BLUE COUGAR FOOTBALL is home to the most comprehensive season review for BYU football. It will include four parts. There is a possibility of a bonus, fifth part.
Part 1: A general assessment of the season.
Part 2: Position Grades
Part 3: End of the Year Awards
Part 4: 2011 Season Highlights
PART 1: WAS 2011 A SUCCESS?
Events surrounding the Brigham Young Cougars football program promised a historical season in 2011. Win or lose, it was going to be a year of monumental transitions.
As the calendar changed from 2010 to 2011, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall was changing his staff. Longtime offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Robert Anae and receivers coach Patrick Higgins left for opportunities at Arizona and Purdue, respectively. Quarterback coach Brandon Doman was promoted to offensive coordinator; Lance Reynolds switched from coaching the running backs to the tight ends. Navy assistant coach Joe Dupaix was brought on board to coach the running backs, and former BYU standout receiver Ben Cahoon was hired to coach the wide outs. Kelly Poppinga was promoted from graduate assistant to be the outside linebackers coach. Nick Howell took over the secondary.
The second, and much bigger, transition was BYU’s move out of the Mountain West Conference to become a college football independent. Never in its nearly 90 years of football history had BYU played without conference affiliation. It was a bold move with endless doubts and questions, but if any school could pull it off it was BYU.
To make independence work, BYU needed attention. One of the best ways to attract attention is with hype. As the 2011 season approached, the hype became hysterical. It even reached the level of future BYU prospects. Eagle High School (Idaho) quarterback Tanner Mangum had committed to BYU in April. He lit up the summer circuit and took home Elite 11 Camp MVP honors. It was the second time in three years that the Elite 11 Camp MVP was a BYU commit.
At the first ever BYU media day in July, ESPN announced it would broadcast three more Cougar contests in addition to the seven already scheduled. No school in the nation would be seen on ESPN as much as BYU. And why not? Led by quarterback Jake Heaps, this was supposed to be the most talented and well-rounded team ever fielded in Provo. Visions of a perfect, undefeated season didn’t feel delusional, rather they seemed legitimately attainable. Even Mendenhall poured fuel on the fire by infectiously talking about how BYU might not have a conference championship to play for, but that wouldn’t stop them from trying to win the national championship.
Just when it seemed the hype couldn’t get any higher, the lid came off of the conference realignment box. Unlike 2010 when BYU was on the outside looking in, the Cougars quickly became the conference realignment darling. Every major media outlet was extolling the virtues of BYU and calling the Cougars the best fit. Rumors swirled and reached the point of making almost everyone believe independence would be a short lived stepping stone to membership in a major conference.
THE BUBBLE BURSTS
The season finally kicked off on September 3 at Mississippi. Although BYU left Oxford with a win, 14-13, the bubble had burst. The Cougar defense had saved the day by scoring the winning points with 5:09 to play in the fourth quarter. The offense was not nearly as proficient as expected. The offense had meltdowns during the second half in each of the next two games (Texas and Utah). BYU was unable to get more than one good half out of Heaps, and even the halves when he played well he still had one major mistake.
In game four, Heaps didn’t even have a good half. Exceptional special teams play, including Cody Hoffman’s 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and strong defensive play down the stretch gave BYU the win over UCF. It moved BYU to 2-2 on the season, but the Cougars might as well have been 0-4. Almost all of the preseason excitement was gone, and there were no signs that anything would happen to bring it back.
THE DEFENSE RISES UP
The only redeeming aspect to the season at this point was the Cougar defense. Sophomore linebacker Kyle Van Noy was proving to be a superstar. He not only forced the fumble that won the Ole Miss game, he recovered it for a touchdown as well. When the UCF game was on the line, he was making big plays all over the field.
Van Noy wasn’t the only one. Several newcomers were making their mark. Uona Kaveinga had started every game at middle linebacker. Hebron Fangupo was a force on the defensive line. Preston Hadley and Joe Sampson were making bigger and bigger contributions each week in the secondary.
The Cougar defense had its weaknesses, but they were starting to play very well as a unit. When it mattered most, the defense almost always came through.
Despite bouncing back from back-to-back losses to win game four, BYU was trailing in the second half of game five by 11 points. It was clear that BYU needed a change. The season was almost half over and the problems on offense were only getting worse. Enter Riley Nelson.
Nelson was the backup quarterback. He split time with Heaps at the start of 2010, but an injury combined with Heaps’ superb play to end the season relegated Nelson to the sideline. With 5:06 to play in the third quarter against Utah State, Nelson got a second chance.
The former Utah State quarterback engineered a comeback win for the Cougars that featured a 96-yard drive in the final 2:36 that concluded with a serendipitous touchdown pass to Marcus Mathews for a 27-24 win.
