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Behind the Mic: BYU offense struggling to replace all-time greats

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 7:07 a.m. MDT

In the first five years of the Bronco Mendenhall era, BYU's lowest season-scoring average was the 30.1 points per game in 2007. From 2005 through 2009, BYU put up an average of 33.9 points per contest.

Through four games of the 2010 season, BYU has scored a total of 60 points. You have to go back 35 years to find the last time BYU got off to a more sluggish four-game start on offense.

The 1975 team scored 54 points in its first four games, and finished averaging 22.2 points per game; the second lowest per game tally since 1972 (the 2003 team averaged 16.3 ppg).

Personnel turnover is inherent in the college game, but BYU is learning about life without some of the best offensive players in school history, and their loss is proving difficult to overcome.

In 2007, the Cougars fortuitously transitioned from John Beck (at the time, second in BYU career passing yardage), to Max Hall, the player who would replace Beck as the career No. 2 QB. At the same time, BYU replaced all-time leading rusher Curtis Brown with Harvey Unga, who would supplant Brown atop the school list of career ground-gainers.

The 2007 and 2008 teams were led in receiving by Austin Collie, who would end up as BYU's No. 1 all-time pass-catcher. Collie played alongside Dennis Pitta, who would conclude his BYU tenure as the top tight end in Cougar football annals.

In short, from Mendenhall's first season until this season, BYU enjoyed an embarrassment of offensive riches practically unparalleled in the Cougars' long football history. These weren't just great players, they were all among BYU's top two or three at their respective positions, all-time.

It's plausible but unlikely that Collie's heir apparent will be found among the current crop of Cougar receivers. BYU's running back group doesn't presently showcase a workhorse the likes of Unga or Brown. And the five freshmen tight ends are talented, but will be a work in progress for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, quarterback Jake Heaps does appear to have what it takes to turn into an all-timer and join Beck and Hall in assaulting the record books, but it will be interesting to see which playmakers become his most reliable partners in that effort.

The lack of tight end production is contributing to BYU's atypical performance on third downs. The best team in the country on third downs in 2009 (56 percent) is one of the worst in the country in 2010 (33 percent), and the absence of tight-end targets is largely to blame.

Last year, Pitta and Andrew George combined to record 33 percent of all passes caught, and 46 percent of all converted third-down receptions. This season, tight ends account for fewer than 10 percent of total receptions and zero of BYU's 10 third-down conversions through the air.

The fact BYU has only 10 passing third-down conversions through four games is particularly notable. Moreover, the Cougars have converted only 22 percent of passing third-down attempts, compared to a 63 percent success rate on rushing third downs.

BYU's September schedule turned into a little more than the Cougars were capable of chewing. Three of BYU's first four opponents are receiving Top 25 votes, with Nevada now nationally ranked, and with top-15 teams TCU and Utah remaining on the docket. The opponents BYU has already faced have combined for an 11-4 record, and according to stat man Jeff Sagarin, BYU has played the nation's fourth-toughest schedule, after Oregon State, San Jose State and UCLA (that is small consolation; of the 10 teams with the toughest schedules, not one has a winning record).

By the numbers: Mendenhall's September record is now 14-10 (58 percent win rate); his record in all other months is 36-8 (82 percent) ... BYU is currently averaging only 15 points per game, but has scored at least 30 points in 21 consecutive meetings with Friday opponent Utah State, winning 20 of those 21 games ... Mendenhall's teams are 5-0 in the fifth game of the season ... BYU had won 16 consecutive turnover-free games before Saturday's zero-giveaway loss to Nevada.

Greg Wrubell is the radio play-by-play "Voice of the Cougars," and hosts "BYU Football with Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall" on KSL Newsradio and KSL 5 Television. Wrubell's blog "Cougar Tracks" can be found at byu.ksl.com. "Behind the Mic" is published every Tuesday during the BYU Football and Basketball seasons. E-mail: gwrubell@ksl.com

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