On Bronco Mendenhall and the State of BYU Football

There are losses and then there are losses. There are losses that are inevitable as a consequence of participating in a zero sum sporting contest and there are losses that are bigger than the game on the field and give rise to notions that something more is to be learned from the setback. BYU’s loss at home to Nevada on Saturday evening felt like the latter — like a loss that could be a defining moment for the program as a whole.

The BYU Fanosphere has assuredly gone through the full range of emotions during the first half of the 2014 football season. Sometimes you experience a game that repays, with interest, your entire investment as a fan — a game that reminds you why you became a fan in the first place. Alternatively, you experience a game — or a series of games — that make you question why you made that investment, and whether tweaks are necessary for you to continue supporting said investment with the same time, energy, money, and talent. Sometimes, those two experiences come about a month apart because sports fandom, like life, is an unpredicable practice.

The events of the past few weeks have furthered brightened the line between two factions of BYU Nation. The sides have been drawn, and the rhetorical battle commenced like a Mormonized version of the Montagues and the Capulets.

The Montagues feel Bronco Mendenhall has never and will never be the dynamic head coach the program needs to succeed. The 8-win-or-so per season trajectory is not good enough considering the less-than-stellar schedule BYU plays on a consistent basis. Montagues believe there are legitimate and realistic coaching alternatives available, whose talent would be enough to elevate BYU to a higher plane. These same folks believe that as a result of the current state of college football — and the fact BYU remains on the outside looking in in terms of Power 5 Conference affiliation — that the Cougars cannot afford to stay with what they have. While not believing the program is mediocre per se, the Montagues believe the program has stagnated and needs an infusion of energy in order to survive and remain relevant.

The Capulets believe Bronco Mendenhall is the best and perhaps only man for the BYU job. They hear names of potential replacement candidates and think it is either crazy to turn the reins of a major college football program over to a man who has never been a head coach or myopic to think that a man with only minimal connections to BYU would leave his well-paid NFL job to take on what is potentially the most difficult coaching position in America. While admitting the program is far from perfect, the Capulets see a consistent track record of winning seasons on the field and Honor Code compliance off of it as reasons to be satisfied with where BYU stands. The Crowton Years are an example of what can happen when you assume the grass is greener on the other side.

I have long dwelt firmly within the Capulet camp. Following the Nevada loss and for the first time during Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure in Provo, I find myself wondering if the current regime is truly getting the best out of the program. The loss to Nevada has caused me to question whether there are some serious and systemic problems within BYU Football as a whole. (More on that later)

Let me begin by admitting that I have no answers, only insights. I’m just a dude with a blog.

INJURIES, EXCUSES, AND FOOTBALL — Winning football games against quality opponents while your team is fully healthy is a difficult task. Winning football games against quality opponents while your team is missing a dozen players to injury is even more taxing. I am perplexed by the idea that injuries are not allowed to be an ‘excuse’ for a team failing to play up to the level seen previous the injury. Inigo Montoya is judging you right now

When Player A gets injured and Player B is thrust into action, Player B is usually not as polished as Player A — whether that be because of inexperience, talent, or both. Most every coach I have seen desires to put his best players on the field and the reason Player A was starting over Player B was because said coach believed he was a better player. Sure, sometimes the back-up is better, but that is the exception not the rule.

My handy dandy dictionary gives me the following definition for the word excuse:

• A reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense. 

Yes, BYU has struggled to be as dominating in the last three games as they were the first four games of the season after losing numerous key players to injury. This is an excuse. It also happens to be valid and completely logical and expected. That doesn’t mean we shake our fist at heaven and decry out losing fate. It does mean that we should put the last three losses into context and give those new-found starters a little time to grow into their roles, if they can.

And let’s not forget that the three consecutive losses BYU has suffered have come at the hands of teams who will finish the year in bowl games. And the last two games have been extremely competitive to the final seconds. I give this BYU team credit for competing while suffering disproportionate numbers of injuries at key positions.

THE ON/OFF SWITCH — Injuries aside, the way BYU’s defense has been undressed in each of the past five games is evidence that even with a heathy Taysom Hill, this Cougar team was far too flawed to go undefeated. Taysom’s aura and brilliance masked some serious deficiencies — weaknesses that have come to light in an ugly and unfavorable way during the month of October.

In two full games in the Post-Taysom era, BYU has been unable to garner a complete game from both sides of the ball. Against UCF, the defense, while not great against the pass, played well enough to win while the offense sputtered and fell short. Versus Nevada, the offense blasted the Wolf Pack for 600+ yards only to find the defense completely derelict in its duty — surrendering 22 points in the final quarter alone. Scoring 35 points at home against a Mountain West squad should be more than enough to win. Always.

One thing is for sure: the offense has responded much better to the injury bug than has the defense. Is that an indication of Nick Howell’s ineptitude? Maybe, but I think it has more to do with the talent on the offensive side and Robert Anae’s dynamic ability to tweak his playbook to give Christian Stewart the best chance to win.

We have simply become accustomed to playing terrific defense at BYU. The fact that this is now an expected outcome is a testament to just how deep Bronco’s Defensive DNA has penetrated the program. But what of Nick Howell? Is he the problem? To me, blaming Howell seems more like a answer based on correlation than causation.

BYU lacks talent on defense at key areas. The Cougars do one thing really well: they can defend the run. There really is not anything else BYU does well on the defensive side of the ball. The corners are depleted by injury, but even before that they were exposed by pedestrian offenses from Virginia, Houston, Utah State, and Central Florida. The linebackers (Sione TAKITAKI and Fred Warner excluded) are slow, cumbersome, and unable to make plays in the open or back field. Even stalwarts like Bronson Kaufusi seem to have regressed.

Nick Howell is the scapegoat because it is really easy to pinpoint the new coach as the problem. But to me, the real problem is that the team simply isn’t talented enough to overcome adversity. And that comes back to Bronco Mendenhall. This team was supposed to be the deepest BYU team ever. It looks as if one side of the coin (the offense) has lived up to expectations while the other (the defense) has not.

In just his second start, Christian Stewart threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns. He looked up-to-the-task and his success is a tribute to his talent, Jason Beck’s tutelage, and Anae’s terrific play calling. Sure, he is still a young quarterback, as the late UNR fumble indicates, but his progression over the last 2.5 games is something to behold. And it should give BYU fans hope for offensive success as the year continues.

A LOSS COMPOUNDED — BYU’s not being in a major conference contributes to additional post-loss sourness. Because BYU is in a sort of no man’s land, neither Power 5 nor Group of 5, every loss is magnified and calls into question the future of the program. BYU is uniquely positioned to go the independent route. The end-goal of independence has always been an invitation to a major conference. To truly effectuate this desire, the Cougars must win and stay relevant.

The Cougars need to impress major conferences like the Big 12. When they stumble, fans see their defeat as yet another reason why they will never be invited to the big boy’s table. Unfortunately, as soon as BYU loses even a single game, it is off the national radar for the duration. It is a near-impossible tightrope to walk.

Compare this BYU-specific conundrum with the 2014 story arc at the University of Utah. The Utes started strong and then dropped a game to a lesser opponent. But because of their conference affiliation, they were able to get right back on the horse by beating ranked-UCLA and winning on the road at Oregon State. Season revived. #FireWhitt hashtag silenced. Major Conference affiliation gave the Utes an opportunity for a reprieve. Major conference affiliation built an emotional floor for Utah fans to be caught by. That is something BYU does not have and why losses seem to affect the program’s psyche the way it does. There is no emotional floor when every loss feels like the beginning of the end.

Much of this is out of BYU’s control. If it never gets invited to a major conference, it just has to make the best of what it has. It has done that. Joining a G5 conference would leave BYU in the same dilemma. I mean, how much have we heard about Marshall or East Carolina’s chances at the College Football playoff? Not much at all.

So independence remains better than G5 membership and worse than P5 inclusion. Nothing has changed, and BYU waits upon the invitation of a major conference to assure the program of its place in college football’s top-tier. BYU is living in Spirit Prison, fully accepting of what is required for salvation, only to be forced to wait for someone else to finish the job and do its temple work. With this unknown, each and every loss will feel like a season’s worth of losses compacted into one. Independence is bittersweet indeed.

ON BRONCO — I like Bronco Mendenhall as a coach. And I love Bronco Mendenhall for saving BYU Football from the abyss of the Crowton Years. Mendenhall by most accounts is a tremendous man and a great representative of BYU. I want him to remain as BYU’s head football coach. But Bronco, my faith in you is being tested. The program must improve.

