Thursday, December 3, 2009

What We Learned in the Utah Game

With now almost a week to move past the post-game storm, there is a bit more bandwidth to take a closer look at the game itself and how the team played along the dimensions that we were watching. I have left the pre-game assessment from last week in italics and responded below it…

Passion. The Cougars had it last week against Air Force for seemingly the first time. The Utes seem to have it in all the big games. The team that has more of it will likely be ahead at halftime.

The Cougars were ahead at half time and then quickly fell behind as they appeared complacent and intent on running out the clock with a 20-6 lead going into the fourth quarter. A “prevent” offense is a sure intensity and passion killer, and on cue, the team lost its passion and its lead at the same time.

Turnovers. This game has been decided by 7 points or less for of the last 11 games. Essentially decided on the last play of the game in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Every possession matters. The team that has more turnovers, will likely be playing catch up in the final minutes.

One turnover was perhaps the difference in this game. And the team that committed it, was indeed playing catch up at the end. And once again the game was decided on the last play.

Touchdowns or field goals. It seems that in games with Utah where BYU has been favored, the Cougars have dominated the stat box, but only come away with field goals at the end of several long drives, leaving it open for the Utes to make one fourth quarter drive to take the lead. They will need touchdowns in order to maintain control of this at the end.

The tables were finally turned, as it was Utah that had 4 FGs and only 1 TD in regulation, while the Cougs had 2 of each. Ironically, in overtime, this question, FG or TD, would actually determine the winner of the game, and it was the Cougs that once again were able to pull out a touchdown when it was needed. Big props need to be given to the defense for holding the Utes to field goals on so often on short fields.

 • Relax, Max. When Max is relaxed and having fun, he plays well. Sometimes, when he feels the pressure and forced to come from behind, he forces things and drives tend to end quickly in three and outs or sooner with a turnover.

Max did not look relaxed at all (which is perhaps what we saw come out after the game), and had one of his worst games of the season. However, the silver lining is that while several drives did end in three-and-outs, at least they didn’t end in interception, as he was conscientiously tucking the ball and being careful not to force it. What fans complained of as over-caution, may have actually kept the ball from being turned over.

• Run the ball. The Cougs have a history of successfully running the ball in the Utah game. It is almost as if Utah has given that up in favor of defending the pass, daring our offensive coordinator to go to the run more than is in the game plan. If the Utes do that again, Anae will need to have the courage to take what they are giving. Unga will be relied upon heavily to keep the ball moving. Success in this area will be key.

Harvey Unga was the unheralded MVP of the game (116 yds, 1 TD, 5.0 yds/carry), as he essentially carried the game on his shoulders while Max was a bit off. Interestingly, Kariya and DiLuigi were not given any carries in this game.

• Pressure Jordan Wynn. With the Cougar defense, it has been all or nothing as far as pressuring the quarterback. When they have opted to apply pressure, in general opposing quarterbacks have shown cracks and the defense has had success (although a glaring exception is the FSU game). In any case, it is in the best interest of the defensive psyche (and fans for that matter), to make proactive mistakes of aggression, rather than passively sit back and give up essentially the same yardage and big plays by being too conservative. It will be essential to keep the freshman on edge.

Pressure from the front seven was inconsistent, but when pressure was applied, he was rattled. When he had time (except on the long throws), he was able to find the open receiver. On the flip side, the defense did a good job of stopping the run and holding Utah to under 100 yards as a team (although Eddie Wide broke some big ones in the fourth quarter and ended with 116 yards).

Both teams are 9-2. Both teams have shown flashes of brilliance and incompetence at various times throughout the season. This game will be decided by the small things—turnovers, penalties, big third and fourth down conversions, a missed tackle here, a dropped pass there. With all of that in mind, I will refrain from predicting the pace of the game, but only the outcome. BYU 30 Utah 26.

This game was a microcosm of the season for both seasons. The cougars going hot and cold. The Utes starting out poorly and then coming on strong at the end. In the end it was the small things—unsportsmanlike penalties, a fourth down conversion, the lone turnover—that decided the game.

A few other observations:
  • BYU only completed four passes to wide receivers in this game.  That has to be the lowest total of the season, and perhaps in several years.
  • The defense made a strong showing when it counted in a big game (after failing against FSU and TCU). 
  • From the east stands, it appeared that the early hit on Jordan Wynn, may have been a late hit, but upon watching the game again, it looks like it was a clean hit.  And to his credit, he was able to come back and play through it.
  • It is easy to question the play calling and coaching decisions in any game, and I don't want to get into that habit, but two scenarios in particular seemed to stand out to me... 1) the punt from the Utah 35 yard line in the second quarter on 4th and 5.   They could have tried a 52 yard field goal (probably the same odds as not getting a touchback) or gone for it (better odds).  In any case, it was a hard decision to understand in a close rivalry game when all parties know that every possession and every point is going to be needed at the end.  2) The clock management at the end.  Given the fourth quarter play, I felt the team had a much better shot at getting into field goal range and winning in regulation, than pulling it out in overtime.  Had BYU used a timeout with 1:10 left, they would have had plenty of time to try to pick up 40 yards and hit a field goal. Instead they took the ball with 0:29 and not much of chance to do anything.

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