By Danny Holmgren
As quarterback Riley Nelson’s last second hail Mary was intercepted Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Cougar fans again agonized, knowing they had come so close to victory but had fallen short yet again. Before I get into the heart of my article, may I just mention what an amazing experience it is to watch a game in South Bend? My first and only trip to South Bend came seven years ago when the Cougars also lost to the Irish. The tradition of South Bend on “football weekend” is an experience unlike any other I’ve ever experienced. I’ve traveled to a lot of BYU games and no experience compares to South Bend. I wasn’t able to attend this year’s game, but look forward to making the trip next year. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they finally pull out a victory there for me! But I digress.
Despite leading 14-7 at halftime and into the 3rd quarter, BYU was held scoreless in the second half by the stout Irish defense and lost 17-14. With the loss, BYU fell to 4-4 on the season and Twitter was on fire with fans jumping off of the sinking ship. Many continued, predictably, to call for Bronco Mendenhall and Brandon Doman’s jobs. Others place all the blame on Riley Nelson. BYU has lost three of their four games by a combined seven points and everybody wants to blame someone.
I’ve written before on the need for Brandon Doman’s play calling to improve. While he is still running that dreaded short field option in the wrong situations, I think that Doman has put together two of his best games over the last two weeks, given the talent (or lack thereof) at quarterback he is working with. Riley Nelson is a gritty, tough football player, but he doesn’t exactly allow Doman to open up the offensive playbook. Though the defense has given up more yardage, big plays, and points the last two weeks than we’ve been accustomed to this season, I think that Bronco has put together a remarkable defense since his firing of Jaime Hill midway through the 2010 season.
Coaching at BYU is a different job than coaching anywhere else. When Nick Saban was hired to coach Alabama, his sole purpose was to win big games and national championships. There is no consolation for Alabama to win an SEC championship if they don’t win the BCS championship the following game. That is the same story with most big time programs. Look at Texas, for example. Just 6 years removed from a national title, Longhorn Nation is calling for Mack Brown ($4M annual salary) to be fired. There are only two things that matter in Austin: beating Oklahoma and winning championships.
But in Provo, expectations and responsibilities are a little different. Winning is important, of course, but so is representing the LDS Church and cultivating the players into good men. BYU and the Church have always placed an emphasis on their athletic programs (as much as anything) for the exposure that they give to the religious institution and to the faith. The head coach at BYU should be responsible for recruiting high-quality athletes who will live and exemplify the Honor Code and then get those athletes to perform at the highest possible level. Bronco has done an admirable job of recruiting talented players to come to Provo. Where he does not excel is cultivating the talent that does come, and preparing them to go war on Saturday afternoons (or Thursday/Friday nights). Bronco has always placed a big emphasis on his pre-game firesides. Can we do firesides during the offseason, please? The night before the game should be spent mentally and emotionally preparing to go to battle, not preparing to play scripture mastery.
The night before a game for Notre Dame in South Bend consists of players, students, and other fans filling the basketball arena to capacity for a pep rally. Famous alumni speak, as do current coaches and players. A video is shown highlighting the winning tradition of Notre Dame, motivating the current players by showing them that they’re playing at a school that wins national championships and produces all-Americans. Players and fans all leave the Joyce Center pumped, motivated, and excited for gameday. Notre Dame is a religious institution that is very similar to BYU in it’s purpose and values. It is a school understands that its purpose is accomplished by winning big games on NBC every Saturday.
Bronco has done an exemplary job in Provo of reviving a program that had fallen off hard times during the Crowton years. He’s restored a lot of the tradition, honor, and winning ways of BYU football. He currently has the 7th highest winning percentage among active FBS coaches. He really has brought the team back in many ways. Unfortunately he is now 4-12 against ranked teams. As I’ve watched each one of those 12 losses, I notice a common, recurring theme: the Cougars look flat, out of place, and frankly, unprepared. There’s a lack of intensity and tenacity and those are both attributes that don’t start at kickoff, but rather in pre-game preparations which should begin by preparing for battle rather than going to Sunday School.