Ranking: 12 AP & USA Today
It may sound odd, but the best way to describe the 2009 BYU football season is that it was a roller coaster ride.
DOWN: Coming into the year off the loss to Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl and the early departure of stud wide receiver Austin Collie, BYU returned many skill players, but many question marks cast a cloud on the upcoming season. How well would the rebuilt offensive line protect quarterback Max Hall and open holes for running back Harvey Unga? Could wide receiver McKay Jacobson step back into the line up after his two-year mission and fill some of the void left by Collie? Would the defense improve? Pre-season predictions were all over the map ranging from 8-4 to 11-1. Then, Unga was injured during training camp and could miss the critical season opener.
UP: BYU opened the year by upsetting number 3 ranked Oklahoma in the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium. The following week BYU rolled through Tulane. BYU was then ranked number 7 in the country. Busting the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), and even landing in the National Championship game seemed like legitimate possibilities.
DOWN: Game three was home in the confines of LaVell Edwards Stadium, where BYU had not lost for three complete seasons. Florida State was off to a disappointing start and appeared to be a push over. Instead, BYU was pushed over and humiliated 54-28. Good-bye, BCS.
UP: Following the Florida State debacle, BYU bounced back with four straight wins by 19, 18, 38, and 10 points leading up to the home showdown with TCU. This year TCU was not going to take BYU by surprise.
DOWN: TCU ran up and down the field and demonstrated that it was clearly the better team. Cougar Nation was crushed. The Mountain West Conference championship was now unlikely for the second straight year.
UP: BYU swept the final five games kick started by a jaw dropping 52-0 shutout of Wyoming and finished with a dramatic overtime win against arch rival Utah and a blowout bowl win against a very respectable Oregon State squad.
Although the two losses were very painful at the time, especially since the win against Oklahoma showed that a perfect 12-0 was not a fantasy. In retrospect, the ups certainly outweighed the downs, and the pains of those downs can be eased by realizing that:
1) BYU still ended the year ranked number 12;
2) BYU played Florida State in what was a text book definition of a trap game;
3) Florida State showed it was better than its record indicated by beating 16th ranked West Virginia in its bowl game;
4) TCU steamrolled Utah and everyone else they played after BYU, and convinced a lot of people that they should play for the national championship; and
5) BYU was able to redeem itself against two ranked opponents, Utah and Oregon State.
Oklahoma 13, BYU 14
The Sooners were ranked number 3 in the country and had 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford back for his junior year, as well as a pair of 1,000 yard rushers. Bradford was injured just before the half, but it did not matter. The BYU defense played a spectacular game limiting Oklahoma to 265 total yards. Oklahoma was unable to sustain a single drive all game long. The Sooners’ only touchdown came after McKay Jacobson fumbled a punt at the BYU 35-yard line; their first field goal came on a 52-yard drive that was really 23 yards as 29 yards came from two BYU penalties; their second field goal came after Oklahoma intercepted Max Hall at the BYU 27-yard line. BYU, however, won the game with a 16-play, 78 yard drive, that took 8:44 off the clock, and ended with McKay Jacobson redeeming himself by catching the winning touchdown. Jacobson was wide open in the back of the end zone, while the entire Oklahoma secondary was worrying where Dennis Pitta was.
Tulane 3, BYU 54
This game appeared close early on, 6-3 with six minutes left in the second quarter, as BYU kicked field goals on its first two drives. BYU blew the game wide open by scoring touchdowns on six of its next seven possessions. The defense contributed the other touchdown when Jordan Pendleton returned a Tulane fumble for a touchdown.
Florida State 54, BYU 28
The BYU defense allowed 77.5 yards rushing per game in the first two games. Florida State ran for 313. Fortunately for BYU, the Florida State defense could not stop the Cougar offense. If it wasn’t for O’Neill Chambers' fumble (at the Florida State 14-yard line that killed a certain scoring drive), and Jan Jorgensen's fumble (on a kickoff that allowed Florida State to tack on a field goal just before halftime), the outcome of this game could have been very different. This loss snapped an 18 game home win streak for BYU that spanned the entire 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons. This was a trap game to the fullest extent, and BYU was caught big time.
