BYU football vs. Liberty

BYU junior tight end Matt Bushman avoids a tackle during the Cougar football game against Liberty at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

Comparing college football offenses year-to-year can be problematic because conditions change.

There are different players, different coaches and different opponents to consider.

However, the numbers are all we have to answer this question: Is the BYU offense better in 2019 than it was in 2018?

It’s easy to conclude that the BYU offense is in much better shape than it was in 2017, when the Cougars recorded historic lows in myriad categories. In addition, injuries in 2019 to BYU’s two best offensive players — quarterback Zach Wilson and running back Ty’Son Williams — have fans wondering how good the offense could have been.

“I think the steps we are making are upward and there are a lot of signs that point to the positive,” BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said this week.

Let’s examine the facts.

In total offense, the Cougars are better by almost 60 yards (364.9 in 2018, 422.0 in 2019). Yards per play totals have increased by a half yard (5.5 to 6.0). Most of the additional yards have come in a more potent passing game: BYU is averaging 278.1 yards per game through the air this season as compared to 211.8 last season.

Rushing is down almost 10 yards per game (153.2 in 2018, 143.9 in 2019) and this season’s yards per carry average (4.0) is close to last year’s mark of 4.1.

Despite the additional yardage, scoring is about the same. BYU averaged 27.2 points per game in 2018 and through 10 games is averaging 27.6 in 2019. Against Power Five opponents Utah, Tennessee, USC and Washington, BYU is averaging 22.5 points per game this season, better than in 2018 (20.8). Against the rest of the schedule, the Cougars are averaging 31.1 points per game, compared to 31.3 last year.

BYU is much better on third downs in 2019 (62 of 144 for 43%, 62 of 168 for 37% last season) and worse on fourth-down conversions (9 of 20 for 45% last year, 6 of 16 for 38 percent in 2019).

The individual numbers are similar as well. Lopini Katoa (423 yards), Squally Canada (412 yards), Matt Hadley (383 yards) and Riley Burt (323 yards) were BYU’s leading rushers in 2018. This season, it’s Sione Finau (359), Williams (264), Katoa (251) and Emmanuel Espukpa (190) with three games to play.

The combination of Wilson, Jaron Hall and Baylor Romney at quarterback has been very efficient in 2019, with all three players having shined when given the opportunity.

In fact, BYU has passed for 200 yards in every game this season. The last time the Cougars accomplished that feat was in 2008. BYU is within 219 yards of 3,000 total passing yards, which will be the first time the team has eclipsed that mark since 2015.

Micah Simon has 39 catches to lead BYU in 2019, which tops Matt Bushman’s 29 receptions to lead the Cougars last season. Four receivers have 30 or more catches in 2019 and drops have been pretty much eliminated since early in the season.

One of the areas where BYU has struggled mightily is red zone offense. The Cougars are ranked 111th out of 130 FBS teams in that category with 43 red zone opportunities and 32 scores (14 rushing TDs, eight passing TDs and ten field goals, .744).

Last season, BYU was actually much better in the red zone, ranking 60th (52 red zone opportunities, 24 rushing TDs, 12 passing TDs and eight field goals, .846).

Looking at all statistics, the Cougars would appear to be a little bit better offensively in 2019 than they were in 2018, but not by much.

Why should BYU fans be optimistic?

BYU leads the country in number of players who have started games (49) and many of those have been offensive players pressed into service because of injuries. That experience is critical moving forward.

While the injuries and midseason struggles at Toledo and South Florida were painful, those moments forced the young offensive coaching staff to make some critical adjustments. The play-calling became more aggressive and despite using all four quarterbacks at some point the offense seemed to retain its potency.

Starting 2-4 isn’t optimal but the Cougars turned things around and have won four games in a row.

“I’ve been on a number of teams where at that point the coaches lost the players,” Grimes observed. “That was where players said, ‘This just isn’t working out’ and became selfish. They turned inward and began to focus on their own agendas instead of being willing to do what’s best for the team. Our kids didn’t do that and that speaks volumes about the leadership of Kalani Sitake and the kind of players we have in the locker room.”

All four quarterbacks who have played will presumably be back next season. The status of Williams is still unknown but the rest of the running backs with return, as will most of the offensive line with Thomas Shoaf the only senior.

Simon, Aleva Hifo and Talon Shumway have had good senior years as receivers but there is strong young talent as well with Gunner Romney, Dax Milne, Keanu Hill and possibly Neil Pau’u returning. Bushman may opt for a shot at the NFL but coaches are high on freshmen tight ends Isaac Rex, Hank Tuipulotu and Carter Wheat.

With three games remaining — and the accompanying three weeks of additional practice for bowl preparation — expectations will continue to grow on the offensive side of the ball.

Grimes credited his fellow offensive staff members and the play of the wide receivers for the Cougars potency during the four-game winnings streak.

“We talk about our quarterbacks a lot with four different guys there and that’s impressive,” he said. “But I go back to our receivers. The number of balls dropped has been almost none and they’ve shown a lot of consistency. Throwing the ball, just like running the ball, is a team effort. When we’re functioning well and throwing the football, it gives us the option to throw it in or run it. That gives us the balance and that’s when we’re at our best.”

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