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.”
Anae said securing the ball is important in “every big game. It’s not unique to a rivalry game. Tell me which game is not big? You try losing one you’re supposed to win, then you realize how big it was. Been there, done that. Every game is big. This is a rivalry game. Turnovers completely reveal themselves in the outcome.”
Ball security, Anae added, has been “a strategic priority from Day One.”
However, in the season-opening loss at Virginia, an interception on a tipped pass set up the Cavaliers’ game-winning touchdown. In BYU’s 40-21 triumph over Texas on Sept. 7, the Cougars had two turnovers, an interception and a fumble.
Meanwhile, the Cougar defense knows it needs to do its part in causing turnovers, especially against Utah.
“We want to create turnovers every game. But this is the biggest game where we need to emphasize taking the ball away,” said Manumaleuna. “We’ve seen the statistics against Utah. If they take more balls away from us, then we usually lose and it’s usually the other way around. If we take the ball away more, we come out on top. It’s the biggest factor, and coach Mendenhall is preparing us for this week to emphasize taking the ball away.”
Turnovers have been “huge” in the rivalry, said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “It’s been a big factor in the last couple of games. And it’s probably going to be a huge role in this game. I can’t see it changing very much. We’re working on turnovers in practice, and I think they’ll be doing the same things because they have the same stats we do.”
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