Look, I know BYU is unique. I understand all that word implies. What I don’t understand is the idea that when the Cougars struggle, it’s not really that important because it’s the best we can do and there are more important things anyway and football is just a game and the coaches work hard and why are you expecting perfection every season anyway?

With that I respond with a simple and wholly unnerdy stat: BYU is 37-22 since 2010.

Does that number surprise you? Is that good enough for the Program of LaVell Edwards? With all there is to gain, shouldn’t we expect more?

The Curious Case of Bronco Mendenhall may have burned brightest at the earliest and the last four-plus years are simply the regression to the mean — the program as it is really is. The majority of Mendenhall’s successes were anchored to players he did not recruit: John Beck, Max Hall, Dennis Pitta, Austin Collie. There have been sporadic flashes of light with guys like Kyle Van Noy and Ziggy Ansah, but for the most part, when Bronco has had to play with the guys he has recruited, well, we have 2010-present. Remember, Taysom Hill is only at BYU because John Harbaugh left Stanford.

Add to the fact that Bronco has seemingly missed on more assistant coaching hires than he has made, and you can begin to question whether the program is on the right path. And whether the right man is leading it.

Yet, I still believe Bronco Mendenhall can turn it around. Mendenhall has shown particular proclivity to progressing when he is doubted. The BYU offense has been building for years, and with Robert the Anae at the helm, I do not see it regressing. Now, it comes down to Bronco reclaiming the defensive identity he worked so hard to install. Finishing 2014 strong and gaining momentum for 2015 with a healthy Taysom Hill and a revamped defense are the necessary steps to putting BYU Football back where it belongs.

Lead us onward and upward, Bronco. The future is now.

Random Musings: BYU v. UCF

Another week, another heartbreak — though this one was different in-kind from the experience last week against Utah State. If Taysom Hill’s season-ending injury felt like being crushed by a falling and unseen comet, the last-second loss to Central Florida was like being tied to the tracks of a lofty railroad bridge, jiggling free from the rope after much tribulation, and eluding the oncoming train only to trip and fall unceremoniously to your own death. Few games have provided such a range of emotional eventualities — BYU was going to lose big, then BYU was going to win big, then BYU was going to win a close one, and finally, BYU lost a close one. Fandom, like love, really is a form of socially acceptable insanity. 

THE SOUND OF SILENCE — “Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of pass interference plight. That split the night. And touched the sound of silence.” Warrior poets Simon and Garfunkel looked forward to a humid Thursday night when a national-TV audience witnessed one of the most atrocious end-of-game calls I have ever seen. On a 4th down and 3 during BYU’s first overtime possession, Jordan Leslie was grabbed, mauled, rummaged, and interfered with. The pass thrown his way hit the ground, the official kept the flag in his pocket, and the Cougars were left with the bitterest of tastes in their mouths. 

Look, officials make mistakes. And the sum of a game is more than a single play. I get that. But the idea that referees can’t be criticized because it “shouldn’t have come to that” is disingenuous mostly because it’s zero-sum and partially because it’s just dumb. Why can’t both of those things be true? Yes, BYU had chances to put the game away before that. So did UCF. Why does BYU have to accept a sudden discarding of the rules of the game as would-be justice for failing to take advantage of previous opportunities? How myopic. The referee completely, absolutely, and utterly whiffed by failing to see two penalties committed within a two-second time frame. Jordan Leslie beat his man to the spot, was impeded, and his defender deserved to be given the reprimand. 

It is a stain on the game for the rules to be enforced differently depending on how much time remains on the clock. Pass interference is pass interference whether it is committed on the first play from scrimmage or the last — whether there is no score, a tie score, or a lopsided score. BYU played its tail off and to have its chance to tie the game taken away is a travesty and the officiating crew should be reprimanded for their nonfeasance. 

POLYNESIAN POWER — Football is a physical game and Brigham Young University is lucky to have a stable of running backs on the roster who symbolize the beautiful destruction evident in the game we love. With Jamaal Williams suffering an ankle injury on BYU’s first play from scrimmage, the load was left to Paul Lasike and Algie Brown. What followed was a potent performance from both punishing Polynesian power backs. 

Brown and Lasike, whether catching the ball out of the backfield or taking a handoff between the tackles, sought out UCF defenders as a pride of lions seeks out prey. On a swing pass early in the third quarter, Algie Brown delivered a punishing blow to a UCF defender with a ferocity that fired up the entire BYU sideline. I witnessed Mr. Brown exude more pure and undefiled masculinity in one play than I have mustered in 28 years of existence. And it showed post-game, as well. 

Additional credit should be directed toward the often overlooked BYU offensive front. BYU may have lost Hill and Williams, but the offensive line that was a catalyst to the Cougars’ offensive success hasn’t gone anywhere. Whoever the quarterback or running back involved, the offensive line continues impress. 

CHAOS IS ORDER YET UNDECIPHERED — Through five games, we were left unsure whether BYU had the ability to bring a competent pass rush. It seemed that no matter the scheme, personnel, or timing, the Cougars were unable to get to the quarterback consistently enough to force bad decisions, errant throws, or costly sacks. Well, it seems that with the unceasing flow of new faces plugged into the BYU front seven, Nick Howell and Co. may have found the right guys for the job. Hello Sione Takitaki, Fred Warner, and Logan Taele. Using stunts, blitz packages, and actually beating guys one-on-one, BYU generated its most successful pass rush of the season — and forced two interceptions as a direct corollary to the increased heat in the backfield. Heat produces light. I wondered if this kind of output was even possible given what we had previously seen. Let’s see it again next week against Nevada and make a habit of it. 

THE MASH UNIT — Sometime between Jordan Johnson breaking his arm and Craig Bills leaving the game with a concussion, I wondered whether there may have been some unholy blood oath levied against the BYU Football team and its clutches would grasp the roster until none were left unscathed by its power. Where is thy pavilion, Football Gods? You simply have to hope that the skyrocketing Cougar ill-health report will begin to regress to the mean. It can’t keep going on like this. I mean it just can’t. Right?

What the bevy of injuries has shown us is that this is indeed BYU’s deepest team to date. I couldn’t help but look at just who was playing meaningful snaps for the Cougars —Takitaki, Warner, Colby Pearson, Kai Nacua, Keanu Nelson, to name a few. In the end, BYU played on the road against a decent football team and drew even in regulation despite losing one-third of its starters over the past three weeks while ushering in its senior-in-name-only quarterback to his first start as a collegiate signal caller. UCF nearly lost at home to a team comprised of nine scholarship players and 13 dudes from the Pleasant Grove 23rd Ward.

CHRISTIAN CONFIDENCE — Christian Stewart turned in a performance to be respected. His stats were only gaudy in an area that mattered: touchdown passes. Otherwise, it was a very ordinary performance from a man thrown into an extraordinary situation. Stewart’s three TD’s were well-thrown balls that needed either a pinch of power or a trace of touch. The realization that he has the moxie and desire to make all different types of throws should give BYU fans hope that this offense can be productive with Christian at the helm. 

Surprisingly, Stewart also showed ability to make plays with his legs. We knew that replacing a quarterback with a Lamborghini motor with one carrying a Hyundai motor would be difficult to swallow. I even wondered if the Zone Read would be fazed out entirely. Stewart kept UCF honest by not being afraid to keep the ball and run for the yardage given him. On a 3rd and 20, Stewart apparently, perhaps literally, took upon himself the mantle on his fallen comrade Taysom Hill as he scrambled for a big first down and surprised everyone with his elusiveness. Surely Christian Stewart is not going to be hurdling defenders or stiff-arming his way down the sideline, but he may just have the right amount of athletic acumen to be effective. 

SPECIAL TEAMS WOES — It was a night to forget for the BYU special teams. After a seemingly terrific opening to the season, the third-wheel of the Cougar tricycle was inadequate on most every important area. The specifics included the kickoff return coverage team surrendering a long return to give the then-two touchdown trailing Knights momentum enough to spring a comeback, the punt return coverage giving up a big return to set up another UCF touchdown, and an paltry average of 17.3 yards on their own kick return. Scott Arellano punted admirably, but a slew of Cougars failed to down the ball on the 1-yard-line when given the chance at a critical time. With the exception of a Trevor Samson’s perfection on his field goal and extra-point attempts and Mitch Matthews getting his hand on a field goal attempt, the Cougar Special Teams were just a step off of normal aptitude all night long.