Colorado State 23, BYU 42
BYU capitalized on excellent field position from two pass interceptions and a blocked punt to build a 21-0 first quarter lead. BYU cruised to the win from there to hand Colorado State its first loss of the season. Harvey Unga had his first 100 yard rushing game of the season. He also scored three touchdowns.
Utah State 17, BYU 35
With McKay Jacobson out with a pulled hamstring, Luke Ashworth stepped up with 5 receptions for 91 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter. After surrendering an early touchdown, BYU outscored Utah State 35-3 until the Aggies scored its final points with three seconds to play. The defense held Utah State running back Robert Turbin to 47 yards on 14 carries. He had been averaging 8.7 yards a carry before this game, and this was his first game with less than 100 yards rushing.
UNLV 21, BYU 59
With a balanced passing (320 yards) and running (291 yards) game, BYU exploded for a season high in points. Harvey Unga had his third consecutive 100 yard rushing game, and he scored three first half touchdowns. The defense was solid again intercepting three passes, limiting the Rebels to 45 yards rushing, and allowing only 14 offensive points. O’Neill Chambers had his biggest kickoff return of the season when he ran back a kick 97 yards to the two-yard line.
San Diego State 28, BYU 38
BYU fended off an inspired Aztec squad in this one. Max Hall made the biggest play of the game just before halftime. With the score tied at 14 and the clock ticking down, BYU was on the move, hoping to take the lead going into the locker room. After he failed to score from the one-yard line on a quarterback sneak, Hall rushed everyone to the line of scrimmage to quickly spike the ball before the clock ran out. BYU successfully snapped the ball, but Hall did not throw the ball to the turf. Instead, he took off running left and beat the Aztec defenders to the corner of the end zone as time expired. This win marked the 500th win in school history.
TCU 38, BYU 7
Although the score did not reflect it, BYU played better against TCU in this game than in the 32-7 massacre in 2008. BYU fell behind 21-0 early, but scored with less than two minutes before half. Max Hall had the Cougars driving to start the second half and it appeared they would cut the lead to 21-14, but a Hall pass was tipped by the intended receiver, and when it came down it landed in the hands of Daryl Washington for TCU. That squelched BYU’s momentum and any chance for a comeback.
Wyoming 0, BYU 52
BYU bounced back from the TCU loss in memorable fashion. The offense scored on its first seven possessions. Max Hall played flawlessly and posted the second highest passer efficiency rating in school history (270.04) by completing 20 of 22 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns. The defense limited Wyoming to 225 total yards and forced three turnovers during this shutout.
New Mexico 19, BYU 24
This tougher-than-expected win against the winless Lobos wrapped up an undefeated road campaign for BYU. This was the first time since 1984 that BYU won all its road games. Twice BYU looked to pull away after building 10 and 11 point leads, but New Mexico just would not go away. The defense rose to the occasion with two Jan Jorgensen sacks to end New Mexico’s last attempt at the upset in the fourth quarter.
Air Force 21, BYU 38
Max Hall dissected Air Force’s top notched pass defense to pass for a season high 377 yards and five touchdowns. BYU dominated early to build a 31-7 lead going into the fourth quarter. A controversial penalty called on Hall for “attempting to deceive” negated another touchdown. It was a record setting day as Harvey Unga set the school career rushing record, and Hall set the Mountain West Conference career passing and total offense records. Hall also won his 30th game as a BYU quarterback, which is more than any other quarterback in BYU history. This win also marked the 200th home win in BYU history.
