On Saturday, Sept. 21, the BYU football team and its fans found themselves coming off a devastating loss to in-state rival Utah. It was a game in which the BYU offense managed just 13 points and left the Cougars with a paltry 1-2 record and a reeling offense.
Fans began to seriously question Robert Anae’s new “go fast, go hard” strategy and wondered if Taysom Hill possessed enough talent to deliver the passing attack Cougar fans have come to expect.
Since then, the Cougars have reeled off five straight wins and optimism on the team, offense and with Hill himself are at near-highs.
But don’t chalk up another 10-win season just yet. There’s plenty of improvement yet to be made for this Cougar team. And as BYU enters a very tough stretch of road games to close out the season, there is one facet of the offense that should give the team and its fans pause, as it has the potential to hurt what has the potential to be a great season.
The second-half blues
In the aforementioned loss to the Utes, the Cougars struggled mightily in the first half, scoring no points and putting the team in a hole. The offense picked up in the second half and made a game of it.
Oddly enough, the team now has the opposite problem.
In the five games since that time, the Cougars are exploding for points in the first half but cannot seem to sustain any momentum into the third quarter.
It’s alarming because the Cougars haven’t been far enough ahead on the scoreboard that they can afford to let up after the break. In the Georgia Tech and Boise State games, the team was fortunate its defense came up with stops to keep the game out of reach for those opponents.
In its last five games, the BYU offense has averaged nearly 340 yards in the first half. That’s a tremendous number and an indication just how potent Anae’s offense can be.
But in the second half of those games, the same Cougar offense only mustered an average of 180 yards. The BYU offense’s second-half yardage drops over 46 percent from its first-half stats.
This isn’t like an Oregon team who is routinely up five scores at the break. In fact, BYU’s largest halftime lead in those last five games was 21 points last week against Boise State. And in that game, the Broncos had more than one opportunity to get within a touchdown.
Points on the board reflect the yardage total by half as well. In those same most recent games, the Cougars put up an average 24 points in the first half. In the second that number falls precipitously to 13.
Even more telling are the last three games, in which the BYU offense had a total of three drives that produced less than 10 yards during first half play, primarily three-and-outs. In the second half of those contests, that number balloons to 14, more than triple the first-half stat.
The next logical question is, why? Why can’t the Cougars move the ball in the second half? Why do the three-and-outs start to pile up after halftime? Why do the points on the board slow so dramatically?
The answers aren’t easy to find, but there are some clues.
One of the things Bronco Mendenhall does so well for his defenses is make adjustments at halftime. This year and last, opposing teams have found difficulty moving the ball against the Cougars after the break. Even in the high-scoring shootout with Houston, those Texas Cougars only scored eight of their 46 points during the third and fourth quarters.
While Mendenhall is making corrections at the break, the BYU offense appears to have trouble handling the halftime adjustments of its foes. It’s possible the offense, young as it is, just needs time to work it out. But clearly Anae keeps coming up on the losing end of the locker-room analysis.
After its rough start throwing the ball in the first three games of the season, the BYU passing game has exploded and Hill is making strides with his arm weekly.
But Hill’s passing stats fall after the half with the team’s. In that prolific performance against Houston, Hill saw nearly 300 of his 417 yards through the air come in the first two quarters.
The success of the BYU passing game has come by getting the ball out of Hill’s hands and into those of its playmakers quickly. Slants, swing passes, screens and quick-outs all keep the ball moving and open up the seams and deep routes. They also keep the defense from stacking the box to stop the run, opening up the team’s strong inside run game.
But those quick-release pass plays seem to disappear in the second half of games. Instead, Hill is found holding the ball much longer on plays that take time to develop. Unfortunately, BYU’s offensive line hasn’t been able to hold the pocket long enough and Hill has been forced to scramble, take sacks or throw the ball away.
Whether the lack of quick-hit passes is due to adjustments by the defense or they’re simply not being called is a question only Anae can answer. And some fans may argue the play-calling is simply too conservative and predictable.
But the numbers clearly show an offense that struggles to move the ball in the second half and a passing attack that’s routinely grounded after first halves that produce yards and points.
Moving in for the kill
One thing that made BYU teams of years past so intimidating was their ability to hit the gas and not slow down until opposing teams were beat handily. That’s the current modus operandi of those previously-mentioned Oregon Ducks — a team widely feared, as it averages 55.6 points per game, second in the country, while giving up just 16.9 points.
For one reason or another, this BYU team hasn’t found its killer instinct. So far, it hasn’t affected any outcomes of games. But it’s worrisome. If the offense continues to flounder in third quarters, games will be lost.
Maybe the players tighten up. Maybe Anae’s play calling tightens up. Maybe it’s a lot of things. Whatever the cause, the Cougars need to find the solution before it costs them a game or dampens a potentially great season.