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The days preceding Thanksgiving didn't give BYU football or basketball fans much for which to be grateful.
Bronco Mendenhall's team dropped a 20-14 decision at WAC foe San Jose State on Saturday night, while Dave Rose's hoopsters went 0-for-Brooklyn in losing both of its championship round games at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic—falling to Florida State on Friday, and fading late in a loss to Notre Dame on Saturday.
The early moments of Saturday's football game at Spartan Stadium hinted at a shootout, with both teams scoring touchdowns on their opening possessions. But while San Jose State continued rolling, the BYU offense started reeling. The Spartans' first three drives totaled 211 yards and three touchdowns, while BYU's four series following its opening-drive score resulted in three punts and a turnover on downs.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy said the defense "came out flat," but after SJSU's opening salvo, the Cougar defense flat-out dominated, limiting the Spartans to only 153 yards on their ensuing nine possessions, which resulted in zero points, seven punts and an interception. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall called the early defensive slumber a result of "concentration plays" that caught the Cougars napping, while on the offensive end, BYU faced a deficit of both concentration and execution.
After its opening TD, the ensuing ten possessions produced five punts, two turnovers on downs, a fumble, an interception and the end of the half (preceded by a midfield Hail Mary that didn't quite reach the end zone).
The 11th possession after the opening score presented a moment of magic, as QB Riley Nelson escaped from a would-be sack on fourth down and threw on target to David Foote for a touchdown that brought the Cougars to within six points in the game's closing moments ("Houdini," said San Jose State head coach Mike McIntyre of Nelson's effort).
A recovered onside kick gave BYU life, and after Nelson moved the Cougars 25 yards to the SJSU 21-yard line with a minute-and-a-half remaining, an improbable comeback victory appeared within reach--until a blitzing SJSU linebacker appeared on Nelson's blindside; Nelson was rocked, the ball popped loose, the Spartans recovered, and just like that, BYU was 6-5 for the second time in three seasons.
The San Jose State game was a microcosm of Nelson's BYU career as an occasionally exciting playmaker and frequent mistake-maker. He can make something out of nothing and clutch throws at key times, but he also regularly throws short, high, low and/or into trouble. He gets beat up and appears to be seriously hurt, but bounces back to show the coaches enough of what they need to see to keep him in the game.
Nelson's two fumbles lost at San Jose State doubled his season total, while his lone interception gave him 12 for the season, meaning Nelson has accounted for 15 of BYU's 22 turnovers-—a team giveaway tally that ranks 85th nationally. Of course, assigning sole responsibility for a turnover to a single player is often short-sighted, as a receiver mistake, a blocking error or any number of occurrences can contribute to a turnover committed by the player deemed responsible. That said, Nelson's instincts lean to the reckless side of the spectrum, an athletic trait that he has struggled to manage.
Nelson has a turnover rate of 3.83% this season: 12 interceptions and 3 fumbles lost on 391 plays (combined pass attempts and carries). For his career, Nelson's turnover rate is 3.36%. By comparison, BYU's all-time winningest quarterback--Max Hall--had a career turnover rate of 3.63%, so Nelson is by no means a turnover machine—at least not next to BYU's second all-time passer, nor when compared to all-time leader Ty Detmer, whose career turnover rate was 4.29%.
However, Nelson's shortcomings as a thrower are extremely pronounced when compared to almost everyone in BYU's long line of quarterbacks, and by any measure, his numbers are not what the Cougars needed to turn a promising season into a special season.
Nelson's 2012 performance is statistically the worst of any senior QB who also threw for at least 2,000 yards in a season, and among all BYU QBs topping the 2,000-yard mark, only Jake Heaps' true freshman season in 2010 carries a worse statistical profile.
BYU Quarterback Season Pass Efficiency Ratings (more than 2,000 passing yards)
|Rank||Player||Season||Passing Yards||Pass Efficiency Rating|
*Through 11 games
(Statistics courtesy of CougarStats.com)
While Heaps' sophomore season got off to a staggering start, and ultimately resulted in his benching, he would reasonably have been expected to progress through his Cougar career--or at least that seemed a reasonable expectation. Nelson's replacement of Heaps and ensuing ascendancy prompted Heaps' departure to Kansas--a development that has gained greater depth of import since his departure.
Heaps' remaining two seasons as a Jayhawk may or may not have BYU fans wondering what might have been, but certainly BYU coaches (if not fans) expected more of a payoff from their decision to go with the more mobile Nelson and ride that decision into his senior campaign.
