This is part 1 of a four part review of the Brigham Young Cougars’ 2012 football season. Part one is a general recap of the highs, lows, and other key storylines of the season. Part 2—Position Grades will be Thursday, January 3. Part 3—Season Awards will be Friday, January 4. Part 4—Highlights and Milestones will be either Friday, January 4 or Monday the 7th.
The stage was set for the 2012 edition of BYU football in December 2011. Blue chip quarterback Jake Heaps announced he would transfer shortly after the regular season ended. That meant Riley Nelson would be the undisputed leader of the offense. At the end of December, Nelson led BYU to a last second bowl win. While he delivered in the clutch, it was clear that Nelson had a lot of work to do if he was going to compensate for his lack of size and arm strength.
BYU needed more from Nelson than just leadership and play making ability in 2012, especially since the Cougars had put all their offensive eggs in the Riley Nelson basket. It would be a noble experiment, at the very least. The great misfortune of 2011 was that BYU failed to take advantage of a favorable schedule. Heaps was caught in the middle of many of the reasons for BYU’s failure in 2011. Would Nelson, while less talented, be able to take a more unified BYU team to greater heights in 2012 with his experience and leadership?
Nelson seemed destined to be the latest in a long line of BYU quarterbacks who had excelled as seniors. Nearly every beat writer beat like a dead horse the amazing success that BYU had experienced since 1974 when an experienced starter returned for his senior season.
In fact, BYU would have more than the benefit of an experienced senior quarterback. Shortly after the 2011 season ended the local media noticed the 2012 roster was expected to have 29 seniors. The leadership from this massive senior core was anticipated to be an unprecedented positive intangible. Add to the mix very experienced and talented juniors Kyle Van Noy and Cody Hoffman, and the Cougars appeared to have the perfect formula for success in epic proportions.
As the season kicked off, everything was in place to start this experiment. Just four games into the season, this noble experiment had gone terribly wrong.
A GOOD START
The first two games at home against Washington State and Weber State went as planned. The major story going into the game was Mike Leach returning to the sidelines as Washington State’s head coach. The major story after the game was how well and physical the BYU defense played. Van Noy made two sacks. Jordan Johnson intercepted a pass at a key moment and returned it 64 yards in his first career start. Washington State finished the game with 224 yards total offense, including -5 yards rushing, 6 points allowed, and zero touchdowns.
The BYU offense wasn’t too shabby in the opener. The Cougars had over 300 yards passing. Taysom Hill threw a touchdown on his first career play from scrimmage, and Kaneakua Friel had over 100 yards receiving from the tight end position. The 30-6 win over Washington State couldn’t have gone much better.
BYU ran its record to 2-0 with a 45-13 win over Weber State. Cody Hoffman had his first of eight 100 yard receiving games. Three quarterbacks played, and combined for over 300 yards passing. True freshman Jamaal Williams scored his first career touchdown, and true freshman Bronson Kaufusi got his first career sack. The win came with a price, however. Nelson had injured his back. Publicly, the coach’s said it was just back spasms, but later it was learned that he had fractured three vertebrae.
No news could have been worse as BYU prepared for its first challenge of the season.
THE TOLL OF INJURY
Game three was at the University of Utah. In a very hostile environment, BYU got off to a very bad start. A false start penalty on 4th and 1 nullified a first down run by Nelson. That penalty forced BYU to punt. Utah returned the punt 57 yards to the BYU 17-yard line. Utah scored two plays later to take a 7-0 lead. That left BYU playing catch up the rest of the game. In the final minute, BYU trailed by three. A 47-yard pass from Nelson to Hoffman gave BYU a chance to win or force overtime. Poor pass blocking prevented another Nelson to Hoffman hook up that probably would have won the game. Nevertheless, BYU had one second left to attempt a game winning field goal. It was blocked, but Utah fans poured onto the field before the play was over. The resulting penalty gave BYU a second chance. The second field goal attempt bounced off the uprights.
For the third straight year, BYU had lost to Utah. It was a big black eye for the season.
Five days later, BYU could have got the season back on track with a win at Boise State. That Thursday night in Boise, the Cougar D solidified itself as a major force to be reckoned with. They allowed zero points. They stopped Boise State on all five attempted fourth downs. A 4th and goal from the 1-yard line in one of the greatest goal line stands in school history. Not even an injury to senior defensive end Eathyn Manumaleuna could set back this defense. In fact, that misfortune opened a door for Ezekiel Ansah to become one of the biggest stories in college football for 2012.
The third year player from Accra, Ghana finished with eight tackles that night. He assumed Manumaleuna’s starting roll and quickly became the hottest NFL commodity in Provo this century. Ansah would grace the pages of Sports Illustrated before the end of the season, and was projected to be a first round draft pick in the NFL draft.
Nelson’s injury, however, would have a greater impact on the outcome of the Boise State game. The true severity of Nelson’s back was finally apparent as he played the worst game of his career. He completed 4 of 9 passes for 19 yards and 3 interceptions. His final interception was returned for a touchdown. BYU lost the game 7-6. With less than four minutes to play, Hill scored on a four-yard run, but his pass on the two-point conversion was incomplete.
The outcry over playing Nelson while injured and electing to go for two at Boise was tremendous. The job security of Bronco Mendenhall and some of the offensive assistants be came a popular topic for the rest of the season.
POSTITIVE AND NEGATIVE
Despite finishing the season 6-3 after the Boise State game, a dark cloud hovered over the rest of the season. Anytime the Cougars did something positive an equal, if not greater, negative would shortly follow.
