Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO — BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall stood in front of his players during a team meeting last week and shared some stark — and dark — numbers.
Those numbers told the story as to why the Cougars have lost three consecutive games to Utah, and four out of the last five.
That story in one word? Turnovers.
Since 2008, the Cougars have coughed up 19 turnovers (including 11 fumbles) compared to seven turnovers for Utah. That’s minus-12 in turnover margin.
“The numbers spoke for themselves,” said BYU defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna.
No wonder the Utes have dominated the rivalry during that stretch.
Protecting the football is something the Cougars are emphasizing as they get ready to host Utah Saturday (8:15 p.m., ESPN2).
“That’s what is changing the outcome," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said of the turnover differential. "When we’re even or plus-one, we win. There are other contributing factors, but I credit Utah for playing well and creating turnovers. I think that’s how it is for any game that has a lot riding on it. You have to be able to be mentally tough, handle the emotion and be execution-sound to hold onto the ball."
Last season, a 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Utah's Mo Lee after a bad snap gave the Utes a 17-7 lead. In that game, the Cougars fumbled five times, though they recovered four of them.
In 2011, a fumble recovery for a touchdown by Derrick Shelby on BYU’s opening series due to an errant snap gave Utah an early 7-0 advantage. That play was the first of seven Cougar turnovers, as the Utes routed BYU.
In 2008, quarterback Max Hall threw five interceptions, as turnovers changed what was a close game into a blowout in the fourth quarter.
While the Cougars are very familiar with the turnover margin in the rivalry, offensive coordinator Robert Anae has emphasized ball security since the time he returned to the program last January.
“We can’t turn the ball over,” said quarterback Taysom Hill. “That’s our focus. That’s what we’ve been working on.”
At the start of every BYU practice since last spring, the Cougars have participated in drills designed to enhance ball security.
“We’ve got monkey rolls,” Hill explained. "We’re holding the ball and guys are trying to slap it out of us. We go through ladders, and guys are slapping at the ball. We’re running through cones, and there’s someone at each cone trying to get the ball out. Our scout (defense), they’re told to do everything they can to cause turnovers. It’s a big emphasis and we talk about it a lot We have to secure the football.”
Quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said emotion plays a factor in holding onto the ball.
“If you’re too emotional or you’re not executing because of other things going on, that leads to mistakes,” he said. “Utah plays an aggressive defense, so to their credit, they’re forcing those turnovers by putting pressure on the quarterback and attacking the ball. They do a good job of it. We have to match their energy and execution and protect the ball.”
Last spring, the BYU coaching staff watched film of the Cougars’ rash of turnovers against Utah over the years.
“We studied that,” Beck said. “We knew the turnover numbers, but we watched the film to see what it was and what was leading to it. That was part of our emphasis early on.”
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