Nelson's back injury in the second game of the 2012 season in many ways was the answer to the coaches' roll of the dice. As a defensive coach scouting opponents' offenses, Bronco Mendenhall had often spoken of the risk in playing a running QB, and that risk taken resulted in fractured vertebrae suffered by Nelson against Weber State.
The coaches' commitment to sticking with a debilitated and strongly-medicated Nelson at Utah contributed to a narrow loss in the Cougars' most important game of the first month. Starting Nelson and keeping him in longer than justified the following week at Boise State is another personnel call rightly scrutinized and criticized.
After two losses and with BYU's BCS hopes dashed, Nelson was benched, and in Taysom Hill, BYU found a stronger, faster better-throwing version of the QB he replaced. What the return missionary true freshman lacked was experience, which he gained in home wins over Hawaii and Utah State.
Again, the coaches came under the magnifying glass when versus the Aggies, an end-of-game sideline miscommunication led to a play that caused a season-ending injury to Hill's knee. By necessity, Nelson was back in the game, the following week versus Oregon State.
Mendenhall had stated that even had Hill not gotten hurt, Nelson was due to re-take his spot as the starter. While that may have indeed transpired, I would like to believe that a healthy Hill would ultimately have assumed the starter's role, as Nelson has never truly returned to his pre-injury condition, encouraging signs in recent weeks notwithstanding.
Clearly, his difference-making running ability has diminished considerably since the start of the season, which is also partly a function of coaches needing to keep Nelson upright. This, because as the coaches' decisions have demonstrated by their actions, they believe that a considerably less-than-100% Riley Nelson gives BYU a better chance to win than healthy five-year senior James Lark.
Which brings up a valid series of questions: if after five seasons Lark is not a viable option to run the team (in case of emergency or otherwise), is he a simple recruiting "miss," an unintended victim of the philosophical shift from pocket to mobile passer, or a reflection of the coaches' ability to prepare backups to adequately perform?
BYU's defense had a shaky start to the San Jose State game, and got exposed by Oregon State, but through 11 games, Bronco Mendenhall's defensive corps has been lights-out, and has kept BYU in essentially every game, from start to finish.
Among FBS teams, the Cougar defense is ranked:
2nd in red zone scoring
3rd in third-down conversion percentage allowed
3rd in total defense
4th in rush defense
7th in scoring defense
17th pass defense
24th in pass efficiency defense
In recent years past, combined with traditional offensive expectations, such a performance would have meant double-digit wins, national rankings and likely BCS consideration.
This season, BYU is a game above .500 because of an offense that ranks:
60th in passing offense
61st in rush offense
65th in total offense
72nd in scoring offense
92nd in pass efficiency
92nd in sacks allowed
The struggles on offense have rendered the defensive dominance less of an indicator of wins and losses.
From 2005 through 2009, BYU went 58-4 when holding the opponent to 24 points or fewer.
In 2012, BYU has equaled the previous seven seasons' loss total in such games, going 6-4 when holding the opposition to 24 points or fewer.
Despite going 6-5, BYU has been in all 11 games in the fourth quarter, with a chance to win literally each and every game in the closing 15 minutes. The Cougars' failure to finish has been pronounced and problematic, dating back to BYU's 17-16 loss at Utah in 2010.
BYU led that game 13-0 heading into the fourth quarter, and could not hang on to the lead, losing on a blocked field goal in the game's closing seconds. Before that game, BYU had won 14 games decided by seven points or fewer. Including that game, BYU has gone 5-6 in its last 11 games decided by a converted touchdown or less; the Cougars are 1-4 in 2012's one-score games.
Again, the error margin is narrow, and the most crucial of decisions--by coaches and quarterback--have had a huge impact on what could have been a landmark season.
Turnover talk: as good as BYU's' defense has been, among the nation's top units, the Cougars are hardly ball-hawks. Of the top 10 FBS teams in scoring defense (BYU 7th) and total def (BYU 3rd), BYU ranks 7th in both groups, in number of turnovers forced.
Of the top 10 FBS teams in scoring defense, BYU is 10th in turnover margin; of the top 10 in total defense, BYU is 9th.
Of 120 FBS teams, BYU is 68th in number of turnovers gained, 85th in number of turnovers lost; 89th in turnover margin.
By the way, in those 11 most recent games decided by seven points or fewer, BYU's turnover margin is +3 in the five wins, and -11 in the six losses.