Utah 23, BYU 26
BYU broke out the old royal blue uniforms to honor the 1984 National Championship team. TCU was in control of the conference crown, so this game was for bragging rights. Utah true freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn completed his first seven passes and looked like a seasoned vet as Utah jumped out to a 6-0 lead. The Cougar defense then clamped down and shut down the Utah offense for over two quarters, while the Cougar offense got on track and built a 20-6 lead. Utah fought back and tied the game at 20 as regulation ended. In overtime, it was vintage Max Hall. He threaded the needle to complete the 25-yard game winning touchdown to tight end Andrew George. As memorable as this play was, this game will also be remembered for Hall’s post game remarks about his “hate” for Utah.
Las Vegas Bowl
Oregon State 20, BYU 44
This year BYU was not disappointed to play in the Las Vegas Bowl. Playing a high quality opponent like Oregon State sure helped that. The playing conditions were terrible with cold temperatures and winds gusting near 50 miles per hour. BYU started off slowly falling behind 7-0, but things changed with a 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive into the wind. The defense returned an Oregon State fumble for a touchdown before the first quarter closed for BYU’s first lead. The Cougars never looked back. BYU scored 37 consecutive points as the defense swarmed the Beavers and nullified Oregon State’s supposed speed advantage. The win ended the season the same way it began, with a win over a respected, ranked opponent, which was the biggest knock on BYU at the end of last season.
Performance in big games was about the only weakness in Max Hall’s game at the end of 2008. He opened the year with a solid game against Oklahoma, which ended the year a top 10 defense. He played very well against Oregon State in the finale. As for the two losses, the offense wasn’t the problem against Florida State, except for the fumble on the opening drive, which wasn’t Hall’s fault. He played better against TCU this year than last year. Riley Nelson saw significant playing time and showed a lot of promise that should have all Cougar fans comfortable about next year.
Bryan Kariya and J.J. Di Luigi filled in admirably for an injured Harvey Unga in the first two games of the year. When he returned from injury, Unga quickly became the leading rusher in the Mountain West Conference. By season’s end, Unga posted his third straight 1,000 yard season and broke Curtis Brown’s school career rushing record. Manase Tonga was more than just a lead blocker. His dependability and reliability to run and catch passes out of the back field were invaluable.
Dennis Pitta was a Mackey Award finalist and he finished his BYU career by setting almost every record possible, including the NCAA record for most career receiving yards by a tight end. He and fellow senior Andrew George formed the best tight end tandem in the nation, and possibly the best tight end tandem in BYU history. They were money on third down and short. Their combined stat line was 92 receptions, 1,229 yards, and 13 touchdowns. They each had signature moments to cement them in Cougar lore forever. Against Oklahoma, on 4th down and 4, Pitta made a short catch and rumbled for 23 yards to the Sooner 6-yard line. Four plays later, Hall found McKay Jacobson wide open in the back of the end zone because the entire Oklahoma secondary was focused on Pitta. George caught the 25-yard touchdown catch in overtime to beat Utah.
Austin Collie’s departure left a big hole in this position. A lot of pressure was put on McKay Jacobson to step in, fresh off his two-year mission, and fill that void. He did not replicate Collie’s big numbers from a year ago, but he did provide a legitimate deep threat and averaged 24.2 yards per catch on his way to 556 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns, while missing four games with an injury. O’Neill Chambers made strides, but his fumbles were very costly. Luke Ashworth stepped up as the number three receiver and showed potential as a playmaker. The receivers can improve on getting open downfield. Thirteen of BYU’s 20 pass completions against TCU, and 14 of 23 completions against Florida State were to tight ends or running backs.
I give the offensive line the highest possible grade because of their performance versus experience. Many people had BYU doomed this year because of the lack of experience on the offensive line. To make matters worse, this new line would face Oklahoma in the season opener. The Cougar front five played well in that baptism by fire, and much better than Oklahoma’s rebuilt offensive line. Injuries depleted the line during the year so that much of the time they were playing without anyone backing them up. Nevertheless, the passing and running games did not skip a beat in 2009. The line still needs to work on protecting the quarterback. They allowed four sacks against Oklahoma and Utah and five sacks against TCU.
