Provo • There's no question that the BYU football team's fourth straight loss to Utah, suffered 13 minutes before the clock struck midnight on Saturday, is going to leave a mark.
It is going to sting for a long, long time, and the Cougars acknowledged as much after their ninth loss to the Utes in the past 12 games. Barring a matchup in a bowl game, the Cougars and Utes won't meet again until Sept. 10, 2016, in Salt Lake City.
"Um, 0 and 4," said BYU senior safety Daniel Sorensen, glumly, when asked what he will remember about the rivalry games years from now.
Up next is a 3-1 Middle Tennessee State team out of Conference USA that is probably better than most Cougar fans believe. Kickoff with the Blue Raiders is Friday at 7 p.m. at LaVell Edwards Stadium. One early storyline will be the health of sophomore running back Jamaal Williams (concussion, stinger), and whether he will play after having been released from the hospital Sunday morning.
Suddenly staring at a 1-2 record with very difficult road games at Utah State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame on the horizon, the Cougars have more to worry about than the fact that Utah has their number. And don't make those reservations for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco just yet.
Chiefly, BYU's passing game is atrocious, and their red-zone scoring is almost equally abysmal.
"I need to be better," quarterback Taysom Hill said Saturday night in his almost weekly mea culpa after misfiring on 30 of 48 passes. "We need to be more efficient. Again, I think Utah had a pretty good scheme on us, but there at the end, we started to find gaps. It is just unfortunate that we didn't do it soon enough. So, that is something that we need to continue to get better at."
The Cougars rank dead last in the country, 123rd, in pass efficiency at 73.6 percent. As he did after the Virginia loss, offensive coordinator Robert Anae said all the blame can't be laid at Hill's feet. At least six passes were dropped Saturday, an ongoing problem.
"Well, it is a group thing," Anae said. "Looking at the stats real quick, we may have [given up] five sacks. And usually if that is the case, that means there is more going on than just the sack. So there's a rush, so now your quarterback speeds things up, and routes were not as crisp, and there are drops, and all those things. That's where we are right now. There is no easy way out of this. We have just got to coach our way out of it and we've got to prepare and play our way out of it."
Hill has completed just 40 of 114 passes (35 percent) for 564 yards, but coach Bronco Mendenhall is sticking with the sophomore, who, to be fair, makes up for a lot of deficiencies with excellent running ability. He would have become the first back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Utes this season, picking up 130, but sacks made his net rushing total 99.
"Man, I thought he was tough [against Utah]," Mendenhall said. "I thought he gave us a chance right down to the end, and that's all I can ask of any quarterback. He will continue to learn and grow, as will our team, but I like him a lot."
Saturday's biggest problem for the Cougars was the inability to finish drives with touchdowns. They entered the red zone (inside the 20) five times and came away with just one touchdown and two field goals. In three games, the Cougars have five touchdowns in 14 red zone appearances, ranking near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in that category.
Assuming PATs, that means the Cougars had 35 points available to them against the Utes and came away with just 13. Utah kicked two early field goals, but scored two touchdowns on its next two forays inside the 20.
"You know if you are a good running team and you get down there, that usually shows up," Anae said. "And, boy, we got down there, but credit Utah again. They were physical in that area. And we were not. They made plays in the run game and pushed us to third and long. Anytime you are dealing with third and long with a quarterback you are developing and a [shaky] pass game that's a hard road."
Mendenhall said Saturday he couldn't pinpoint the problems in the red zone without watching the game film, but there was some curious play-calling, to be sure. For instance, on the drive where Williams was injured, the Cougars recovered emotionally and had a first-and-goal from the 3 after an 18-yard Hill run. Then they tried a funky play where Paul Lasike took a handoff and pitched the ball to Mike Alisa, who was tackled for a 3-yard loss.
"In going back to the number of missed opportunities, I think we had a missed field goal as well, so that would be one of a handful of plays that usually change games like this," Mendenhall said. "â¦ We gave up two big plays defensively that changed field position. Man, there's not many. The game was close. It was one or two plays."
And a lot of offensive inefficiency against a team that gave up 51 points and 491 yards to Oregon State.
Middle Tennessee State at BYU
P Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPNU