Two lousy yards.
Two yards is all the stood between BYU winning the Sofi Hawaii Bowl to give Cougar Nation a happy narrative over the next eight months.
But those two yards might as well have been the 2,994 miles between Provo to Honolulu for how BYU treated the biggest moment of its postseason.
Maybe I’m overstating how important it is for the Cougar fan base to have positive talking points to banter between themselves and their neighbors during the off-season.
But I don’t think I am.
Remember last year? Zach Wilson went 18 for 18 passing in the Idaho Potato Bowl, BYU blasted Western Michigan 49-18 and all the talk turned to the potential of Wilson and how the program was progressing forward.
I’m pretty sure the players and coaches can’t tangibly take momentum from winning a bowl game into the next season. When January of 2020 rolls around and off-season training begins, the seniors have moved on and the younger players are all learning new roles, from leadership to moving up the depth chart. They are much too busy and focused to worry about the 2019 season.
But fans? Fans have nothing better to do during the off-season but talk about what happened the last time they saw their beloved team take the field.
BYU fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter on the Hawaii Bowl and the defense was shredded by Warriors quarterback Cole McDonald for more than 300 passing yards in the first half. If the purpose of the drop eight defense is to create less space for a quarterback to throw then why were McDonald’s receivers running free and unchallenged so often?
Whatever adjustments BYU made at halftime worked like a charm in the third quarter and most of the fourth. Suddenly, Hawaii couldn’t even get a first down and the Cougars had all the momentum. Some big calls went against the Cougars as they tried take over the game, probably costing them 10 points or more. But you can’t control what the officials decide to call, or if ESPN decided to go cheap and not install goal line cameras that would have shown Wilson crossing the goal line before he fumbled.
As the players like to say and as they are taught by mental strength coach Dr. Craig Manning, “Don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Control the things you can.”
As the game came to a conclusion, BYU had several opportunities to control what they could control and win the game. The Cougars could have gained two yards on third and two with Hawaii out of time outs. They could have stopped the Warriors final drive. After getting the ball back down by four, BYU could have driven the field for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
As for Wilson, the Hawaii Bowl was important for him. He needed to have a big game to show the trust the coaches have put into him as the starter was justified, despite his struggles since coming back from a broken thumb. Wilson had some nice moments but threw two interceptions and had more red zone issues. Now, the post-season narrative is going to be about how Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall played better than Wilson and should be given the opportunity to start.
For all his physical gifts, Wilson has had problems in pressure situations, still locks in on his receivers way too often and may not have the gamesmanship to effectively play quarterback at the college level. That may be a harsh assessment, but fans have had 18 games of evidence that leads to those conclusions.
Is it an overstatement to say that it matters what fans are talking about during the off-season?
Again, I don’t think so.
One of the narratives we’ll hear is about the performance of BYU’s coordinators. On defense, Ilaisa Tuiaki has been a hot topic all season long as the Cougars struggled to get pressure on quarterbacks. The Cougars actually had five sacks against Hawaii, but no turnovers and surrendered 31 points in the first half.
Now, about those previously mentioned two yards.
I realize how easy it is to second-guess a single play call in a game. If the play didn’t work, there is obviously a better one that would have worked. But in this situation – leading 34-31 with two minutes remaining, Hawaii out of time outs, after having run for 250 yards already in the game – the choice by Jeff Grimes and the offensive coaching staff just defies logic.
The Cougars ran what looked like a quick screen to Micah Simon – behind the line of scrimmage – but Hawaii blew past whatever blocking had been set up. Wilson inexplicably threw the ball into the ground instead of taking a sack, which would have kept the clock moving and given Hawaii less time to go on a game-winning drive.
How about a speed option by Wilson? How about giving the ball to 220-pound running back Tyler Allgeier, who was averaging nine yards per carry? How about trusting your offensive line to get enough of a push to gain two yards?
It was a total failure from the top to the bottom and no one can really argue the point.
I feel bad for the seniors on the team, guys like safety Austin Lee – who couldn’t play the final game of his career because of a hamstring injury – defense end J.J Nwigwe – who had two sacks in his final performance in a Cougar uniform – and tight end “Captain” Moroni Laula-Pututau, who also couldn’t play due to injury. Sending off your seniors with a win is a big goal in a bowl game and BYU couldn’t do that.
As for the program, Kalani Sitake received a four-year contract extension after beating Idaho State on Nov. 16 but lost the final two games of the season to fall to 27-25 in his four years as head coach. The Cougars have gone 7-6 two seasons in a row and to any reasonable fan, that doesn’t look like progress of any kind.
All BYU fans know is that until the Cougars take the field Sept. 5 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, there isn’t much good to talk about for the next eight months.