Overall, the defensive line played solid this year. While they need to pressure the quarterback some more (in other words, get more sacks), they were solid against the run, with the exception of Florida State. BYU allowed opponents only 110.2 yards rushing per game this year, and if you take out the 313 yards from the Seminoles, that average drops to 93.25. Seven teams rushed for less than 100 yards, and those that did run for more than 100 yards, only Air Force and Florida State ran for more than 127 yards. Jan Jorgensen became the Mountain West Conference career leader in tackles for a loss. However, I place the bulk of the 54 points by Florida State and the 38 points by TCU on the backs of the defensive line, and that is why I can’t give them a higher grade.
Coleby Clawson was the leader of this group and his hit on Sam Bradford that knocked him out of the game secured Clawson’s place in BYU history. Jordan Pendleton converted from safety to outside linebacker and he made his presence felt. He returned a fumble for a touchdown against Tulane, and flattened Jaquizz Rodgers following his fumble in the Las Vegas Bowl that allowed Matt Bauman to scoop and score. Shawn Doman recovered four fumbles. Linebackers combined for 13 sacks and Pendleton added an interception. The linebacking corps deserves some of the credit for the impressive rushing yards allowed stats. Conversely, they deserve some of the blame for the aforementioned Florida State debacle and the 92 points surrendered in two losses.
This unit was much maligned in 2008. Things did not look good when cornerback Brandon Howard left the team. This year BYU allowed about the same number of passing yards and passing touchdowns as last year, but the defensive backfield was much better. The improvement is best reflected in interceptions. Cornerbacks and safeties accounted for four interceptions in 2008. This year they intercepted 13 passes. Brian Logan would get my vote for newcomer of the year. He intercepted three passes, broke up 14 passes, made four tackles for loss, and he is quickly becoming a lockdown corner. The secondary showed just how far it had come from 2008 during the Las Vegas Bowl. They held a 70% passer to less than 50%, and they blanketed the Oregon State receivers downfield limiting the Beavers to short passes. The secondary, though, must share in the blame for the two losses, even if free safety Scott Johnson did not play against Florida State. Christian Ponder completed over 80 percent of his passes. Andy Dalton for TCU averaged almost 20 yards per completion. Dalton has experience and a thorough knowledge of the TCU offense, but he is not that good. Boise State showed us that.
Returns-O’Neill Chambers had a few nice returns. He almost scored on a kickoff against UNLV. His punt returns were crucial in the Utah game to build up the early lead. Big returns were few and far between. McKay Jacobson fumbled a punt in the opener against Oklahoma that led to Oklahoma’s only touchdown. No touchdowns on returns either this year. GRADE: C+
Punting-Riley Stevenson was adequate as a punter. He averaged 41.3 yards per punt on 42 punts. Seven punts were 50 yards or more; eight punts were inside the 20-yard line. He averaged 51 yards on four punts against Colorado State. His 27 yard average on two punts into the wind during the Las Vegas Bowl was much better than the Oregon State punter’s 6 yard average on two punts. GRADE: B+
PAT/Field Goals-Mitch Payne was 10-14 (71.4%) on field goals, with a long of 49, and 59-61 on extra points. He missed a field goal against Oklahoma, but it didn’t cost BYU the game. He was 2-2 against Utah, which went into overtime. He made his only field goal attempt in the five point win against New Mexico, while the New Mexico kicker was 0-3, and BYU blocked one of those attempts. No field goals of 50 yards or more were attempted, so it would be good to see Payne improve his leg strength to provide more options when drives stall in that gray area between the 35-40 yard lines. GRADE: B+
Grading the coaching staff was tough. They deserve high marks for how they prepared the inexperienced offensive line, how they coached up the defense from last year, how they prepared an excellent game plan for Oklahoma, how Max Hall improved his play in big game situations, and how they got the team ready for the bowl game. However, I had to down grade the coaches for the team not going to a BCS bowl. After the win against Oklahoma a perfect 12-0 was a distinct possibility. It showed that BYU was as good as any team on the schedule. Every team has a trap game (Florida State) on its schedule. The coaches are the ones who get in the minds of the players and have them focused and prepared for those trap games so that a letdown does not result in a loss. A second consecutive blowout loss to TCU makes me feel that the coaches took TCU too lightly and neglected to prepare for them during the off season. I also did not like that while BYU was squandering a 20-6 second half lead the coaching staff did not use a single time out. Why not use a time out to help convert a third down, take more time off the clock, give the defense some more rest, and avoid going to overtime to win?
