BYU ran an NCAA record-tying 115 plays in Saturday’s 47-46 victory at Houston, but coach Bronco Mendenhall’s choice to punt late in the game rather than authorize another offensive play may have been the most critical decision of the afternoon.
Mendenhall, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Utah State’s Matt Wells all set themselves up for second-guessing in the fourth quarters of their road games. A closer look at each sequence of events, and what’s ahead for these teams:
Trailing 46-41, the Cougars faced fourth and 10 at the 50-yard line with less than four minutes remaining. Mendenhall decided to trust his defense to get the ball back, and he was rewarded with a good punt by Scott Arellano and a three-and-out possession. BYU cornerback Robertson Daniel made a nice tackle after a second-down completion and heavy pressure on third down forced Houston quarterback John O’Korn to throw the ball out of bounds on what was ruled a lateral.
BYU took over at the Houston 48 and drove quickly to the winning touchdown on Taysom Hill’s 11-yard pass to Skyler Ridley.
Mendenhall had a dificult decision, considering BYU had allowed nearly 500 yards. He knew that a big chunk (228) of those yards had come via four big plays, as opposed to Houston’s grinding out first downs, so there was a decent chance of getting the ball back with good field position. The low odds of converting a fourth-and-10 play made Mendenhall’s choice sound — and, of course, his defense made him look good.
The win means BYU (5-2) needs only to beat Idaho State next month to qualify for the Fight Hunger Bowl, and an 8-4 record is certainly within reach.
Whittingham’s circumstances were somewhat similar to Mendenhall’s. Trailing 28-24, Utah had a fourth-and-4 opportunity at the Arizona 23 with about four minutes remaining. Trying to cut the lead to one point, Whittingham ordered a 40-yard field-goal try — which Andy Phillips missed.
Like Mendenhall’s strategy, Whittingham’s call was completely defensible. It just wouldn’t have worked, even if Phillips had made the kick. Utah allowed Arizona to drive for a clinching touchdown — and the Wildcats could have run out the clock, if Ka’Deem Carey had not scored to make it 35-24.
Whittingham was playing the percentages, and I’d say seven of 10 NFL coaches would have used the same approach. But if Phillips had made the field goal and the defense had made a stop, Whittingham would have needed to trust Schulz enough to lead a lengthy drive into field-goal range for a potential game-winner. By that logic, he should have gone ahead and played for the win right then.
The loss means the Utes (4-3) still need two wins for bowl eligibility. Assuming a victory over Colorado, they’ll have to beat Arizona State at home or USC, Oregon or Washington State on the road. None of those games is an automatic win, obviously.
• Utah State
If Wells’ biggest issue is defending his own team’s scoring a touchdown with eight minutes remaining, that’s a good sign. But as the guardian of coaching protocol around here, I have to address what happened during the Aggies’ 45-10 victory at New Mexico.
With USU ahead 38-3, punter Jaron Bentrude took the snap and ran around the end, not stopping until he had covered 72 yards for a touchdown. In Wells’ defense, it was not a called fake. That’s a critical point. If anything, Bentrude was too well-coached, being told to run any time the defense made it easy for him to pick up a first down.
The only problem was that he scored, which looks bad in the boxscore — even though that touchdown represented the Aggies’ only points over the last 28 minutes of the game, as Wells backed off. USU’s coaches should take away the fake option from Bentrude at some point, or instruct him to step out of bounds after getting the first down.
Otherwise, this was an impressive victory for USU, in every respect. The Aggies (4-4) have a bye week to further prepare freshman quarterback Darrell Garretson, and they need only two wins for bowl eligibility with three of their four remaining games at home. USU has a genuine chance of winning out, and there’s mild hope that Boise State could lose another conference game, giving the Aggies the division title.