BYU Football Talk will recap the Brigham Young Cougars’ 2010 football season in three parts. Part 1 will be a general summary of the season looking at the major stories. Part 2 will be Tuesday, January 4, and will be position grades. Part 3 will be Wednesday, January 5, and will be a list of the notable moments and highlights.
The 2010 football season was a tale of two seasons for the Brigham Young Cougars. The first was a rude awakening. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Hopes were high coming out of spring practice. Fans, bloggers, and beat writers had only good things to say about the upcoming edition of Cougar football. Less than a week later came the first bad omen. BYU football followers had become accustomed to watching Harvey Unga hit defenders like a load of bricks. Now, the fans and the team were the one hit by a load of bricks with news that Unga had withdrawn from school and would not play his senior season. The second ominous sign that 2010 would not live up to the 10 win standard was assistant coach Barry Lamb retiring for health reasons in July. He coached the outside linebackers.
DRAWN OUT POSITION BATTLES
Nevertheless, fall camp commenced as scheduled. The expectation was that by the end of camp the position battles would be settled. As it turned out, the battles were extremely competitive and the linebackers, tight ends, and quarterback positions were unsettled. BYU went into the season opener using a committee approach to these positions. This decision came back to bite BYU in a bad way. Early in the season run defense was as bad as it gets. The tight end never did become a force in the passing game.
2 QB SYSTEM
The two quarterback system did meet with some success. Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps guided the Cougar offense to 408 total yards, which was more than the 2009, 2007, 2006, and 2005 season openers. It was also good enough for a win. The Cougar offense continued to thrive in game two under the two QB system. BYU quickly racked up over 200 yards of total offense in the first 25 minutes of the game. Then, adversity hit for the first time.
On back-to-back possessions, each quarterback turned the ball over. This allowed Air Force to take a 21-14 lead at halftime. The coaching staff hit the panic button and abandoned the quarterback rotation. The coaches’ panic attack sent shock waves through the inexperienced team and they folded. The two QB experiment officially ended the next week when Riley Nelson could not continue to play through a shoulder injury he sustained during fall camp.
Most people, including head coach Bronco Mendenhall, will tell you the two QB system was a mistake. Yet, until now, there is no evidence, on the field, that the offense was ineffective. In fact, with Nelson getting injured, it can be argued that using two quarterbacks was beneficial. Heaps was able to play in two games before having the full burden of the quarterback position placed on him. How would you like to have Heaps take his first collegiate snap in front of 68,000 fans in hostile Seminole country? The two quarterback system became the scapegoat when the coaches panicked at the first sign of adversity. (For the record, I oppose any continuation of a two quarterback system in 2011.)
While the offense struggled to find itself, a rash of injuries on defense led to that side of the ball to struggling mightily. Nose tackle Romney Fuga, linebacker Jameson Frazier, free safety Steve Thomas, and linebacker Jordan Pendleton all missed significant time due to injury. As poor play continued, tensions rose. Each week the D played with less emotion. It all culminated in Logan. For the first time in 17 years, BYU both lost four straight games and lost to Utah State.
DEFENSE TURNS THE CORNER
The day after the Utah State loss, Bronco fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and assumed full control of the defense. This single act saved the season for BYU. While the offense would continue to sputter for three more weeks, the night and day difference on defense was enough for BYU to win two of the next three games. The defense dominated the opposition holding them well below their season averages for rushing and passing yards.
The defense turning the corner signaled the end of season one.
A GROUND GAME EMERGES
The offense surprised upstart San Diego State using a ball control run game to hold the ball for 45 minutes and score a 24-21 upset. Although it wasn’t pretty, it was something to build on. The passing game had major issues: bad timing, poor consistency, no tight end presence, and drops, drops, and more drops. The stable of running backs, however, had been the lone bright spot. J.J. Di Luigi was adept at making guys miss and making plays in space. Bryan Kariya had the power to pick up the tough yards and move the chains. Joshua Quezada was a little of both. These three combined for 269 yards against San Diego State and 234 two weeks later against Wyoming. This carried the offense until the passing game was ready to break out.
THE OFFENSE CATCHES A BREAK
After the Wyoming game, there was a break in the schedule. During this break, the offense emphasized the passing game. This led to a breakout game for Jake Heaps. Against UNLV, Heaps passed for a season high 294 yards, and he had his first game with multiple TD passes. Long balls were being completed. Receivers were picking up yards after the catch. Most importantly, points were being scored at an alarming rate. The Cougars delivered the knock out punch to both UNLV and Colorado State before halftime.
Each subsequent game saw Heaps and his receivers do something new. Heaps had the eighth highest single game pass efficiency rating in BYU history versus Colorado State, and Luke Ashworth tied a school record with four touchdown receptions in the same game. Heaps ran for a score against New Mexico. Cody Hoffman had a highlight reel touchdown catch against the Lobos on the way to leading the team in receiving. Despite the loss to Utah, everyone saw the enormous potential of the team with Heaps at the helm.
TRANSITIONING TO 2011
BYU was fortunate enough to go to a bowl, despite the 1-4 start. Bowl games can signify many different things. For the 2010 BYU Cougars, the New Mexico Bowl represented the start of the 2011 season. BYU put an exclamation point on the 2010 season, and sent the seniors out in style with a 52-24 triumph over UTEP. In the victory, BYU set or tied 42 New Mexico Bowl records and a plethora of school bowl records. What mattered more, much more, was that this young team went into the offseason with a lot of momentum and enthusiasm for next year. The potential cannot be ignored. They have plenty of reasons to be motivated, focused, and dedicated from January to September to ensure the journey into independence begins with a bang.
The 2010 season was truly unique. The failure to reload, like in 2007, was disappointing. BYU was minus 4 in the win-loss column from 2009 to 2010. There is no denying the record could have been better by at least one game (Utah) and maybe two or three if a couple of plays went differently against Air Force. However, the disappointment is mitigated, some what, by two facts. Fact one, rebuilding is universal. BYU wasn’t the only team that saw a drastic change in the win-loss column. Alabama, the reigning national champions were minus three; Florida was minus four; Texas was minus six and missed a bowl game. Fact two, the strong finish leaves us with high hopes for 2011 and beyond. It is almost forgotten that Bronco Mendenhall was 6-6 his first season. The highlights in the four years that followed made the first season a footnote. Soaring to new heights starting in 2011 will make the hard moments and lessons learned in this 7-6 season worthwhile.
Besides the win-loss record, 2010 was unique because of the unanswered questions. What if Harvey Unga had been allowed to play? What if Barry Lamb wasn’t forced to retire by his health? What if Heaps was named the starter in spring? What if BYU had lost the first game? What if Mitch Payne’s field goal wasn’t blocked against Utah? What if Bronco took control of the defense earlier? What if … what if … what if ….
The 2010 season also saw O’Neill Chambers suspended from the team indefinitely. First, he served a two week suspension causing him to miss the Nevada and Utah State games. Chambers was suspended indefinitely two weeks later after he set the school record for most career kick off return yards against TCU.
It truly was a tale of two seasons. How will it be remembered? That depends on each fan and how much he or she chooses to emphasize the good or the bad. Either way, it is assured its own place in history. It was a turning point. Which way BYU football turned, however, is yet to be determined. Is it September yet?
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Flashback: Brigham Young Cougars 20, Colorado Buffaloes 17 (Freedom Bowl V)
Poll Results: Where does the New Mexico Bowl win over UTEP rank among BYU's 11 bowl wins
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