ON HOWELL AND ANAE — At a point in the second quarter, UCF had more incompletions than BYU had total yards. The start was that bad in Orlando. The heat on Nick Howell got ever brighter and those eternally opposed to Robert Anae began to grow louder and louder. The consensus? Howell is in-over-his-head and needs Bronco to aid him in making adjustments and Anae has never heard of the phrase ‘adjustments’ as he continues to re-live Groundhog’s Day in perpetuity. 

I have been critical of Nick Howell, both on this site and on the Zone Leaders Podcast. But this is always followed by a belief that he can and will be a great defensive coordinator at BYU. The UCF game made that feeling stronger, not weaker. After falling behind 10-0 and looking out of sorts, the BYU defense bowed up and made its stand. BYU completely shut down UCF’s rushing attack, kept the long plays to a minimum, and bought the Cougar offense time to get into the game. Howell made the adjustments necessary and coached the defense up in a way that brought results. If BYU gives up 24 points in regulation, BYU has a great chance to win the game.

UCF’s two second half touchdown drives were both 37 yards. Porous special teams leading to short fields for the Knight offense and the BYU offense turning the ball over inside the redone were why BYU lost the football game. And somehow Nick Howell has become the bogey man. Stop. The defense held up its part of the bargain with a ragtag band of juveniles and misfits. Move along and find someone else to crucify because Nick Howell ain’t got time to bleed. 

And Anae? I try to defend you, Robert. I try to understand you, Robert. I struggle with the latter and that makes the former difficult. I am a fan of Robert Anae and love, despite the moments of madness, seeing his offenses at work. Robert Anae is a fantastic offensive coordinator. The proof lies in the success of each and every offense he has coached in Provo. Where Anae succeeds in implementing his overall scheme he sometimes stumbles with the finer details. 

Robert Anae the Playcaller is the life of the party as well as a serial narcoleptic. The way he rode the offensive line in the 3rd quarter as he felt them beginning to wear down a very good UCF defensive front was a touch of beauty. As was the call and play design on BYU’s touchdown following the  muffed punt. Devin Mahina lined up in a down stance, BYU faked a screen to the sideline, and Mahina slipped by the linebackers and into one-on-one coverage on the outside. It was the work of a savant and led to BYU securing a two-touchdown lead.

Then, come the fourth quarter, BYU went away from what had got it there: the run game. The Cougars ran just three running plays on their final three possessions of the fourth quarter and overtime. It’s as if he runs when he should pass, passes when he should run. The offensive staff had just two days of practice time with Christian Stewart before playing UCF on a short week, so I am excited to see what the offense looks like when Nevada comes to town on the 18th. Saturday in Orlando was hit-and-miss.

PLAYING FOR NOTHING — If BYU had nothing to play for on Thursday it sure didn’t show. There is always something to play for when there is a competition to be had. BYU is halfway through this 2014 campaign and boy has it had enough high-and-lows to last a decade-worth of seasons. The Cougars are 4-2, everything that could go wrong in the past two games has, and yet, I feel much better about the second half of the season than I did just one week ago. Bronco Mendenhall has shown that he will have the players ready — and that the talent pool is of sufficient quality to be competitive against every opponent it’ll face in the second half of the year. Chapter 1 is over; Chapter 2 is about to begin. Bring on the Wolf Pack. Rise and Shout.

Random Musings: Utah State v. BYU

Sports can hurt. The manner in which that pain is distributed depends on the role you play within your team’s universe. If you are a gifted athlete, the agony can be physically traumatizing. If you are a coach charged with producing on-the-field results, the discomfort shows itself as mental taxation. If, like me, you are simply a fan who invests time, money, and energy into the successes of a favored team, the sting is emotional heartache.

On a cool, crisp, and clear Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, all of us humming loyal, strong, and true during pre-game were given a rude awakening in the arithmetic of sport. All-everything Taysom Hill was injured, BYU was utterly out-coached, and Cougar fans suffered through one of the worst losses in recent memory. Fandom encapsulates the entirety of human emotion. For every Texas triumph, there is a Utah State undressing. The sweetness of a win would not feel as great without the sting of defeat. I believe there is a scripture about that — or maybe it was something I read from a random White Girl of Instagram.

TAYSOM’S INJURY — From my seat in the South Endzone, I saw Taysom’s leg get rolled up. It looked bad, but I had seen him take equal or worse hits throughout the first quarter of the 2014 season and he bounced right back up. He did bounce up, then he hobbled, then the air of stadium was sucked out as the entirety of the Cougar faithful gasped at the awful prospect of what had just transpired — and what it meant for the future. I have not watched and will strive to stay away from the highlight of Taysom’s injury. Like the Zapruder film, once was more than enough.  

Injuries are just the worst of the worst and the last three versions of this BYU-Utah State game have resulted in season ending injuries for one of the game’s quarterback. It is as if some African Shaman notarized the game contract with a pint of his own blood. Most of all, I just want Taysom Hill to get back to who he was before the injury. He’s already rehabbed one knee and returned with greater flair and power than Gandalf the White. Here’s to Taysom being as elite in recovery as he is in football prowess. Get well soon, Mr. Hill. I very much enjoy watching you play the game of football. 

DREAMS, REALITY, AND DAYDREAMS — For most teams, season’s do not end on a single play. BYU is not most teams. As soon as I saw the medical cart heading to the Cougar sideline to transport our wounded Captain to the locker room, all the hopes, dreams, and excitement of ‘what might be’ were instantly transformed to reflections of ‘what might have been.’ Brigham Young University’s football team simply has not seen a physical specimen quite like Taysom Hill. And, particularly, in the game of football, the time to take advantage of just the right circumstances are oh so limited. 

Not only circumstances surrounding BYU having a premier player like Taysom Hill, but the favorable conditions in the college football landscape that found BYU with a legitimate shot to earn a berth in a New Year’s Day Bowl Game or more. All the Cougars had to do was win the remainder of their games — all of which the Cougs would find themselves as the favorite. That’s easy, right? Maybe not but it was all in front of them. It was in my mind as I walked into the stadium on Friday night. 

Then, it was over with 2:26 remaining in the second quarter. 

William Faulkner wrote of imagining Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, a terrible Southern loss in the Civil war, alternatively as a great Southern victory. 

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock…it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun…Yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t even need a fourteen year old boy to think this time, maybe this time with all this much to lose and this much to gain, [we may] crown [ourselves] a desperate and unbelievable victory.”

As BYU fans, we can always go back to the time before it all went away. 

THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES — We have grown accustomed to tremendous BYU defensive play. Bronco Mendenhall has instilled a mantra in Provo where hard-nosed, tough defense is the norm. Coming into the game against Utah State, we knew BYU’s defense had its weaknesses — no pass rush, lack of playmakers at the linebacking core, questionable first half scheming. What we didn’t know, was the level of ineptitude. Also, I hope we can safely put to rest the Bronson Kaufusi experiment at linebacker. He is too big and slow to make plays on the edge and BYU misses his ability to cry havoc on the defensive line. Additionally, Utah State outfoxed BYU schematically and the Cougs couldn’t contain the skill guys from Utah State University.  These skill guys from Utah State University challenged the Cougar secondary vertically and, with shades of the Tulsa game in 2007, found great success.  A part of me is happy that BYU was so throughly undressed on a relatively small stage so that it was saved from being utterly embarrassed by someone like Baylor. Double-move, out-and-up, double-move, out-and-up. And in flies yet another back-up quarterback to be plugged into the NCAA machine to have his passing accuracy and power upgraded to 99. Kudos to Utah State and its entire offensive staff for an utterly breathtaking performance. 

NEW AGE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL — We’ve all heard it before: You can’t continue to run a quarterback like that without an injury. I have always found that argument to be disingenuous because no one seems to mention the threat of injury when said quarterback is, say, running for 200 yards against Texas and hurdling fools. It is ends-based and hindsight intensive to only mention the result when it is catastrophic. What is interesting is that this evolution in the game of football — namely the Zone Read scheme — is actually a devolution in that it creates more risk, not less. Eat your heart out, Charles Darwin, because college football will have none of your adaptation here. 

Truth is, the Zone Read is here to stay. And to have a guy like Taysom Hill and rein him in and make him be Dan Marino would be like forcing a tiger to pull your carriage into town. This is the new normal and, just like when the forward pass became a staple and caused quarterbacks to be at greater risk of a blindside hit, fans just need to realize that the reality of increased injury, unfortunately, comes with the territory. Football, inherently  is not a good sport for legs, knees, spines, and brains. The implementation of targeting rules and better sideline procedures (not you Brady Hoke) is helping to prevent serious injuries and we are all the better for it. 

