Bronco Mendenhall often has said, sometimes to his own detriment, that his players shouldn’t concern themselves with what the other team does, they should focus solely on what they do.
That unbalanced swing thought never could have found a better time and place than on Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, where BYU faced not West, not East, not North, not South, but Somewhere-In-the-Middle Tennessee, a club that rolled in from Murfreesboro a three-and-a-half-touchdown ’dog. No disrespect to the Blue Raiders, but if the Cougars couldn’t straighten out their offensive meanderings against this particular foe, they all should have been forced to point to their heads and utter a thousand times the visiting team’s initials: MT.
The Cougars, this time, did not come up empty.
But they didn’t completely fill their offensive cup, either.
They stumbled, bumbled, and especially fumbled around for much of the first half, letting loose of two balls inside the Middle Tennessee 5-yard line on consecutive second-quarter drives, and gagging up possession on three of four first-half fumbles, and 4 of 5 for the game. But BYU repaired, or at least gave the appearance of repairing, bits and pieces of a fast attack that had been in bad need of a trip to the pits. Even Mario Freakin’ Andretti had to slow things down for repairs on occasion. Playing the Middles gave Mendenhall’s team a perfect opportunity to pivot toward something more positive, a chance to heal.
It took it.
Final numbers on the board: BYU 37, Empty 10.
The Cougars were running on MT — OK, I’ll stop — but the question at hand was what it has been for a month now: Could they pass?
Such a strange question to ask at Quarterback U.
Taysom Hill actually showed dual-threat promise on Friday night. For example, on a drive just before the half, he led his offense on a 67-yard scoring drive, one of the more artistic drives of the season, that took all of 1:27 to complete. He mixed accurate passing with timely runs to give the Cougars a 23-10 lead. Hill followed that with a TD drive to start the third, and the game was decided. A subsequent 71-yard punt return for a touchdown by JD Falslev stretched the margin.
Back to the passing thing.
You would think by now, there would be grooves in the air at LES, not unlike those air routes you see in in-flight magazines, illustrating perfect paths balls have, can and do travel, taking off from the arms of past Cougar greats, jumping aboard deft trajectories, and landing in the hands of steady possession receivers. And that Hill could simply trace those routes.
Air traffic has flown that way for the better part of 40 years on and above that field — until the last three seasons, when throwing the football has, for some misguided reason, become an unsolvable riddle.
For all of Mendenhall’s emphasis on tradition, one of his program’s core values, he had allowed the very tradition that made BYU football famous to spin into the turf. And the ghosts of McMahon, Young, Bosco, Detmer, among the others, were frowning.
Of the Cougars leaning so heavily now on the run, Detmer said: “I never thought I’d see that.”
It’s one thing to run the ball. It’s another to cling desperately to it because there is no other option. That’s what the Cougars had to begin to alter on Friday night. And they did, as needed.
Hill finished with modest throw numbers, hitting 14 of 19 passes for 177 yards, but they were a vast improvement for him, and complemented rather nicely the large stack of yards he gained on the ground: 165. He also managed to get the ball to multiple receivers, including Ross Apo, who had been missing for much of the year.
BYU used the contest, then, for what it was: A game to smooth some of those offensive rough spots, a game to find just a bit of passing, a game to get better for Utah State, a game to focus on themselves, a game to heal.