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Dick Harmon: Unforced errors killing BYU's offense

Published: Monday, Oct. 15 2012 3:04 p.m. MDT

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) recovers his own fumble as Oregon State Beavers linebacker Michael Doctor (40) defends in Provo Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012.

Jeffrey Allred, Deseret News

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PROVO — Unforced errors.

The Big Miss.

These are terms in sports that denote how a team or athlete makes a mistake that pushes away wins.

BYU’s offense is wrestling with unforced errors, and Saturday’s loss to Oregon State shows it hasn’t been corrected through seven games.

In tennis, an unforced error is hitting a serve out of bounds. It’s a mistake that takes the player right out of a point without the opponent doing anything. Same with volleyball.

In golf, the rich PGA Tour guys you see on TV abhor The Big Miss. Hank Haney’s book on Tiger Woods uses that phrase as its title. It’s a situation where a golfer is making birdies and eagles and scoring and sees himself atop the leaderboard. Then, out of nowhere, he misses a green on the short side, has an approach shot come up short in a lake or simply drives the ball out of bounds.

The Big Miss. One shot, one mistake, and it is over.

Against Oregon State, Riley Nelson repeated a mistake seen over and over again. It came in the first half with the Cougars trading scores with OSU while driving for a score. On second down, Riley found himself in trouble, surrounded by defenders, and rather than throw the ball out of bounds, he forced a pass to a triple-covered Cody Hoffman for a pick.

We saw this last year in Dallas against TCU when BYU was in the middle of making a comeback and a possible run at an upset. In scoring position, in the grasp, Nelson tried to throw and it ended up in a backward toss for a lost fumble.

This unforced error is something we saw freshman Taysom Hill avoid several times in his two starts and half a game. He threw it away. Thing is, Hill had been away from football for almost three years. Trouble? Pressured? It is not there? He threw the ball away. It is Football 101.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” Nelson said after the game, his 27th Division I contest.

Well, that may help.

But it may be too late.

Nelson’s a senior. He’s a leader. He’s respected by teammates. He’s looked up to. But all those guys are held accountable for their mistakes. Up till now, Nelson has repeated his.

The difference between the Cougars being 7-0, 6-1 or 5-2 instead of 4-3 is a simple statistical category. It’s called turnovers.

The Cougars were tied with No. 10 OSU 21-21 in the fourth quarter Saturday and had three turnovers in that game, two in that quarter. That was the difference.

Turnovers at Utah and Boise State directly led to easy opponent scores and were the difference in those losses on the road. Not all were on Nelson, but some definitely were. Nelson has thrown six interceptions and one touchdown pass in his last two games.

BYU currently ranks 97th in the country in turnover margin. That means the Cougars' offense, in a big way, is giving the ball up far more than the defense is getting it from opponents.

That single statistic may be the most important in determining the outcome of football games.

Turnovers are gold for defenses and disaster for offenses.

That is why, when driving for a possible score, on a second-down play, a mistake like the one BYU’s senior QB made in that kind of a game is, quite frankly, pretty incredible.

It’s the kind of mistake that tests the loyalty of friends and emboldens foes both on the field, sidelines and in the stands.

It is a mistake that many a coach would react to by benching a quarterback for a series or the game.

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