PROVO — Standing a short distance from the team bus parked at Rice-Eccles Stadium just before midnight on Nov. 24, 2018, BYU’s offensive coordinator leaned with his back against a retaining wall by the team entrance portal. He stood alone in deep reflection of what had just happened.
It was an iconic picture of that night.
Despite mulling over everything at that moment, nothing brought back the final 30 minutes of that game.
The Cougars had just blown a big halftime lead to rival Utah and lost 35-27. There was plenty of blame and praise to be shared on both sides. For Jeff Grimes, aside from things he and his staff could have done in managing that lead, it would have helped to have had more bullets that day when some key players went down.
“Was I banging my head against the wall?” Grimes said with a smile, remembering that moment.
That loss to Utah, plus a last-second failure at the goal line at Boise State at the end of a thrilling last-gasp drive for a win, prevented the Cougars from finishing the season on a 5-0 run.
The fix for why that 5-0 finish did not happen will be a big focus of BYU spring football, which begins on Monday. The staff tried to address it in recruiting in December and February, but much of it, according to Grimes, is lessons learned and valuable experience, something his offense was short on in 2018.
That a 5-0 finish was within reach was progress, he said.
“We were capable because we do have talent, we have the ability on our team or we wouldn't be playing with any of those teams. We’re talking about a couple of really good teams right there. If we didn't have the talent, that wouldn't be the case.
“I think the real reason that we were able to do that is that our players bought in. They were completely willing from the day that we showed up as a new staff to do whatever we asked them to do. Because of that, it gave us a chance.”
Grimes could have played the “injury” card since the offense was playing a converted safety and linebacker at running back and quarterback. Zach Wilson, tight end Matt Bushman and receiver Aleva Hifo were playing with shoulder injuries that required postseason surgery. But he didn’t. Utah missed a few starters that night.
“The reason we weren't able to go 5-0 in those last five games and beat Boise State and Utah, I think, has a lot to do with the fact that we're still playing a lot of young guys and youth breeds inconsistency.
“We had the capability of making a great play and everybody go, ‘Wow, that's awesome.’ And then we had the capability of making a really boneheaded mistake that can cost us a touchdown or a field goal and ultimately cost us the game. And the hope is, with most of those guys coming back, they will have learned from those things.”
Grimes said players in the spotlight, like Wilson, are going to take more of that attention because people see those mistakes, but what is not known by many is somebody playing left guard or tight end or slot receiver may have made a mistake that “was just as costly” that everybody did not see.
“So, there’s enough blame to share but enough to be really excited about,” he said.
That, Grimes believes, is a starting point for 2019, to get better.
In no way, he says, is that blaming anyone.
“But we were inconsistent. And there were some games and some parts of games where we didn't move the ball very well. We went three-and-out two or three times in a row or turned the football over, and that's hard on defense.”
Grimes said playing as a team has great benefits and it was on display against Utah and Boise State in losses.
The team showed fight, spunk and energy.
“When you score and then score again, that gives the defense a bounce in their step. All of a sudden, the defense gets a sack and forces a three-and-out, we get the ball at midfield, and then we return a punt for 20 yards. Now we've got to get the 30 and the thing just takes off,” he recalled of the Utah game.
Critics will say resting on a lead at Utah killed momentum, even when starting running back Matt Hadley had a game-ending injury. These folks would’ve liked to have seen Wilson throw and run more against the Ute defense the second half.
Of course, at the time, outsiders didn’t know Wilson was nursing an injured throwing shoulder.26 comments on this story
“Our guys? I think they just needed a little confidence this (past) year,” said Grimes. “And I think although we didn't win a couple of games that we certainly feel like we should have won, and we didn't win as many games as we could have, I think we took a really big step forward. Even though it might not be measured as large statistically or in the win-loss column as you would like it to be, I think the overall mojo of our team feels different than when I got here a year ago.”
And so it goes forward beginning Monday.
It is Grimes Offense 2.0.