A LOSS TO REMEMBER — Which is worse? Beating Oklahoma, elevating to the Top 10, and then being run off the field by Florida State while the traveling Seminole fans’ tomahawk chop echoes around LaVell Edwards Stadium? Or, beating Texas in Austin, have a potential undefeated season in front of you, and then be run off the field by Utah State while the traveling Aggie fan engage in their bizarrely juvenile chanting? I am going to say the latter. With all that could have been gained, this was the worst loss in Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure. The losses to Utah, TCU, Florida State, and Tulsa simply don’t have the ripples that this one does. I thought seeing Gone Girl was going to be the darkest point of my weekend but I was wrong.

ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS — You gotta feel for Christian Stewart. The man who had never thrown a pass in a collegiate game was asked to replace a potential Heisman candidate and resurrect BYU’s undefeated season while trailing by a touchdown against an in-state foe playing with nothing to lose. Talk about being thrown into the fire. Inexperience and being young are not mutually exclusive. Stewart is a senior-in-name-only — functionally a freshman. And it showed. It will be fascinating to see what Robert Anae does with the playbook to give Stewart and BYU the best chance to succeed. My guess is we see more Jamaal Williams (unless he mysteriously disappears again from Anae’s purview), more pass attempts from an Air Raid style set-up, and less and less Zone Read. 

BRONCO’S CHOICE — The last time a BYU defensive coordinator struggled mightily against Utah State, Bronco Mendenhall unleashed his inner Mitt Romney and fired him. No, Nick Howell does not deserve this fate. At all. But I continue to be worried about BYU coming out flat defensively in each first half in this young season. You could argue the Texas game is the exception but the Longhorns offense is absolutely atrocious. Fact is, BYU has looked better in the second half in each game and it can thank Bronco Mendenhall for aiding those adjustments. Bronco has been burned in the past by misdiagnosing a coach’s readiness to take on an increased role (see Weber, Doman, Hill, Cahoon, etc.). He has always rectified that. Is it time for Bronco to again take control of calling the plays for the BYU defense?

LOOKING FORWARD — I am an inherently optimistic person. The sadness of losing an important game — even a rivalry game — fades as the sun rises on a new day. But with Taysom’s injury, this one has given me an emotional hangover. After his army was driven from the field during the Battle of Shiloah, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman came into the camp of Union Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant. “Well Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” said Grant, his cigar glowing in the darkness as he gave a quick, hard puff at it, “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”  It will be fascinating to see how this BYU football team circles the wagons and regroups to face Central Florida on Thursday. These are the times when Bronco Mendenhall has shined as a coach. BYU Football suffered a setback this weekend but the future is before us. Rise and Shout.

Random Musings: BYU v. Virginia

Twenty-first ranked BYU improved to 4-0 on the year with a 41-33 win over ACC foe Virginia. Here are my random musings from the contest:

FOR WHOM THE PROCEDURAL WHISTLE BLOWS — Leading 7-3 with the first quarter clock winding under 1:20, Virginia had a First and Goal on the BYU 5. Three plays later, the Cavs were poised to go for a 4th and Goal inside the BYU 1. It was the right call. It was also when the beautiful hum of the BYU student section hit a crescendo. Three players on the right side of Virginia’s line moved prior to the snap and a false start was whistled. The Hoos settled for a field goal and instead of a commanding 14-3 lead, Virginia settled for a field goal. BYU capitalized on the infusion of energy and drove down the field on a touchdown drive. From 14-3 to 10-0. The Cavaliers had penned a perfect William Faulkner-esque first quarter novel only to have the final page be ghost written by RL Stine.

PLEASE RETURN TO THE SIDELINE IMMEDIATELY. AND WIPE THAT SMILE OFF YOUR FACE BECAUSE THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS — Anyone who attended, watched, or was otherwise associated with the football contest between Virginia and BYU would admit that the ACC officiating crew had an afternoon to forget. Inconsistencies abounded, and the measure of their bewilderment was visited upon both teams in equal measure. The TV broadcast, however, uncovered the worst offender of all: The Back Judge. On each of BYU’s touchdowns, this official made it his business that no one, and I mean NO ONE would be allowed to contemplate celebrating vociferously. Seriously, go back and watch the film. He is the most militantly anti-fun authority figure since Dolores Umbridge. This dude had the withitness and laid back nature of a government bureaucrat. Giving a fist pump to the crowd is different in-kind than showing up an opponent. I would be in favor of abolishing the celebration penalty altogether because let’s be real here: football is a game. Get your paternalistic mumbojumbo out of here and let the kids celebrate on-field excellence without worrying about some busybody breathing down their neck threatening to punish them for having too much fun. 

THE OLD LADY, THE YOUNG MOM, AND ME — I was privileged to set in front of the cutest old lady I have ever encountered. She wore a throwback white polo with Brigham Young University stitched above the breast. Her matching white hair reminded me of my Grandma’s — the type that ‘she goes into town’ once a week to receive. This darling old lady was as into the game as much as I was. She lived and breathed every play, and sang each word of the fight song with an aura of youthful exuberance. In front of me, two rows ahead of said old lady, was a young mom with her four kids — all of whom were experiencing their first BYU game. The young mom was explaining the game to her children and they took in the experience with awe. We high-fived the two young boys after each BYU invasion of the Cavalier end zone. The old lady, the young mom and kids, and me sitting with my dad represented four generations of Cougar fan. All of us were at different stages of life, but united in the purpose of cheering for our team. Sports truly are a curiously wonderful invention of man. 

POLLING AND THE COSMETIC WIN — The Cougars moved up to #20 in the latest Associated Press poll. The ranking are a war of attrition and mean very little before week nine or ten. Just win and your ranking will take care of itself. BYU needs to get to #10 to have a legitimate shot at a New Year’s Day Bowl. Once conference season starts, BYU will have a slew of chances to move up as teams around them lose games. That being said, I would be lying if I did not get frustrated with Virginia’s garbage time TD to bring the game within one score. 41-26 looks better, cosmetically, than does 41-33, even if the absolute outcome is the same. BYU is trying to impress voters and increase its national pedigree. Back-to-back one score wins over Houston and Virginia fail to impress if you didn’t actually watch the entire game. (As few if any of these voters actually do) If you did watch, you would know that both of these BYU wins were comfortable and the score was a bit misleading. It’s an unfortunate double standard set against teams outside the Power 5. Oregon struggles with a Washington State team that lost to Rutgers and got blasted by Nevada? “Washington State really came to play. Impressed with Oregon’s ability to fight through a team who gave it their best effort.” BYU struggles with a Virginia team that pushed around UCLA and beat ranked Louisville? “BYU’s inability to put Virginia away is indicative of a fatal flaw and it won’t be long until the Cougars slip up.” It is maddening, but it is reality. Fortunately, if BYU continues to win, even ugly, there will be fewer and fewer comparable teams who can outbid them. Just win baby.

A SPECIAL TEAMS ROYAL FLUSH — What a day for the oft-forgotten third wheel of the BYU machine. Trevor Sampson was perfect again in the place-kicking game, Andrew Mikkelsen kept Virginia’s dangerous kick returner at bay with numerous touchback, Davon Blackmon showed flashes in the punt return game, punter Scott Arrelano was apparently implanted with a chip pre-game that allowed for his player rating to be turned up to 99, and, speaking of 99, Adam Hine parted the Red Sea and delivered BYU its first kickoff return touchdown since Cody Hoffman’s TD against UCF. That, my friends, was paragraph long sentence that even the Prophet Joseph would have been proud of. The BYU special teams showed itself to be equal in competence to what its counterparts on the offensive and defensive side of the ball have shown this season. BYU is a complete team.

DR. BLUEHAIR: OR HOW I STOPPED WORRYING INSIGNIFICANT ATTENDANCE STUFF — Why are BYU fans obsessed with attendance figures? It seems to me that Cougar fans are more interested in the 5k who did not show up than the 60k who did. It was a terrific atmosphere on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The crowd was rocking, the white-out was a terrific success, and BYU had nearly 60k fans in attendance. In the age of HDTVs and many other entertainment options, most schools fail to sell out every game. Even the big time EssEeeCee Programs TM.  As I said last week, the difference between drawing 60k and 64k is of little consequence other than self-worth and navel-having. BYU has been averaging between 58k and 64k for the last three decades. Nothing has changed. Stop obsessing.