Any account of the 2009 BYU Cougars would be incomplete without specifically pointing out that this team broke records. As individuals and as a team, they made their mark in the record books—BYU, Mountain West Conference, and NCAA. Max Hall rewrote the MWC passing records. By the final few games of the year, records were falling like flies. No account of a game was made without mentioning that two or three records were set. Several of these records have been mentioned already, or will be mentioned later.
TEAM OF THE DECADE
With all the hoopla about best this and best that of the 2000s, I have been asking myself, “Was the 2009 BYU football team the best one of this decade?” Looking back on the decade, the 2001 and 2006 teams easily distinguish themselves as contenders for the label “Best team of the Decade.” I don’t include the 2007 team because, although it matched the 11-2 record from the year before, by directly following 2006, it was very clear that the offense lacked the firepower of a year before. As great as the 12-0 start to the 2001 season was, I have to rule them out because the defense was bad. The 2006 team was a last second field goal and an interception off a tipped pass in the second overtime away from a perfect, undefeated season. The defense was underrated that year. It intercepted 18 passes, and held opponents to 14.7 points per game. The defensive carryover from the 2006 team propelled the 2007 team to 11 wins. That 2006 team was also tremendously hungry to win. I would put 2006 as number one and 2009 as number two.
A SPECIAL ERA
Although I made some disparaging remarks after the TCU game this year on my blog about the state of the BYU program, and the defense in particular, the rest of the season made me realize those remarks were somewhat knee-jerk. Since then I have been able to better put things into perspective. No, I have not made a complete 180 degree turn, but looking at the big picture, the complete body of work, since Bronco Mendenhall’s breakout year in 2006, I hope we are able to appreciate that we are witnessing a special era in BYU football.
In the last few years, we have seen the following:
- The best wide receiver in BYU history (Austin Collie) break all the major receiving records, and lead the nation in receiving in 2008;
- Possibly the best tight end in school history (Dennis Pitta);
- The career rushing record was broken twice (Curtis Brown in 2006, and Harvey Unga in 2009);
- The first back-to-back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons by one running back (Unga);
- The quarterback factory produced two great quarterbacks (John Beck and Max Hall) in succession for the first time in a long time;
- The offense led the nation in 2009 in converting 3rd downs (55.62%);
- The team has won 10+ games for four consecutive seasons for the first time in school history;
- The team matched the most wins (43) over a four year period in school history;
- The team never lost at home for three consecutive seasons (2006-08);
- The team won every road and neutral site game for the first time since 1984;
- The team has been ranked in the top 10 during the season for the last two years (first time since 1985-86);
- The team has finished ranked in the top 25 for the last four years (first time since 1989-92);
- The team finished 2007 with the nation’s longest win streak and held that distinction for the first seven weeks of the 2008 season;
- The team won 16 consecutive games, the third longest win streak in school history, during the 2007 and 2008 seasons (the second longest win streak is 17 games, 1980-1981);
- The defense has registered three shutouts in the last two years (there were only three shutouts from 1998-2007);
- The defense held opponents scoreless for 11 consecutive quarters during a three game span in 2008 (MWC record);
- The Mountain West Conference record for sacks in a career was set by Jan Jorgensen in his junior year, and as a senior he set the MWC record for tackles for a loss in a career;
- The team is 3-1 in its last four bowl games, compared to 7-16-1 in the previous 24 bowl games;
- The team beat the number 3 ranked Oklahoma Sooners, which is the highest ranked team that BYU has beaten since the 28-21 win over number 1 Miami in 1990;
- The highest season ending ranking (#12) since 1996 (#5).
