Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
BYU's Manase Tonga scrambles for a fumbled ball against UCLA earlier this year, a common sight for BYU.

PROVO — Back when BYU's aerial attack was becoming Pass U., former Cougar head coach LaVell Edwards often recalled counterparts cautioning him that when a football team attempts a pass, "three things happen — and two of them aren't good."

That would be the reception (good), incompletion (bad) and interception (really bad).

Lately, the Cougars have added a fourth possibility — the fumble, which is really bad when lost.

Of the 17 Cougar turnovers committed through seven '07 games, the majority have been on passing plays — nine Max Hall interceptions on missed throws or receiver-tipped balls, five lost fumbles coming on sacks or scrambles and another three fumbles lost by receivers after catches.

"The combination of the quarterback throwing nine interceptions this year and the fumbles outside in the passing game — that's pretty uncharacteristic of us," said quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman.

In addition to the line shoring up early protection problems, he added, a sophomore QB making his first competitive start in years requires an understandable learning curve when it comes to sensing unblocked rushers, collapsing pockets and stealthy defensive backs.

"The fumbles are something that we can shore up and clean up right now, and the interceptions, hopefully we'll continue to minimize," Doman said. "But we expected to have a few interceptions this year — it wasn't something that we were naive about."

By contrast, BYU running backs and return specialists have yet to lose a fumble, despite Cougar-recovered single drops by the likes of Harvey Unga, Austin Collie and Bryce Mahuika.

It's why backs like Unga, Manase Tonga and Fui Vakapuna have been featured so much, especially of late.

For example, when the Cougars were passing out first-half turnovers to UNLV like Halloween candy, the offense got grounded in favor of the good-hands runners. And when the passing combos weren't connecting on a wet afternoon against I-AA Eastern Washington, the Cougars went run-heavy.

"That's one of our first priorities in the offense, to have ball security," said Vakapuna. "If you don't have the ball, you can't score."

It's not that the turnover total has reached "plethora" magnitude. Rather, the giveaways have been magnified by, first, the few takeaways the Cougar defense has managed, and second, the untimely nature and location of the turnovers.

To date, the Cougars have given up nine interceptions while picking off as many opponent passes. However, BYU has amassed 16 fumbles, losing eight; foes have lost only three of six fumbles.

In all of 2006, BYU gave up nine interceptions and lost a program-low four fumbles, while snagging 18 picks and recovering nine opponent fumbles.

From a historical perspective, the Cougars have a long way before reaching extremes like the 22 lost fumbles in 1988 and the 29 interceptions in 1990, Ty Detmer's Heisman-winning season.

As for the bad turnover locations this season, giveaways are not coming as often in BYU territory as they are in the opponent's, meaning the Cougars are losing prime field position and scoring chances.

Of the 17 '07 turnovers, 13 have come in opponent territory — either at the play's snap or the spot of the actual turnover. Six of those have come in scoring territory, inside the 25.

"They've been costly, costly turnovers, when we're ready to score," Doman said.

Conversely, only two turnovers have been committed deep inside Cougar territory — one inside the 30 and another inside the 20. The two combined led to 10 opponent points.

Actually, other teams are scoring off Cougar turnovers no matter where they're coming on the field.

Two interceptions have been pick-sixes, returned for touchdowns — and those having watched BYU football this fall know defenders have missed several additional interception-for-TD opportunities. Four more Cougar turnovers led to opponent touchdowns and another two for field goals, while another two turnovers came on half- or game-ending plays.

In all, opponents have turned eight of BYU's 17 turnovers into scores. Add in the missed scoring opportunities on the 13 turnovers in opponent territory as well as being on the negative side in turnover margin, and the Cougars miscues so far this season have seemed all the more costly.

"The thing that's bugging us is turnovers," said center Sete Aulai. "Last year we were on the plus side; now we're on the negative. We definitely want to change that."


BYU turnovers to date

BYU 20, ARIZONA 7

Turnover margin: -1

BYU's turnover: Inside Arizona territory on the first possession, Max Hall fumbles while being sacked.

UCLA 27, BYU 17

Turnover margin: -2

BYU's turnovers: In the first period, Hall is intercepted for a 56-yard touchdown return. Vic So'oto fumbles at the UCLA 38 after a second-quarter reception. Hall fumbles at the UCLA 19 in the final quarter.

TULSA 55, BYU 47

Turnover margin: -3

BYU's turnovers: In the third quarter, Hall is intercepted for a 49-yard touchdown return and later again at the Tulsa 44. With BYU at the Tulsa 24 in the fourth, Hall fumbles on a sack. On the game's final play, Andrew George fumbles after a reception.

BYU 31, AIR FORCE 6

Turnover margin: -1

BYU's turnovers: With BYU at the Air Force 22 in the second quarter, Hall fumbles on a sack. In the third, Hall is intercepted at the Falcon 33.

BYU 31, NEW MEXICO 24

Turnover margin: +3

BYU's turnovers: With BYU at the Lobo 15 in the first period, Hall is intercepted in the end zone. Hall fumbles on a five-yard loss late in the third period.

BYU 24, UNLV 14

Turnover margin: -3

BYU's turnovers: Matt Allen fumbles after a first-quarter reception. Hall is intercepted twice in the first half inside the UNLV 20. On a fourth-quarter play at the Vegas 21, Hall is intercepted in the end zone.

BYU 42, EASTERN WASHINGTON 7

Turnover margin: +2

BYU's turnover: Hall throws a first-quarter interception, picked off at the EWU 36.

SEASON TOTALS: Nine interceptions, eight fumbles loss, -5 turnover margin


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Contributing: Jeff Call