MORMONS ARE WEIRD OR SOMETHING — One of my favorite (see non-favorite) things about listening to outsiders talk about BYU sports is the realization that they align us more with the Amish than the Anglicans. “BYU is playing [popular crunk rap song] haha those Mormons look so weird trying be cool.” The idea that BYU students or fans or Mormons in general are so sheltered from the world that they don’t understand the world around them — or enjoy non-Mormon forms of entertainment — is pretty ridiculous. The Cougarettes are nationally-renowned hip hop dancers because they like to dance (like most all college kids) and are really good at it. The uniqueness of the BYU experience should not be conflated with the idea that BYU students don’t live in the same world as the rest of humanity. I didn’t see many pioneer dresses and bonnets in the crowd on Saturday. 

NO PRESSURE — BYU failed to generate the type of pressure it needed to curtail Virginia drives. This was troubling because it was not on account of a lack of effort: BYU’s front seven played hard every play. The Cougar defense simply could not burst through for major plays in the backfield despite using a bunch of differing schemes and personnel. BYU showed blitz too early and allowed Virginia to checked out of its play. It is incumbent on Mendenhall and Howell to improve the team over the bye week. And getting Bronson Kaufusi back will be the first step in the right direction.

WHEN IT MATTERED — One of the staples of the BYU program is the 24 point threshold — meaning that for the Cougars have a good chance to win the contest, BYU will need to concede 24 or fewer point. I am sure Mr. Greg Wrubell has the statistical specifics but I do know the stat is pretty indicative of BYU’s successes. On Saturday, the Cougars were called to defend a staggering 102 plays from scrimmage, gave up over 500 yards of total offense, and permitted the Cavaliers to amass 29 first downs. In the end, Nick Howell’s defense stood firm inside the BYU 30 and the Cavs managed just 26 points prior to a garbage time touchdown late. The point of the game of football is to score points and pass, rush, and return yards are the way this comes to pass. But a ton of yards with little return on investment is usually a path to defeat. Props to the BYU defense who, per the usual, bowed up when it mattered most. 

THAT’S MY QUARTERBACK — When BYU is in a short yardage situation, do you have any doubt they are going to pick it up on the ground? 3rd and 4 or less means a BYU first down is just one play away. Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams run with a ugliness not seen since Marla Hooch was batting cleanup for the Rockford Peaches. Taysom continues to impress with his ability to shake off tacklers who try in vain to grab him by the shoulder pads. He is a Grown Man. Amazingly, during the ESPN broadcast, Matt Millen said, for the second straight year(!), that “Taysom Hill [was] not a make-you-miss kind of guy.” I am going to need to get Mr. Millen’s definition for a “make-you-miss kind of a guy” because I have seen a whole bevy of guys wearing UConn, Texas, Houston, and Virginia jerseys miss and miss again. Hill can beat you by running by you, through, or around you. The Mormon Manziel is on the loose and the sky is the limit — so long as Millen doesn’t get another NFL GM job and draft Taysom as a possession wide receiver. 

Random Musings: BYU v. Houston

BYU moved to 3-0 for only the second time in Bronco Mendenhall’s ten seasons in Provo. Here are my random musings about the contest:

NOW I AM BECOME JAMAAL, DESTROYER OF WORLDS —
It is wholly satisfying to watch Jamaal Williams carry the football and numerous would-be defenders on his way to yet another impressive first down run. The 19-year-old junior runs as if the principles of justice and human equality are in the balance — their implementation or destruction conditioned on how successful his rushing attempt is. BYU fans are lucky to have this young man playing in Provo. In some alternate reality, Jamaal Williams is playing in Boise and we would be seeing his endeavors played out on a ridiculous blue field. Thank you for not choosing that, Mr. Williams. Jamaal is getting better with every game and The future is not only bright but here right now. And remember, don’t forget two g’s in that Swaggdaddy.

THE PROVO BUBBLE IS REAL — Does BYU have a deep pass play in its arsenal? Does BYU have a fly sweep in its repertoire? Does BYU have a non-optical-distraction reason for its pre-snap motion? I wish I knew the answers to these questions because it seems like BYU plays in a bubble — neither stretching the field vertically nor horizontally. Robert the Anae is simply content on running within a 30 yard circumference. Now, I understand how ridiculous this might sound considering BYU had 500+ yards of total offense against Houston on Thursday. It just seems that there are ways for the offense to evolve organically and become even more potent.

BYU SUCCESS = MEDIA CONSPIRACY — David Pollack, who called the game for ESPN, USA Today’s Dan Wolken, and AP’s Ralph Russo made a point either during or after BYU’s game to discuss how the Cougars seemingly toe the line between playing fair and playing dirty. Why do the media always trot out bizarre narratives in am attempt to explain away BYU’s success? If it isn’t playing “dirty,” it is “mission trips.” If it isn’t classlessness and balding players, it is BYU’s inherent advantage of playing at an elevation akin to Mount Everest. Ironically, you never hear these theories when BYU is terrible. BYU plays hard on every play. That does not equate to BYU playing dirty. Those two things are different in kind. In the second quarter, Baby Faced Killer Craig Bills, who had been legally clowning people all game, purposely led with his shoulder, not his helmet, in an attempt to stay within the rules. If BYU is conditioned to play “up to the line,” someone needs to inform our Mack truck of a safety.

SAME OLD BYU WRs? — If the Texas game gave me hope that the BYU receiving corp could beat man coverage, the Houston game was a slight rain on my parade. Houston covered BYU’s WRs almost exclusively in man-to-man. And consistently, BYU WRs were unable to beat the coverage. Is it scheme? Maybe. Where are all the crossing routes? It seems like everything is out or to the flats. Interestingly, Devon Blackmon’s nullified TD was birthed from one of the few crossing routes on the night. More please. Is it personnel? Yes. Jordan Leslie is BYU’s best receiver but I’m not sure his strength lies in beating man coverage. Mitch Matthews may have the ability, but he doesn’t get the same number of looks from Hill. Perhaps this option is coming down the pike: Nick Kurtz, who showed the best one-on-one strength during fall camp, is injured and the aforementioned Blackmon (for reasons I am not privy to) is not getting a whole lot of reps. BYU needs its wide outs to make the next step forward if this is going to be a season to remember.

EYES WIDE SHUT — 23-3 with 3:15 remaining in 2nd quarter. BYU ball. 1st down 10 yards.  This was the down, distance, and time situation as the sun set behind Y Mountain on Saturday evening. Three minutes and fifteen seconds later, the score was 23-15 and I was wondering if that was the worst 3+ minutes since the last trailer for Transformers 7. Kudos to Houston for being opportunistic and causing turnovers and making plays. The interception, the fumble, and the Hail Sumlin were all plays Houston made more than plays BYU failed to make. Perhaps it was eternal retribution for the BYU fan bringing the “Houston, You Have A Problem” sign to the game. A sign as cutting-edge and nuanced as a 97 Ford Taurus.

WORKMANLIKE TAYSOM HILL — Is it possible for man to criticize a player’s performance when said player out-gained BY HIMSELF the entire opposing team? By the chatter on Twitter and Facebook, it seems the answer to this query is yes. Sure, Hill never had a splashy, long TD run or a ridiculous hurdle over a listless longhorn. What he did have was a very physical, bruising, and ‘unsexy’ 200 yards passing, 160 yards rushing, 3 touchdown performance. Basically, we saw the sports version of Heidi Klum without her makeup on and she was still Heidi Klum. Taysom Hill is everything BYU fans could hope to have in a quarterback. And knowing that BYU can go as far as he can take us should be a foundation for optimism.

A KOROMA K.O.? — BYU freshman center and all-around wonderful football player Tejan Koroma was dismissed from the contest for allegedly throwing a punch. By all intents and purposes, the punch was pretty mundane and had far more bark than bite. The reality was that Koroma was simply doing battle with the opposing defensive linesman and got caught slightly out of position. It reminded me of when you used to fight Soda Popinski on Mike Tyson’s PunchOut — it was a body blow intended to buy you some leverage, not a punch with intent to injure.

PROGRESS TO THE MEAN — It was only a matter of time before Houston John O’Korn got back to his regular self. I was impressed with the zip on some of his medium-to-deep balls. He threw for 315 yards, which in the grand scheme of things, is a pretty good game against a BYU defensive who knew from about the second series on that Houston looked upon running the ball with the same disdain as a thirsty man given sand to drink. One thing’s for sure: I would feel much better about BYU’s ability to win 10+ games if we could somehow trade for some of the Red Cougars’ wide receivers. Credit goes to the whole squad for not giving up when it looked as if they were going to be humiliated on national TV.

