PROVO — The game plan BYU had in place for San Jose State on Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium was an attack the Cougars seemed comfortable and confident with for the first time this season.
From the way the coaches drew up the schemes to the way the players executed them, it was a near perfect performance that not only led to a nice 29-16 win, but one that created more crowd enthusiasm than has been seen for quite some time in Cougarville.
Here is a look at five key reasons behind BYU’s easy win.
In control from the get-go:
Even though BYU quarterback Riley Nelson fumbled inside the 10-yard line on the Cougars’ first possession, it was still an impressive drive nonetheless. The ease at which BYU moved the ball right out of the gate set the tone for the rest of the first half.
Other than turning the ball over twice in the first half, the Cougars were unstoppable. Every other possession resulted in a score. The Cougars did not punt before the break. Prior to BYU’s three first-half TDs on Saturday, the Cougars hadn’t scored more than one TD before halftime in their five previous games.
En route to 23 first-half points, the Cougars racked up 282 total yards in the opening two quarters, had 14 first downs, converted on 3-of-4 third downs, and averaged nearly 12 yards per pass play and six yards per run.
The Spartans were on their heels from the start, and after falling behind by 20 points in the first half, were forced to play catch-up style football the rest of the way.
Balance and variety:
There were a few new names with big numbers on BYU’s stat sheet from Saturday’s win. Did Michael Alisa really carry the ball 14 times for 91 yards? Yup, and the Spartans seemed just as surprised by it as everyone else. Nelson’s nine carries for 65 yards was also a new wrinkle the Cougars haven’t had this season, even though everyone saw that one coming. Overall, five Cougars carried the football.
On the receiving end of Nelson’s 14 completions were eight different receivers. The Spartans didn’t know whom to focus on. And two forgotten targets, McKay Jacobson and Richard Wilson, had the game’s biggest catches.
With 219 yards passing and 225 yards rushing, the Cougars put up the kind of offensive balance that BYU’s coaches could live with all season.
Opening the playbook cupboard
After Kyle Van Noy’s second-quarter interception, BYU immediately went for the home run with Nelson throwing a bomb to speedy wide-out Jacobson for a 40-yard TD on the very next play.
Cougar fans haven’t seen much of that kind of play calling this season.
The Cougars also got a TD out of a tight end for the first time in ages, a weapon that used to be commonplace in BYU’s offensive game plan. The two big-gain tight-end screens to Wilson, a 21-yarder that resulted in a TD and a 35-yarder that set up a TD, were calls that not only resulted in big yardage, but plays that opened up the rest of BYU’s passing and rushing attacks. Nelson’s throw down field to Ross Apo early in the fourth quarter as he was getting sandwiched by two Spartan defenders was another play that seemed to put San Jose State back on its heels a little bit.
Nelson’s two interceptions added a slight damper to his otherwise impressive start, but both came on throws down field, which is something the Cougars have been hesitant to do this season. Turnovers are never good, but with San Jose State knowing Nelson was willing to take a chance deep every now and then, it made BYU’s ball-control passing and rushing games that much difficult to defend.
Whether it was Nelson’s decision making or offensive coordinator Brandon Doman’s play calling, or a combination of both, opening the offense up just a bit seemed to inject energy into BYU’s players, and was clearly appreciated by the fans.
No San Jose State run game:
It might have been the loss of star running back Brandon Rutley, or the early 20-point deficit, but the Spartans never could establish any offensive consistency because they couldn’t establish the run.
In 12 first-half runs, San Jose State gained a total of 13 yards. It was obvious the Spartans were doubting their ability to gain yards on the ground. This allowed BYU to do something that the Spartans could not do: focus on stopping one aspect of the San Jose State offense.
Knowing the ball was likely going to be thrown, the Cougars were able to take some chances and also back off a bit so as not to give up a big play.
With Jordan Pendleton about ready to deliver a hard hit, Spartans QB Matt Faulkner let fly an ill-advised pass in the first half, which Van Noy picked off. It was one of the game’s biggest plays as was BYU’s interception late in the game.
Knowing the Spartans were basically harmless on the ground made these two interceptions easier to make.
Confidence and energy:
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Those intangible elements of confidence and energy, which first popped up in the fourth quarter of last week’s stunning comeback win over Utah State when Nelson first replaced sophomore Jake Heaps as BYU’s quarterback, clearly carried over to Saturday’s contest.
The Cougars never seemed worried that San Jose State was going to catch them. They showed great confidence in their ability to move the football, and great confidence in their ability to keep the Spartans out of the end zone.
Quite simply, there was never any sense that the Cougars were in trouble, even after each of Nelson’s three turnovers. They always seemed poised to do whatever was necessary to take back control of the game every time the Spartans seemed poised to get rolling.