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Joe Raymond, AP
Brigham Young and Notre Dame players watch Kyle Brindza's 51 yard field goal in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in South Bend, Ind. Brigham Young Remington Peck, (44), and Craig Bills, (20) , and Notre Dame Matt Hegarty, (77), Troy Niklas, (85), Kyle Brindza, (27). Notre Dame won 23-13. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
That’s why it’s so frustrating. We continually get down into the red zone and can’t score. We go three-and-out after our defense gets a pick. We have to break those chain of events. —JD Falslev, BYU senior receiver

With only a month of the college football season left, counting the bowl season, the BYU football program is closing in on its third year as an independent. The difference between this season and the past two has been the schedule, plain and simple.

After announcing the program was going independent, athletic director Tom Holmoe was faced with a tough task early on. Instead of organizing three or four games a year, Holmoe was forced to put together 12 or 13.

In just three years, Holmoe has put together one of the best (if not best) schedules in BYU history. Fans know this, as they’ve enjoyed watching their beloved Cougars take on Boise State, Georgia Tech and Texas, as well as in-state rival Utah at home.

With such a great schedule this year thanks to their partnership with ESPN, have the Cougars taken advantage of the situation?

Yes and no.

Looking at the schedule this year, three teams immediately jumped out from a national perspective: Texas, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. While the Cougars have faced a lot of good teams this year, these programs drew the most interest from fans and television networks (ESPN, NBC). After watching the 23-13 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, a couple of things jumped out at me.

National stage: While the Cougars did beat then-No. 15 Texas 40-21 at home, playing on the road has been a very different story. During the two losses against No. 16 Wisconsin and Notre Dame, the Cougars have come out flat, looking unprepared. Even worse, the Cougars had extra time to plan against Wisconsin thanks to a nicely timed bye week.

While the games have been somewhat close (27-17, 23-13), BYU has been unable to take advantage of the national spotlight, losing by 10 in both games.

One of the reasons the Cougars went the independent route was to give the program greater exposure and access for fans throughout the world. However, if BYU can't win big games, that exposure won't look so good after all.

Playing conservatively: The Cougars, who like to refer to the red zone as the "blue zone" for obvious reasons, have struggled mightily in this area. Many are even starting to call it the "dead zone."

The Cougars have been inside the blue zone 51 times this season. Out of those 51 trips, they've scored just 24 touchdowns: only 47 percent. Even worse, 10 of those trips ended without points, thanks to missed field goals and turnovers.

“That’s why it’s so frustrating. We continually get down into the red zone and can’t score. We go three-and-out after our defense gets a pick. We have to break those chain of events,” senior receiver JD Falslev said after the Notre Dame loss.

Adding it all up, the Cougars have forfeited more than 138 points. Considering how their four losses this season were by a combined 29 points, the season would have been very different if they had been more efficient in the blue zone.

During its game against Notre Dame, BYU racked up more than 415 yards of total offense. Unfortunately, even with all those yards, the Cougars managed to score just 13 points in the losing effort.

“We’ve got to get better coaching in the red zone; we’ve got to get better playing in the red zone,” said Robert Anae, BYU's offensive coordinator.

Looking at the four losses on the year, the Cougars have played conservatively, no doubt. During the game against Wisconsin, BYU trailed 27-10 with a little more than eight minutes remaining. With the ball at midfield, the Cougars strangely elected to punt the ball instead of going for it. Whether you lose by one or 50, a loss is still a loss.

Against the Fighting Irish, BYU continued to play conservatively. With just three minutes remaining in the game and down by 10, the Cougars ran two consecutive run plays even though they had no timeouts remaining.

The Cougars already know where they're going bowling (Fight Hunger Bowl) this season, so why not make the most of these opportunities on a national stage by taking some chances?

Mother Nature: I don’t know what BYU did to offend the football gods or Mother Nature, but this year has brought on some strange moments. Looking on the bright side, at least, things can’t get much worse next year (knock on wood) ... right?

After waiting out two-hour rain delays during the first two games of the season (Virginia, Texas), the Cougars were faced to play in weather that even polar bears likely would have avoided. With the temperature in the high 20s and with wind blowing between 15 and 25 mph, the conditions felt more like single digits for fans and players. This certainly didn’t help the Cougars with their fast-paced attack as they ran just 83 plays against Notre Dame. While this might be great for some teams, this was low by BYU standards.

In order for independence to work, BYU will have to continue its winning ways. Not only that, but the Cougars are going to have to make the most of those opportunites and win some big games.

I am a recent graduate and hold a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism and sports communication. Twitter: Justingiles22 Email: [email protected]