Hill started in place of the injured Nelson the next two games. Against Hawaii, BYU had its first 100-yard rusher since the 2010 season. Hill and Williams both had over 100 yards rushing behind a resurgent offensive line. Days after the 47-0 triumph, BYU learned Famika Anae’s football career was over. He was a big part of the resurgence.
The next week, BYU beat a very good Utah State team. BYU was now 4-2. With Hill and Williams both rushing for over 200 yards over the last two games, there was some excitement again about the possibilities of this team as they prepared to face back-to-back top 10 ranked teams. That excitement was quickly lost as it was soon discovered that Hill’s season was over due to a knee injury suffered on an unnecessary run in the final two minutes.
For Homecoming, BYU debuted new all-black uniforms. It was BYU’s first ever blackout. A 4-0 and no. 10 ranked Oregon State team was the opponent. The Beavers smacked around the BYU defense and left them black and blue, even without the uniforms as Oregon State’s back up quarterback scorched the BYU secondary for over 300 yards in his first career start. It was the one game all year that the BYU defense didn’t play well.
The BYU offense did well to pick up the slack. Nelson was back under center. BYU stayed toe-to-toe with Oregon State through three quarters. Two tipped passes in the fourth quarter resulted in 14 points for Oregon State. It was too much for BYU to overcome.
A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Up next was undefeated and no. 5 ranked Notre Dame. The Golden Domers were the only team on the schedule with a better defense than BYU. Even though, BYU had a golden opportunity to shock the college football world. As the fourth quarter started, the Cougars led 14-10. If the offense could score one more touchdown, the defense was playing well enough to win the game.
BYU couldn’t score a single point in the final 15 minutes, and the defense wore down. It wasn’t like opportunities weren’t there. BYU missed a 46-yard field goal with 6:31 to play in the third quarter. BYU punted just 34-yards away from the end zone with 6:10 to play and down by three. Poor placekicking was a problem all year. The Notre Dame game was when it was costliest.
The loss at Notre Dame left BYU at 0.500 for the second time in the season. Another 10 win season was officially impossible. The disappointment of this reality was magnified by the fact that this Cougars defense was still ranked among the nation’s elite.
TRYING TO FINISH STRONG
The final four games continued the positive-negative trend. The Cougar D absolutely dismantled the Georgia Tech option attack and didn’t allow a touchdown. The 41-17 win was BYU’s biggest road win of the season. Jamaal Williams tied the school record for most touchdowns by a freshman in a single game (4) in Atlanta. He was well on his way to having one of the best freshmen seasons in school history.
A few days later, several BYU defensive players were involved in a brawl. Two were suspended for the rest of the year and another had to sit out a game.
Hoffman went off in November. Up to that point in the season, it seemed pretty conclusive that he was not having the type of season that would make him decide to leave early for the NFL. After he set new career highs for receptions in a game, receiving yards in a game, and touchdowns in a game (5 vs. New Mexico State, also tied the school record), Hoffman's future wasn't so certain.
Unfortunately, the same problem that turned the season south back in September reared its ugly head in November. In a road game at San Jose State, Nelson suffered injury again. This time there was no doubt to anybody that he was in serious pain. The coaches never took him out of the game. The Cougars squandered several opportunities to overcome a 20-7 deficit that was created by BYU’s poor pass defense in the first quarter. Although San Jose State would finish the season 11-2, this loss brought irreparable damage to the season.
It was official. Riley Nelson was the worst senior quarterback at BYU. He was 4-5 as a starter. His passing stats were pedestrian. He lost to Utah. The five losses were the most BYU had ever had with a returning starting quarterback during his senior season. Nelson was too injured to start the two remaining games.
A NEW QB CONTROVERSY
With Nelson and Hill both out with injury, the door was opened for senior James Lark to make his first career start. In the regular season finale at New Mexico State, Lark had the most prolific passing day by a Cougar QB in four years. He passed for 384 yards and 6 touchdowns in the 50-14 win.
Mendenhall and the offensive coaches were embroiled in another quarterback controversy. Who should start the bowl game? Mendenhall professed loyalty to Nelson after the New Mexico State game. Incredible pressure was applied from the outside to start Lark. Finally, Mendenhall acquiesced. Lark started the Poinsettia Bowl.
BACK TO SAN DIEGO
From 1978-93, BYU’s bowl destination was the Holiday Bowl in San Diego more than two-thirds of the time. An invitation from the Poinsettia Bowl brought BYU back to San Diego during bowl season for the first time in 19 years. The opponent would be the hometown San Diego State Aztecs. BYU has played some of its greatest games against San Diego State. Some of the greatest performances in Holiday Bowl history were by BYU Cougars.
This Poinsettia Bowl would be no different.
Trailing 6-3 in the fourth quarter, Kyle Van Noy took center stage. In less than seven minutes, the junior outside linebacker scored two touchdowns (fumble recovery, interception return) to help BYU take control of the game and win comfortably 23-6. It was the greatest single defensive performance by a BYU player, ever. When the Poinsettia Bowl officials decide it is time to start a Hall of Fame, Van Noy should be a member of the inaugural class.
The noble experiment taught us that it made the margin of error too small—essentially zero. BYU could afford zero injuries, zero mental mistakes, zero bad days, zero bad coaching decisions. Of course, it would be preposterous to think a football team could have such good fortune. At 8-5 it wasn’t a terrible season for BYU. There were many great moments to be proud of. However, it will be almost impossible to ever remember this season and not think of how close BYU was to achieving much more.
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