That comeback started a renaissance for the BYU offense. Nelson took over as the starting quarterback. It became a rare occurrence to see BYU punt.
Through five games, none of BYU’s three returning running backs who had over 500 yards rushing in 2010 had been effective. In game six, Michael Alisa—a converted linebacker—came out of no where to gain 91 yards on San Jose State.
With the exception of the Utah game, Cody Hoffman—BYU’s leading receiver in 2010—had been almost non-existent in 2011. He caught his first touchdown of the season from Nelson in the Utah State game. He had career highs in receptions and yards two weeks later at Oregon State. Hoffman was giving flashes of greatness.
Maybe it wasn’t the players, but only an easier schedule that allowed the offense to score a season high in point for four consecutive weeks. Either way, the offense had found new life.
The test of this new Cougar offense, and team in general, came at the end of October when BYU played TCU in Dallas Cowboys Stadium. The Horned Frogs had owned BYU the last three seasons. This game would measure the progress of the BYU team.
The punting unit was a complete disaster early in the game. Bad snaps, mishandled snaps, and a bad punt dug a hole too deep to climb out of. A valiant effort highlighted by JD Falslev retuning a punt for a touchdown and a hard fought run on a two-point conversion by Nelson wasn’t enough to close the gap, and BYU lost 38-28. Although BYU had demonstrated improvement, the loss to TCU was very hard to take.
BYU didn’t just lose the game to TCU. Standout linebacker Jordan Pendleton suffered a career ending knee injury during the loss. Fortunately, BYU had the depth at linebacker to soften the blow of this loss. That wasn’t the case at tight end.
Richard Wilson was lost for the year during the Oregon State game in mid-October, and Austin Holt went down in the Idaho game (the game following TCU). Throw in Devin Mahina’s neck injury during fall camp, and BYU was down to its number four tight end who was a missionary one year ago.
About this same time, Cougar Nation suffered another blow to their enthusiasm. The long, drawn out conference realignment saga finally came to a close and BYU was shut out, again—not once, but twice. What once looked promising for BYU to join the Big XII and/or Big East fizzled, and BYU will stay independent for the foreseeable future. The feeling of rejection, again, was very hard to take.
Coming down the home stretch of the season, BYU had a few surprise contributors. In game 10 against Idaho, Nelson left the game with rib and lung injuries. Heaps took the field for his first meaningful snaps in over a month. He played his best game of the season guiding the Cougars to 35 of their 42 points in about two quarters of play.
Heaps started the next week for the Senior Day game against New Mexico State. Several seniors had shining moments on their big night, but none shone brighter than Matt Marshall and Matt Edwards. Both scored touchdowns. Marshall scored on his first career rush attempt, and Edwards first career reception went for six points.
Nelson returned to the starting line up for the regular season finale at Hawaii. He was back earlier than expected, and added to his legacy by having the biggest passing day of his career.
The trip to Hawaii was the first for BYU since the disastrous 2001 voyage that ended BYU’s bid for a perfect season. The 41-20 win over the Warriors signified a triumphant return to the islands for the Cougars and kept alive a bid for 10 wins and a national ranking.
BYU had another chance at redemption in the Armed Forces Bowl against Tulsa. The Cougars were 0-2 in the Lone Star State during the regular season. The bowl also provided one last chance for a win over a quality opponent.
Punter Riley Stephenson and long snapper Reed Hornung took a lot of criticism after BYU’s last trip to Texas (TCU). They both had Texas sized big plays that helped BYU triumph.
It was a hard fought game with a dramatic ending. The 24-21 win gave BYU its first win in Texas as an independent, its first win over an 8-win opponent as an independent, and its first three game bowl win streak ever.
FIRST YEAR SUCCESS?
The first year of independence is in the books. Was it a success? Before the season started, I said for year one to be a success “the buzz surrounding BYU as an independent needs to be alive and well at the end of the season. … Bottom line, BYU needs to finish the year ranked in the top 15. That will require losing no more than 2 games.” I still stand by this measuring stick.
BYU finished with a 10-3 record, and all signs point to the Cougars finished ranked no. 25 in the USAToday (Coaches) Top 25 poll. The season was far from a failure, but it wasn’t a success, either.
Double digit wins and a national ranking are nice accomplishments for the seniors to hang their hats on. They also give the coaching staff some ammunition out on the recruiting trail. However, the 10 wins and barely sneaking into one of the national rankings has neither created a national buzz about the program, nor energized the fan base.
The Texas and TCU losses were two big lost opportunities. The loss to Utah was an embarrassment.
Long term, BYU could prove to be just as well off without Heaps. However, in the current context, Jake Heaps transferring doesn’t reflect well on this season. The coaches wanted him to stay. Fans wanted him to stay. Heaps leaving was just one more reminder of all the ways this year didn’t go as planned.
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