Dick Harmon: BYU offense must be as clean as its defense
PROVO — BYU’s quick turnaround for Thursday’s game at Boise State isn’t easy.
It would help if it were against a cupcake. It isn’t.
And it would help if it were in a partially-filled stadium with less passionate fans.
But drawing Boise State is what it is. It is a huge challenge for a Cougar squad with abbreviated practice time.
It's like putting the Kardashian women before one mirror just five minutes before air time.
Can it be done?
We shall see.
I saw legendary coach LaVell Edwards on Monday at a charity golf event at Talons Cove, and somewhere in our short chat came the topic of preparing for a Thursday night game.
One of the difficult things, said Edwards, is simply healing bumps, bruises and sore bodies without that extra couple of days to just recover.
A few moments later I saw former NFL All-Pro tight end Chad Lewis and asked him the same question. If you know Lewis, you know what kind of answer you’d get. Players can’t worry about quick turnarounds, reduced schedule or sped up practice sessions on a short week. “You either play or you quit,” Lewis said.
In other words, nobody can do anything about it. You just have to man up and do your job and play the game.
Boise State has college football’s mother-of-all home field advantages the past dozen years. Since 2000, the Broncos, playing on their famous blue turf, have gone 75-3 for a .962 win percentage. That is the best in the country.
Bronco Stadium is loud, disruptive and filled with fans who sell their lungs for the cause.
After watching BYU struggle with crowd noise in Rice Eccles Stadium last Saturday with serial false start penalties and two center hikes that went rolling toward the other end zone, this is a challenge for Bronco Mendenhall’s squad.
This is disturbing on several fronts.
BYU has a veteran football team with 29 seniors — a lot of maturity. If BYU starts winning, it's the kind of team that will receive those famous jabs by foes and media for their age, marriages and kids.
But its offensive line is young. And against Utah, the noise got to them.
Can that be turned around in a few days?
It helps to have a senior quarterback in Riley Nelson. But that didn’t prevent a botched snap that was returned 47 yards for a touchdown at Utah that essentially broke open a fairly even game.
BYU’s antsy issues before a hostile crowd were not lost on Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who watched the late Saturday night game on TV live before he broke down game films.
“Yes, I know how important the crowd is,” Petersen told reporters on Monday. “And I’m being 100 percent serious. Crowd noise is very difficult to deal with. If we can have our crowd as loud as it can be, it will definitely help us.”
Petersen also knows there are a lot of BYU fans in the Boise area. He hopes many of them don’t make it to Bronco Stadium Thursday night.
This challenge of handling crowd noise is a big trial for Riley Nelson and his young offensive line.
Nelson is a senior QB on a veteran senior-laden team. I don’t want to put it all on him, and it may not be fair to do so, but it has to start with him.
This responsibility is also on the entire offensive organization. Getting plays called late, failing to execute a silent count, messing around with signals and yelling out calls as the play clock winds down and not getting the right personnel in position ready for the hike is a disaster waiting to happen.
Nobody questions Nelson’s heart, his leadership, his desire and guts.
Petersen took time out to praise Nelson on Monday, calling him a defensive-minded player playing offense, a guy who uses the run as part of his game. “He puts his pads down and doesn’t look to run out of bounds.”
But Thursday, it’s going to take a lot more from Nelson — and I’m not talking about what he can and cannot do with his arm, his legs or his knowledge of the offense.
He’s going to have to lead a charge to lift BYU to a much higher level of execution. He cannot afford to take a play that is failing and try to save it all the time. He’ll get away with it 95 percent against most teams, but that percentage drops against the elite. Play good teams and numbers ultimately catch up with you on these tries at salvation.
Sometimes there is no shame in taking a knee or throwing the ball out of bounds.
Sometimes it is the only option.
Riley should have been intercepted or lost fumbles half a dozen times more than what you see in the books this season.
Against teams like Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, the kinds of decisions he makes in these areas of chaos — in which he really succeeds — can be the difference between wins and losses.
Receiving a center hike, a simple act like that, has to be a life-or-death act for Nelson and his offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. Whatever it takes, short of illegal use of electronic radio communications between him and his center, must be part of practices Monday and Tuesday.
The time is short, but so much of BYU’s challenge goes to cleaning up simple things.
Can it be done?
We shall see.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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