A lot of frustration and what-ifs followed BYU's 38-28 loss to TCU last week.
Count me among those who wonder what could have been had BYU played even a slightly cleaner game. As it stands, the last of the meaningful contests has left the Cougars' schedule, and the remaining games are unlikely to tell us much about who the Cougars are and what they are becoming heading into 2012.
With that in mind, the following slides highlight five points of interest I took away from the TCU game, as well as their larger scale application to the Cougar program as a whole.
Texas intercepts a BYU Pass Earlier This Season
Turnovers are single-handedly destroying BYU's football reputation. The consistent factor in losses to BCS opponents and rivals such as Utah or TCU has been the Cougars' negative turnover margin.
BYU play-by-play announcer Greg Wrubell pointed out in a recent article that BYU is averaging 3.3 turnovers per game since 2008 in these types of marquee contests (games against BCS teams with winning records and Utah/TCU).
Just how damaging is that 3.3 average? Considering BYU has averaged 12 and a half drives this year, such a number of turnovers means that BYU is giving away over 25 percent of their possession to the other team.
When playing tougher opponents with superior defenses, a team needs to have as many chances to score as possible. Turnovers are limiting BYU's odds of scoring against caliber teams, and we haven't even mentioned the effect these turnovers have in putting BYU's defense in bad situations.
Max Hall celebrates victory over top-ranked Oklahoma.
Turnovers aren't the only errors the Cougars are struggling with in big games. The TCU contest showcased an unprepared BYU punt unit that basically gave TCU two free turnovers.
The loss at Utah in 2010 was aided by a key dropped pass on a fourth down early in the game, a Utah punt that ricocheted off an unaware BYU player and of course a poorly executed end-of-game field goal attempt.
Even in BYU's wins against marquee teams, the team's overall performance tends to be error-laden. BYU's victory over No. 3 Oklahoma in 2009 included three BYU turnovers in the first half, one of which was a fumble one-yard away from the end zone. Worse was the kickoff following BYU's go ahead touchdown to McKay Jacobsen in the fourth quarter.
With just over three minutes left in the game and BYU nursing a mere one-point lead, the one thing BYU could't afford to do was give Oklahoma good field position. Ensuing kickoff? Out of bounds, Oklahoma ball at the 40. Had Oklahoma converted their long field goal at the end of the game, we would all remember Mitch Payne's kick out of bounds as one of the great mess-ups in BYU history.
Nelson on the run against TCU
Although BYU quarterback Riley Nelson had his share of blunders in the TCU loss, I was impressed by his ability to pick up yards on the ground. I figured that if there was one team that would pin down the elusive Nelson, it would be the athletic Horned Frogs. That was not the case as the junior ran for a net 84 yards on 23 carries.
While I don't believe that BYU has to have a true scrambling quarterback like Riley to compete against good teams, a semi-mobile QB is critical when playing the advanced man-to-man defenses of more athletic defenses.
Man defenses are vulnerable to such QBs because the opposing defensive backs are more likely to turn their backs to the QB when covering receivers downfield. Remember the BYU-Utah game of 2009 in Provo?
Max Hall—who was never known for his quick feet—exploited the Ute's man defense by scrambling for various first downs on 3rd-and-long. Considering the trouble man-to-man cover has given the Cougars in the past, having a scrambler like Riley will be very beneficial to the Cougar's future.
Riley Nelson converts the two-point conversion.
In years past, one could argue that the knock on BYU's football team was that it had non-athletic players in certain positions, that it lacked the overall talent to succeed on a national level. That has changed at BYU, where the physical skill set of recent recruits is a major upgrade over those of the past.
As a result, BYU isn't lacking talent as much as they are consistency. They have a defense with playmakers capable of dominating teams, yet they also blow coverages and allow big plays all too often.
The offense has mounted four scoring drives of over 90 yards this season but has also struggled to overpower opponents throughout the year. The special teams boast high school record holders Riley Stephenson and Justin Sorensen, yet the duo hasn't lived up to its billing as elite contributors thus far in their careers.
All in all, BYU needs to play at a consistent level for four quarters if they want to succeed in spotlight games.
TCU celebrates a touchdown against BYU
To many BYU fans, the loss against TCU represented the team's final chance at making any national noise this season as an independent.
Following the loss, frustration and pessimism has seeped into the minds of many, especially with the ongoing news that a host of BYU's rivals have been selected for BCS conference inclusion while the Cougars remain on the outside. Some wonder if BYU's inability to compete with Utah and TCU this year prove that the Cougars have reached their peak and are on the verge of becoming an irrelevant, second-tier program.
To such fans, I say relax. It's easy to forget that BYU is breaking in a new offensive coordinator, running back coach, wide receiver coach and outside linebackers coach. Not only is the staff young, but many of the players are as well. Turnovers and mental errors have made games that could have been competitive victories end up as blowouts or frustrating losses. The talent for BYU is there; this team just needs to work out the kinks.
Let's hope that happens before Fall 2012, when the next slate of important games hit the BYU schedule.