SELLING OUT MEANS LITTLE — There was big publicity push by both BYU Athletics and fans around the social media world to get Lavell Edwards Stadium sold out on Thursday. It did not happen. And I don’t think it is a big deal. Sure, I’d love to see the stadium sold out every game no matter the opponent. But that simply is not the reality of the BYU fandom. BYU has consistently averaged between 58-64k+ for the last three decades. Whether BYU gets 60 or 63k to a Thursday night game is of little consequence other than self-worth and navel-gazing. The Big 12 is not going to question BYU’s ability to draw based on a difference of a few thousand fans. I mean, look at TCU’s attendance pre and post B12 invite and tell me BYU doesn’t look like Texas A&M in comparison. And lastly, maybe we should stop talking about expanding the stadium until we can consistently fill what we have.

BEST STAT NOMINEES — I usually dislike stats because I am not a nerd but I found a few of these to be instructive: Houston had 16 yards of total offense in the 3rd quarter. BYU ran 100 plays. Houston had 10 yards of rushing. And for laughs, Scott Arrelano 1 carry, -1 yard. Finally, Brigham Young University’s football team has 3 wins, 0 losses, and every goal still in front of it. Rise and Shout.

Random Musings: BYU v. Texas

Having attended the BYU-Texas game in Austin this past Saturday, I did not see the television production of the contest. Though the Longhorns have a video board the size of the Hindenburg, Texas does not use it to show replays. FS1 does not provide on-demand access (!!) to the games it carries. In sum, before last night, I had not seen any video evidence of the game beyond that which my own eyes beheld live or on SportsCenter. 

Here are some random thoughts on the game: 

  • Psychological Effect of Taysom’s Nullified Run — Did Taysom eye-popping, first quarter non-touchdown run plant a psychological timebomb in the minds of the Texas players? Who knows. But when we are dealing with sports and college kids, the mental part of the game cannot be undervalued. Think about this: Texas players had been planning, prepping, watching film, and otherwise taking a crash course on everything Taysom Hill during the entire offseason. Then, Hill goes and does THAT? Nothing had changed from 2013 to 2014 and the seed of that truth was planted in those Texas kids’ minds. BYU scored points without scoring points. RELATED: There was NO holding on the play. Jordan Leslie was wrongfully accused and convicted. What a bad call. Thanks Obama.
  • Mental Health Guru — BYU players and coaches have mentioned the benefits of the newly-installed team sports psychologist. BYU teams in the past have been anything but mentally tough. Evidence that there might be a change a brew in Provo? Look no further than the tale of young Tejan Koroma, BYU’s true freshman starting center. On the team’s first drive of the game, Koroma snapped the ball high on five straight plays, the last one sailing over Hill’s head and resulting in a turnover on downs. Koroma was substituted for senior Edward Fusi. BYU’s offense had some struggles on the next few possessions. Koroma is substituted back in and BYU has one of its better drives of the first half — and dominate between the tackles in the second half. Correlation or causation? I dunno. What I do know is that Koroma looked tremendous after the early game jitters and if that is the way even the youngest of BYU players are responding to plight, we may very well be in for a season to remember. 
  • The Option Route is Back — During the first Reign of Robert the Anae, BYU had great success at using the option route out of the backfield. Manasa Tonga, Fui Vakapuna, and most noticeably Harvey Unga, made mincemeat of opposing linebackers by executing this underutilized route. Well, it was back on Saturday at Texas as Alge Brown found himself on the receiving end of two Taysom Hill completions. Moar, pls. 
  • A Complete Third Quarter — One of the most encouraging things about Saturday’s win, and especially the third quarter explosion, was that it was for all intent and purposes a win with three phases. Take the third quarter alone: BYU’s offense was mowing through the Texas defense; the BYU defense was stifling the Texas run game and forcing three-and-outs; and the BYU special teams were garnering turnovers or, in the alternative, bad field position by staying in their lanes and being clinical. This was the dictionary definition of a team firing on all-cylinders. And yes, by implication of this analogy, a football team only has three cylinders kinda like a Yugo. 
  • BYU’s defensive line dominated the contest in the trenches —- Bronco Mendenhall’s 3-4 scheme is requires good play from the defensive tackle position. Travis Tuiloma and Marques Johnson were terrific on Saturday as Texas found it nigh impossible to run the ball between either A gap. This great defensive play extended to both defensive ends, as Graham Rowley, Logan Taele, and Remington Peck all played tremendously. Eathyn Manumaleuna, Romney Fuga, and Hebron Fanguopo are all smiling wherever they are.
  • The Jherremya Leuta-Douyere Form Tackling Foundation — The man whose name confounds broadcasters as if it were in the original Adamic language is also person to some tremendous tackling skill. In back-to-back games, JLD has caused a fumble by executing his tackling at a high level and dislodging the ball with the use of his helmet and shoulder pads. He is currently on pace to break the NCAA-record for fumbles forced with 12. All hail JLD.
  • Wearing Down the Texas Defensive — It is no secret that for BYU to be successful, the Cougars have to win the battle of physicality. Make that two straight weeks where BYU seemingly wore down its opponent between the tackles. The holes were gaping, and BYU had a bevy of strong and rested running backs (Hine, Brown) to clean up and add to what Hill and Jamaal Williams had already wrought. 
  • Offensive Line Depth — BYU’s offensive line has not been good for quite some time. A new offensive line coach, and Robert Anae’s secondary tutelage, were our hopes of seeing this rectified in 2013. It didn’t quite happen. Oh what a difference a year makes. BYU’s offensive line looks as comfortable in run blocking as it does pass blocking. I counted 10 differing offensive lineman receiving multiple snaps during the competitive portion of the Texas game. “DURING THE COMPETITIVE PORTION OF THE TEXAS GAME is a thing that really happened. Twice” This change is incredibly encouraging considering the longness of the season. They are not quite there yet as a unit, but with two freshman on the starting five, it can only get better from here.

On Depression

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

The news of Robin Williams’s passing has dejected me deeply. He was a gifted actor, comedian, and from all accounts, a tremendously kind-hearted human being. It is a sad symptom of humanity that those whose hearts are filled with so much laughter and love can also be filled with so much sadness and pain. 

How could someone with so much see only darkness? It does not make sense. It is not logical. 

Depression is as near to an incommunicable experience as I have ever passed through. I know this because I live with it. Not too long ago, in the midst of what I felt was a vexing trial, I felt the full measure of depression. The virus finds its place into your conscious and subconscious, gnawing away at all you are. It cuts through socio-economic status, religiosity, gender, race, and all other divisions amongst mankind. It is an equal opportunity vexation. 

Much more than simple sadness, depression chisels away at your very nature. You do not know why you are feeling what you are feeling, but the inability to find the genesis does not alleviate the depth of the distress. You find logic illogical and family nonfamilial. It is the darkest abyss of the soul. Depression morphs your past, clouds your present, and blackens your future.

Within weeks these feelings became inescapable. I wanted nothing more than to find a way to be free from their darkness. My brain began giving me answers I had never before contemplated. Maybe it would be better if I were not alive. I am simply a burden to those closest to me. Sure, they might be sad, but life would go on and I would be at peace. I grabbed my iPhone and punched in a quick Google search: “Committing suicide without pain.”

Thankfully, I found help.

The effects of depression are real and its clutches extend to each and every family you know. The World Health Organization surmises that more than 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression. Depression is not a sign of personal weakness. Depression is not a condition that can be willed or wished away. Taken to its extreme, it cuts off life itself in horrible abruptness — men and women who should be alive but are not.

In this the Age of the Selfie, I worry that more and more individuals who suffer from undiagnosed depression see the charade of perfection put forth on social media as a glimpse into so-called normalcy. Or alternatively: that those who post such perfecting portraits are trying to compensate for the depressive feelings inside of their hearts. It is past time for us to start talking seriously and intently about depression and bring its darkness into the light. 

The stigma that follows questions of mental health is lessening but we are far from where we need to be. What is essential is often invisible to the eye. To be our brother’s keeper is to be willing to speak on his behalf and be prepared to shoulder his burdens. For the millions of individuals like Robin Williams, who feel disheartened beyond description, there is hope and there is help. 

The “Are Mormons Christian” Conundrum

The question of whether members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are Christian has been debated since the Church was established in 1830. Many members of the Mormon Church, including prominent leaders, have fought very hard to assure the rest of the Christian world that we are indeed Christians. They hope that this commonality between our fellow religious brethren would breed a plank of strength and mutual respect, one with another.

