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.