TURNING THE CORNER
For BYU to turn the corner and have a one-loss or an undefeated season and land in a BCS bowl or even the National Championship game, the defense does need to be upgraded. BYU has proven that they can stop faster, more athletic teams, but they have to do it more consistently. The defense needs to bend less. The “bend but not break” approach works most of the time, but elite teams have defenses that are more “swarming,” “smothering,” and “dominant.” I don’t see why BYU can’t bring in top defensive recruits. Why can’t BYU have a linebacker like Shay Muirbrook, Rob Morris, Kurt Gouveia, or Bryan Kehl, a defensive back like Omar Morgan, Tim McTyer, Brian Mitchell, or Derwin Gray, and a down lineman like Jason Buck, Shawn Knight, Travis Hall, or Randy Brock year in and year out?
The biggest thing that needs to happen for BYU to become a consistent top 10 team that goes undefeated occasionally, and never gets blown out, is a change in mentality. Players and coaches can be happy, celebrate a win, and have fun along the way, but they need to have a fire burning inside them that until the season is over they have unfinished business. No matter who you beat or how much you win by, you have a renewed drive and determination on Mondays to make the next game your best, regardless of who you play, what you or your opponent’s ranking or record is, or how good or bad the opponent has been playing. They need to truly respect every opponent and really understand that everything starts over each game and a team that played horrible the last week can beat you the next week. They need to accept that they are not entitled to anything; they will not be handed anything on a silver platter; they need to go out and earn every yard, every point, every win. The coaches need to foster this attitude inside the program. Then this attitude needs to translate into work; work on the practice field, work in the film room, work in the weight room, and mistake and mental lapse free play on game day.
Although Max Hall, Dennis Pitta, Jan Jorgensen, Coleby Clawson, and perhaps Harvey Unga will be gone, next year (2010) should be a pretty smooth transition. Debate is swirling around who will replace Hall at quarterback. Riley Nelson saw considerable time in mop up duty this year; Jake Heaps the heralded prep has already enrolled in school; James Lark and Jason Munns will also be in the mix. I think that Nelson has a leg up in the race, and that it is his job to lose by virtue of his playing time this year. Heaps has high hopes, but I don’t see it happening. Perhaps if Nelson struggles early in the year, and Heaps shows that he is head and shoulders above Lark and Munns, he could move into the starter’s role.
The tight end position seems to reload without problems and without fanfare whenever a senior leaves, so although Pitta and George were great players who will be missed, the impact of their loss probably won’t be felt too strongly, especially with a talented receiving corps that returns and provides plenty of targets for the new quarterback while the new tight end settles in.
With or without Harvey Unga, the running back stable is full. Bryan Kariya, J.J. Di Luigi, and Mike Hague showed promise this year while filling in for the injured Unga. They will be better for that experience and for a whole off season preparing while knowing that Unga will be gone. Manase Tonga could be harder to replace than Unga.
The defensive side is less clear. The secondary could be the strength in 2010 with Brian Logan, Brandon Bradley, and Andrew Rich back. The defensive line was senior loaded, but Romney Fuga and Matt Putnam will be back to anchor the line. Jordan Pendleton is the only starting linebacker that will be back. While the number of returning starters is given a lot of attention, it is more important that coaches can develop players. The improvements made this year showed that the BYU coaching staff can coach up players. I think the problem with 2008 was that the young coaching staff under emphasized player development, got caught up in the back-to-back 11-2 records, and almost assumed that, like a production line, new players would fill roster spots without any drop off. I have faith that the BYU coaching staff will have new players ready to fill in the defensive holes to compete for another conference championship.