The ironic thing is, we assign our own definitions to words and then adjudicate others based on our previous assumption. We see this in politics, where if you fail to line up with consensus on one issue, you are branded a traitor. Sports are no different, where a contrary fandom is often termed somehow of lesser quality.

You especially see this form of purity test in religion — often ending in violence. Strife within Islam comes from two competing groups, Shi’a and Sunni, who refuse to recognize one another as true Muslims. It’s no different in the fight between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In general, all divisions among the religious are simply a form of purity test: you or your group simply do not fit the mold I believe to be true. 

Honestly, the whole “Mormons are Christians! They really are!” campaign has always rubbed me the wrong way. When God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith, they did so because there had been an apostasy. The complete Gospel of Jesus Christ was not on the earth. The Father and the Son were ushering in the final dispensation and providing the people of the earth a chance to accept the true doctrine of salvation.
So, why would we, as the Church and Kingdom of God restored to the earth, want to be counted with those religious organizations that The Lord had just instructed young Joseph NOT to join? Sure, greater acceptance from the religious world as a whole can only help and aid the Church. It opens doors as well as allows us to learn and experience faith from many different angles. It can also be a double-edged sword — where the Church is simply lumped with every other Christian denomination. We are different and should not be afraid to claim this truth.

Whether I am a Christian or not depends on your definition of what being a Christian is.

Does being a Christian entail believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only name under heaven whereby a man can be saved? If your answer is yes, then I most assuredly call myself a Christian, for without Christ and His redeeming blood, we are all lost. I love Christ. I want to do what He wants. I am nothing without Him. He is my Savior, Guide, and God.

Does being a Christian mean that I subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity? That God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are one in substance, without form, and can fill the immensity of space and dwell in the heart of man? If your answer is yes, then I reject being defined as a Christian. God the Father and Jesus Christ are two separate and distinct beings, each with a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man. The Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit, also independent in form from the Father and the Son. No greater doctrine has sprung from the Restoration than that of the character and nature of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.

Does being a Christian involve believing the Bible to be the absolute and only word of God? If so, I am not a Christian. If God speaks not to man, then He lives not. The Book of Mormon is the word of God brought forth in our day to testify of His love, His Son’s mission, and of Joseph Smith’s calling as a latter-day prophet.

Does being a Christian implicate that I must follow the Savior’s teachings with an understanding that even after doing my best, it is by His grace that I return to his presence? If so, then I am a Christian. Grace is all we have. It is by grace that we are saved, for without the grace and condescending Christ to provide us with a way home, we would be lost — no matter how many works we completed.

My own definition of a Christian is pretty general and all-inclusive: Do you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior and Redeemer of the World? An affirmative answer to this will put to rest all of the other theological differences I might have with the person. Unfortunately, members of the Church are oftentimes so keen on being accepted that they refrain from asking the necessary follow-up. 

So, the next time someone asks if you are a Christian, ask how they define the word. It will give you a chance to share your testimony and perhaps provide some insight about what makes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints unique. Representing the Only True and Living Church gives us authority to speak on the subject. As the prophet Nephi proclaimed: We talk of Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ…that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”

Creation, Uniqueness, and Christ’s Atonement

God is both the God of Generality and the God of Specificity. On one hand, mortal man cannot count the creations of God. (Moses 7:30) On the other, God “created man in his own image” (Gen 1:27) and “likeness” and has chosen to be called Father — evidence that He finds the title most descriptive of his persona.

There are more stars in the sky than sand on the seashore. And each star is unique, just as is every grain of sand or falling snowflake. The creative process is one of exclusivity not uniformity. The world in which we reside carries with it the spiritual trademark of our Heavenly Father’s perfected persona. 

So it is with our own spiritual persona — and the life story that follows. We are unique in all the universe, with all the implications that word entails. We are agents unto ourselves. There is One who knows us in all of our complexity. How wondrous is the Atonement of Christ, to allow us a place of understanding and a refuge from truly being alone in the universe. Heavenly Father created us — Jesus’s Atonement exalts us and allows us to know them in the same way they know us. “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” Joseph Smith

The scriptures teach us that nothing can be “created or made.” (D&C 93:29) Joseph Smith taught that the idea that God merely created man’s spirit from scratch “lessened man.” The proper restored definition of creation is ‘organization.’ 

Creation is the mere organization of spiritual knowledge. We become the organizers of our daily life and future. Christ has given us all the tools, and with His Atonement, the most necessary component. Through his grace, we are changed and become more and more like He and His Father. And the process of creation and organization continues when time no longer functions. As we continue to put ourself in line with God’s teachings, we become privy to the Spirit of creation. “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself as all intelligence also.” (D&C 93:30)

When something is created (or organized), nothing in the history of created things has been or will ever been done in exactly the same way. No one has composed a piece of music this way. No one has painted the canvas with these strokes before. And no one has written a novel or poem with the creative DNA now seen. I believe this is why the avenues of music, art, and literature so easily bring feelings of the Spirit. This is creation, and its cause and effect are based on spiritual aptitude and talent. An inheritance from our glorified Parents. And when we hear, see, or read it, there is an arch between our spirit and that of the Lord, testifying of its source.

Can one be unique and also eternal? No one doubts that there is a “sameness to sin,” with the whole world looking very much like one another from an outward standpoint. But what about in the world to come? Is the gift of eternal life simply an assimilation of people with the exact same personality? Is the Celestial Kingdom simply a Borg colony with better lighting and less wiring?

I do not believe that simply because individuals posses the same attributes of godhood that this necessarily means they are the same in all ways. Otherwise, the uniqueness of man is merely transitory. God is very serious about individuality and personal autonomy and the act of creation itself aids us in understanding the principle.

Uniqueness is greatness. There is nothing more beautiful than human creativity. And it is simply a lesser manifestation of our own Heavenly Father’s perfected attribute. We learn the basics of the law or skill and then improve upon the craft in an expression of our persona. Taking the basic structure and making it our own. This is the art of creation.

God be thanked for the eternal gift of agency and the ability to use creative spiritual powers to glorify Him, better effectuate His plan of salvation in our life and the lives of others, and someday return to His presence again. And when we return, we will be like Him in all the ways that are necessary and remain our own person in all the ways that individuality and godhood allow.

Review: 12 Years A Slave

History is often difficult to imagine and make real. Words read on a page or narrated during a lecture have a more difficult time permeating our conscious than does a visual. This is where the medium of film can truly change the world, bringing a stuffy historical fact to the most realistic life. 12 Years A Slave is the kind of art that carries within its horrifying narrative the ghost of a historical holocaust.

The film follows the tragedy of Solomon Northup, a free black man who is tricked and subsequently sold into slavery. Steve McQueen’s film is the most personally troubling I have seen since Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. And even The Pianist let off the effectual emotional pedal for extended periods of time. Solomon Northup’s hell goes from bad to worse, as he is exposed to the full measure of Southern slaving. The heart is never at ease, the scenes are difficult to endure, and the craft of the production cruises at majestic levels throughout. The acting, the script, the editing, the cinematography, the staging. All of it. Rarely do you see a film at such a level of prowess.

I wondered whether this unending parade of horrors, taken over a 2+ hour running time, had descended into cliche. Then I remembered that the story is real, and Solomon’s story deserves to be told in all of its terror. The fact that Solomon’s experience was an exception more than a rule is rather unimportant. The fact remains that human beings were kept in bondage and subjugation all day, every day, for entire lifetimes. I am willing to forgive McQueen and company for possible overcompensation because there simply has never been a film on American Slavery that has brought to life our nation’s darkest stain.

Again, the performances are magnificent, anchored by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Ejiofor’s Solomon is ever hopeful in the face of unspeakable inhumanity. Fassbender is electrifying in a role so evil it must be seen to be believed. And that is exactly what 12 Years A Slave demands of every American: it demands to be seen. Films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are so important to historical remembrance that they must be experienced once. 12 Years A Slave is necessary viewing and surely one of the best films of this year or any year.

Grade: A

Priesthood ban given context

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints announced some changes to the scriptural commentary embedded inside the Church’s Standard Works. The Church’s changes to the Official Declaration II Commentary are especially exciting. Having studied the issue of Blacks in the Priesthood, and prayed mightily for help in understanding the reality of the issue, I can bear witness that the change in tone and fact in the new edition is of God. I am so thankful for the great members of the Church, both now and then, who are of African ancestry. Your faith and preservation are an inspiration.

The commentary reads in part: “Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter tis practice and prayerfully sought guidance.”