Back to basketball now, and it was an unusual weekend for the Cougar hoopsters; unusual, because BYU dropped consecutive regular season games for the first time in almost four years, and for only the third time in Dave Rose's eight-season tenure.
I was not able to be courtside for either game, so my impressions were incomplete, from a distance and somewhat scattered, but I was surprised by the Cougars' performance.
I expected Florida State and Notre Dame to be formidable foes, but what I didn't expect was for only one of BYU's top three players to play as well as was needed to win.
I was upset that Brandon Davies picked up two fouls so quickly in the opener, but for him to be bench-bound in the opening minutes of the Notre Dame game with the same foul trouble was hard to believe, and hard to take. If there is any imperative for the 2012-13 Cougars, it is that Davies has to stay on the floor. Having said that, BYU recovered from Davies' absence (thanks in large part to Ian Harward's contributions) to lead by one at the break, and by as many as seven points with 14:45 to play. What followed was an Irish run that effectively put the Cougars away by ten.
Davies played a total of 39 minutes in New York, and scored 31 minutes in the time he was available. He shot 10-for-22 from the field and 10-for-15 from the free throw line, neither of which are glowing percentages, but he was relatively active when on the floor, also grabbing ten rebounds in his 39 minutes.
Point guard Matt Carlino could not have had a worse weekend: 1/14 fg, 0/8 3pfg, 0/1 ft, 2.5 assists/game, two turnovers, two steals. After playing 16 scoreless minutes against Florida State, he played 30 minutes against Notre Dame, making his only basket of the two-game stint.
This was to be a season in which Carlino took a huge step forward after an inconsistent freshman campaign. Following two solid games to start the season, Carlino took a major step back in Brooklyn.
Like Carlino, Tyler Haws is a sophomore. Unlike Carlino, Haws didn't play last season, which makes the start of his first season back off an LDS mission all the more impressive.
In the first four games of his second season, Haws has scored 22, 22, 23 and 21 points. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that such a metronomic talent has produced four almost identical outings.
In truth, Haws had just an okay shooting weekend in New York (45% fg, 17% 3pfg), but he was the Cougars' only truly reliable scoring option. In addition to his 22 points per game, Haws led BYU in rebounding at 8.5 rpg; his 4.5 assists per game also led all players.
It's great that Haws is ready to play so well having just returned from two years in the Philippines; it's equally unfortunate that he had so little help from players who have spent the last two years playing and winning a lot of games.
Brock Zylstra went 7-for-19 from the field (3-for-10 inside the arc); Josh Sharp played nine minutes scoreless minutes in the one night, scored seven points on 2-for-6 shooting 38 minutes the next; Craig Cusick went 4 of 14 from the field and 3 of 9 from the arc; Nate Austin made only three of his 11 shots and two of four free throws.
Besides Harward's relief effort on Saturday (seven points in 11 minutes before fouling out), BYU's four newcomers were non-factors in New York.
Junior college transfers Raul Delgado and Agustin Ambrosino have done very little in the first four games of their BYU careers. All Aguie has done is take six three-point shots (made one) in 28 minutes spread over four games, while Delgado has missed all three of his shots (0/2 3pfg) over 22 minutes in three games (DNP v. Notre Dame). I know Abrosino is more than a three-point chucker, and I am convinced that Delgado can be an all-around contributor, so these are not the starts I envisioned.
It is very early in their Cougar careers, but for juco transfers like Ambrosino and Delgado, time is of the essence, and such players are expected to acclimate themselves with more relative ease than freshmen; so far that has not been the case.
Freshman Cory Calvert had his moments against Florida State (four points, two assists in 12 minutes), but played only two scoreless minutes against Notre Dame.
BYU has seen its point total decrease in each of the four games played so far, and after shooting 36% from the field and 23% from the arc over the weekend, BYU is hitting at 44% and 30% for the season. Aside from playing at a quick pace (6th in kenpom.com tempo ratings), BYU's early-season numbers are not typical of a Rose-coached team--not after two bad nights in Brooklyn.
The most interesting stat to emerge from New York: BYU collected 38 offensive rebounds to the opponents' 15 offensive boards, and the Cougars turned those rebounds into a combined 34-10 second-chance points edge over Florida State and Notre Dame. Sadly, those advantages meant very little the way BYU was shooting.
In every way, it was an out-of-sync two-game performance for the Cougars; their first chance to climb back to familiar levels of performance comes Wednesday night at home to UTSA.