover margin
Under Mendenhall, BYU has played 37 games against a group of teams comprised of:
In other words, "big games" against the "big boys." In those 37 games, BYU has had a positive turnover margin in exactly nine of them. BYU has been even in the margin in another eight, with 20 of the 37 ending with the Cougars on the negative side of the margin. Of those 20, BYU has been minus-two or worse in 14 games. BYU's record in those games is 2-12.
Before the Boise State game, Mendenhall identified only one key to the game: hang on to the football. His team then went out and turned the ball over five times on the blue turf, with zero takeaways. In the losses to Utah and Boise State, BYU went minus-seven in the TO margin.
Bronco Mendenhall has in the past stated that his most successful teams were molded by the early-season setbacks they encountered. Indeed, 2-2 is not unfamiliar territory, as Mendenhall has now been 2-2 through four games in four of his eight seasons. On the previous three occasions, his teams rebounded to finish 11-2 (2006), 11-2 (2007) and 10-3 (2011).
The Cougars need four wins in their final eight games to become bowl eligible and cement their Poinsettia Bowl reservation for December 20th. Four more wins represent a very attainable goal, but not unless BYU starts playing offense with the right people, and in the right way. Another double-digit win season will require substantially better play than we have seen so far, to be certain.
The coming weeks will be incredibly interesting, as we observe the true substance of the 2012 team. I expect changes, and innovation, and intensity. I hope for a return to "BYU Football."
I expect a bit of a re-set for the Cougars; let's just call it "Take Two."