The priesthood ban upon those of African lineage has always been the greatest stain on the Restored Church. Joseph Smith himself ordained black Elders and sent them on missions. Only after personal opinion became church doctrine was the ban seen as coming from God. We do not believe in prophetic infallibility, and whether it was Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, or someone else who perpetuated this heinous idea, it really does not matter. Young was a prophet of God and a great man. We all make mistakes. Even prophets.

My Dad, whose gospel scholarship is something I aspire to attain, has always held this priesthood ban and its complexity as a central issue for study. President Kimball’s revelation in 1978 transpired when my Dad was on his mission in Virginia. Upon the announcement, entire cities were opened up for proselyting. The issue of “Why was there a ban in the first place?” stayed with him long after he came home.

On my mission, I baptized a family of four African-Americans. The idea of the Savior’s Church, the Only True and Living Church having such a difficult past in regard to race was always difficult for me to swallow as well. It became even more difficult once I began to study the issue and truly understand the extent to which the Prophet Joseph Smith treated blacks with divine equality, and how it seemed the Church had forgotten his ideals on this issue as it headed West. Racial supremacy masked as revelatory utterance is the very anthesis of the Gospel of Christ.

I am thankful to the dedicated LDS scholars who smoked out false assertions and callous generalizations in regard to blacks and the priesthood. I am thankful the Church is willing to accept the past and help its members move forward. Today’s announcement was a generations coming. The great stain has been partially remedied. Racism had and has no place in Christ’s Kingdom. Today is a great day! The Gospel has always been true in spite of the stain. Today’s change brings with it the knowledge and reminder that revelation of a correcting nature can also be edifying. And it certainly answered my prayers.

Learning of God’s Nature Through Fatherhood

I was blessed to be able to return to Utah for the past week to spend some much needed time with my beautiful daughter Kinley. For the most part, Kinny is a well-mannered and sweet little angel. Occasionally, as with all 3-year-olds, she has her not-so-obedient moments. During one of the few bad spots this week, in the midst of being put in timeout because of disobedience, she looked up with tears in her eyes and asked me a question: “Daddy, do you still love me when I’m being a stinker?”

I laughed at the cuteness and assured her of my love for her. Then, as with nearly every father-daughter interaction I have, the Spirit reminded me of my own son-father relationship with God. I thought of how in her young mental development, she simply had little conceptual reality of what it meant to “love.” And I was reminded of how I have wondered about God’s love for me while in the midst of repentance or depression or both. I then understood what it meant, through my own smaller scale yet parallel experience what it meant to feel the love that Heavenly Father feels for His children. My love, in an imperfect way, was like His: unconditional and unchanging. I wished, hoped, and expected Kinley to obey, but my love for her remained unaffected by her choices.

I often pride myself on being all grown up, a man who can make decisions for himself. Secure in testimony and direction in life. Knowledgable of the Gospel plan, and though faltering every single day, striving to put my life in line with how the Savior desires. Then, when I tell my daughter for the 3rd time to put her toys away so we can leave and she still refuses to do so, I exclaim: “How come you aren’t listening to me?” The Spirit stirs within me the realization that in my spiritual journey I am but a child like Kinley. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”1 The Lord’s patience and long-suffering are spectacular to contemplate.

No wonder our own homes are the structure most comparable to the holiness of the temple. Earthly familial relationships are a type-and-shadow of our eternal familial relationships. Of all the grand and powerful name-titles God has available to Him, He chose to be called Father. How thankful I am to be his son. To learn and grow through experiences He knows all too well, for he was once an earthy father before he was an Eternal Father. The relationships I have with Kinley, Heavenly Father, and Jesus are the preeminent means for learning of God’s true character. And in turn, allowing the Spirit to make me more like Him. “There is only this; all else is unreal.”2 I am so thankful for Heavenly Father and His plan of happiness. I am grateful for the privilege of being a Daddy. And I am forever indebted to the Savior for providing the way and means for my life to have purpose, even if the circumstances are not what I had envisioned.

1- Hymn: Come Thou Fount
2- Film: The New World, directed by Terrence Malick

The Tears of God

“This great evil: Where did it come from?

How did it steal in to the world?

What seed, what root did it grow from?

Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us?

Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with sight of what we might have known.

Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass the grow? The sun to shine?

Is this darkness in you too?

Have you passed through this night?”

These words, from Terrence Malick’s wondrous masterpiece The Thin Red Line, entered into my mind shortly after I heard about the horrific massacre in Connecticut. And in my mind they remain.

We all express grief, loss, and sadness in our own way. Some get angry; some sad; most others a collection of both. Solace comes in many forms.

For me, the character of God and His Christ are where I find catharsis. I want to be like They are. The Prophet Joseph taught that to go to where They are, we must become like Them in the principles, attributes, and powers they possess.

Enoch, the great prophet, when seeing that God Himself wept at the residue of the people, asked a probing question:

“How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?”

After explaining the eternal sorrow He felt for the evil being perpetuated by His children, He replied rhetorically:

“Should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”

He further expounded on the answer with example upon example:

“And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and WEPT and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook.”

“And as Enoch saw this, he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I WILL REFUSE TO BE COMFORTED;”

Comfort did not, and could not come from any source other than Christ and His atoning grace. So it was with Enoch; so it is with us; and so it shall be through all eternity.

Finally, The Lord provided the balm with a vision of the Savior’s ministry.

“But the Lord said unto Enoch: Lift up your heart, and be glad; and look.”

We must allow for the Savior’s power to cast out not only the fear for our future, but the desire to escape our present. His jurisdiction knows no bounds, both it time and eternity.

Additionally, we must remember that agency is as sacred as the human experience itself. And as necessary a condition to mortality as death. Its effects can cause our very soul to question whether rest will ever be attained.

As I look at my daughter this evening as she sleeps beside me, I am reminded how good this life can be. And, in seeing the tragedies of this day, how it can be so quickly turn-about. I desire to be a better man. A better father. A better Christian.

Christ is Our Hope. He is our Rock. May we turn our hearts more fully toward Him and do unto our eternal siblings that which He would do.

The Lord taught Enoch that both eternal-grade sorrow, faith, and hope are attributes of Glorified Man. These emotions we feel are not of the world, but of the one we aspire to return.

While questions of the details will remain, answers about the solution are already within our grasp.

Rob McKenna and My Abortion Conundrum

Washington Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna is locked in a tight battle with his Democrat counterpart, Jay Inslee. The latest Real Clear Politics average has Inslee with a 1.5 point lead. Quite competitive considering President Obama carried the state by 17 points. So, as a partisan Republican like myself would be jumping for joy at voting for Attorney General McKenna, right?  Wrong. 

Rob McKenna is pro-choice. 

Those who know me are fully aware of my stance on abortion. It is a non-negotiable issue.  A society which refuses to protect the most indefensible of us all has altogether ceded moral relevancy. Over 54 million babies have been aborted since the monstrous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 disenfranchised hundreds of millions of Americans from deciding this issue at the ballot box. Whether one subscribes to the pro-life or pro-choice movement is a glimpse into the soul. 

Back to McKenna. While McKenna is personally pro-life, he has endorsed Roe v. Wade and as Attorney General filed suit against a local Washington pharmacy which had refused to carry emergency contraception out religious concerns.  

Washington is one of the most pro-abortion states in the entire nation. It was the first state to legalize abortion on demand by a referendum of the people in 1970. An intiative that would have prohibited public funding for abortion was rejected by voters in 1984. Roe v. Wade was codified as state law in a successful 1991 intiative. And, in 1998, nearly 60% of Washington voters rejected an initiative that would have prohibited partial birth abortions. Yikes.

Pacific Northwest Republicans have had to cede the issue of life to win statewide elections. It is a matter of pragmatism. But, is selling the most basic tenet of morality, protecting the innocent, a bridge too far? “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Both candidates are pro-abortion, but there is no question that McKenna is more pro-life than Inslee. McKenna has expressed support for parental notification and does not support a change in state law that would push state law further in the direction of abortion. McKenna, nominally, would protect the unborn more so than Inslee. And when it comes to issues of limited government, deregulation, and lower tax rates, there is no question McKenna is the better candidate. 

The race is going to come down the wire and every vote matters. It was easy for me to call abortion a non-negotiable issue while living in a state like Utah, where even Democrats are pro-life and there is no doubt Republicans will win elections. But, now, in a state like Washington, is the proper pro-life position to endorse the candidate who is ‘more’ pro-life than his opponent?

Whenever you hear people talking about “a living Constitution,” almost invariably they are people who are in the process of slowly killing the Constitution by “interpreting” its restrictions on government out of existence.

— Thomas Sowell