College football outlook: BYU's up-tempo transformation beginning to yield results
BYU had an up-tempo mentality before it had an up-tempo offense.
"It's always been the will before the skill for me," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday. "Our entire program is about how hard you try.
"All we're doing is asking the offense to do is what the defense and special teams had already been doing."
And it's working great. An offense that struggled against good competition last year, is not just running more plays, but gaining more yards and scoring more points per play.
After BYU's offense tanked last season, Mendenhall decided upping the pace on offense could help the Cougars go from consistent winners — they haven't had a losing season in nine years under Mendenhall and have won double-digits five times — to a program that could finish in the top 10 and compete for a national title.
"It's to push the envelope of what is possible here and what we can accomplish," he said.
Mendenhall revamped his entire offensive staff after 2012. The key piece was bringing back former Cougars offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who had been working as offensive line coach at Arizona (2011-12).
Anae was retained at Arizona when Rich Rodriguez took over and for one season got a crash course in fast football.
"A year with Rich Rod was like a gift," Anae said.
Anae said Mendenhall's program already had the foundation in place to make a quick and successful transition to the up-tempo offense — from the emphasis on effort and conditioning to the tone set by a defense that played a furious and attacking style.
"To have the offense go at a fast pace kind of fit the team culture that was already here," he said. "To do something like that you need a team-wide commitment."
The Cougars have embraced the new approach. No team in college football has run more plays per game than BYU at a shade under 90, up from 77 per game last year. The Cougars have gone from 400 yards per game and 5.19 yards per play to 511.3 and 5.70. That second number puts the Cougars at 65th in the country, so there is still plenty of room for improvement and big plays.
First-year starting quarterback Taysom Hill, a dual-threat still developing as a passer, is sixth in the nation in total offense at 357 yards per game.
Meanwhile, that nasty defense Mendenhall has made BYU's calling card in recent years — he was a former defensive coordinator — still ranks 20th in the nation in yards per play at 4.87.
The Cougars have won five straight, including Friday's impressive 37-20 victory against Boise State, and have this week off before playing at No. 22 Wisconsin on Nov. 9.
It will be the biggest test yet for the Cougars' new offensive style, though Mendenhall is quick to point out that up-tempo has done more than just increase BYU's offensive production.
"One of things I love about coaching is to see the human will tested. To see players being fatigued and still willing to go on," he said. "I love what it does to our practices and what it does to our individual growth and maturity."
Don't call him Curtis or Coach Johnson. Tulane coach Curtis Johnson prefers C.J. And considering how well the Green Wave have been playing in their second season under the New Orleans native and former Saints assistant, his is a name worth knowing.
Tulane (6-2, 4-0) is bowl-eligible, in first place in Conference USA's West Division, and on the way to snapping a string of 10 straight losing seasons. The program was nearly washed away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and had shown few signs of hope since.
The Green Wave went 2-10 last year, and Johnson admits there were moments he wondered what he had gotten himself into.
"Well, I almost called (coach) Sean Payton and (general manager) Mickey Loomis and asked for or my job back a couple times," he said with a laugh.
Johnson said he saw signs of a new and improved attitude among his players during spring practice, and if there was a turning point this season it came after the Green Wave lost 41-39 at home to South Alabama in the second game of the season. Tulane trailed 21-7 after the first quarter and 31-19 at half, and then had a chance to tie the game in the final two minutes but a 2-point conversion failed.
"I think they gained some confidence," Johnson said of his players.
The Green Wave have specialized in winning close games. Their last three have been decided by a touchdown or less.
"It's almost like we're playing Beamer Ball," Johnson said, referring a style Virginia Tech and coach Frank Beamer made famous. "Tough on defense, creating turnovers, very good on special teams and we have the best kicker in the world."
All-American Cairo Santos has missed only one kick under 50 yards this season and is at 82 percent on field goals for his career.
In a city dominated by the Saints and LSU, Tulane is starting to get some attention. Johnson is trying to keep his team grounded with a saying he stole from Payton.
"We can't eat the cheese," he said. "We're the same team that didn't win any games. We're just playing better. Their girlfriends and their parents are telling them how great they are. They have more girlfriends now than they ever had. Let's not eat the cheese. Let's have our single-minded focus."
— Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett, who hit the goal post on potential, game-tying 24-yard field goal in the Tigers' double-overtime loss to South Carolina can look to Navy's Nick Sloan for inspiration. Sloan missed an extra point in overtime two weeks ago to end a 45-44 double-OT loss to Toledo. On Saturday, Sloan kicked a 30-yard field goal as time expired to beat Pittsburgh, 24-21.
— Garrett Gilbert, once expected to be Texas' next great quarterback, is putting it all together in his final season at SMU. The senior quarterback leads the nation in total offense at 408.3 yards per game.
— A season that started with so much promise is getting away from Northwestern (4-4, 0-4). Injuries have played a part in the Wildcats' four-game losing streak, which could get much worse. They play at Nebraska on Saturday, then face Michigan and Michigan State before finishing up with Illinois. The good news? Maybe a down year will keep other schools from trying to steal away coach Pat Fitzgerald.
HEISMAN TROPHY WATCH
One nonvoters top three.
1) Jameis Winston, Florida State
2) Marcus Mariota, Oregon
3) Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Championship game — Alabama vs. Oregon.
Orange Bowl — Florida State vs. Wisconsin.
Sugar Bowl — Clemson vs. Missouri.
Rose Bowl — Stanford vs. Ohio State.
Fiesta Bowl — Baylor vs. UCF.
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