The first half of Saturday’s football game in Reno left the BYU fanbase wringing their hands (or perhaps clenching their fists) in frustration. It’s not easy watching an team whose first seven offensive drives resulted in five punts, a fumble, and a turnover on downs. Especially when the opponent has a total of four wins coming into the last game of the regular season.
But while the game was painful at parts, there is some silver lining that should uplift Cougar fans’ hearts this holiday season.
3rd Quarter Slump No More. BYU has been notoriously bad coming out of halftime this year, with particularly bad showings in some of the closest battles the Cougars have fought this season. In close games against Virginia and Houston, BYU could not score at all, and the Cougars managed only one total touchdown in tight games against Utah, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. Coming into Saturday’s game in Reno, the only time the Cougars had managed to put up double digits in the third quarters was in blowout games against Middle Tennessee, Utah State, and Boise State. Unsurprisingly, before Saturday, BYU had not won a single game when trailing at half time. But all that changed in Reno, where, after an atrocious first half, the Cougars came out of the locker room and scored a touchdown on each of their first four drives. Two of those scores were in the dreaded third quarter, and another was on the second play of the fourth. Needless to say, Robert Anae and company were finally able to make mid-game adjustments that proved successful after going into halftime with a seven-point deficit and a goose egg on the scoreboard.
Offensive Output. Despite going scoreless and punting five times in the first half, BYU ended the game with almost 500 yards of offense, including a staggering 394 yards on the ground. Quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams became the first BYU tandem to rush for 1,000 yards each. (Despite Williams’s 219 yards, some BYU fans on Twitter are calling out Anae for under-utilizing the young star, since he only touched the ball 15 times. Do the math–that’s almost 15 yards per carry.) The “give the ball to Jamaal” debate aside, Anae’s long-term plan to wear down the opposing defense worked well against the Wolfpack. Go Fast Go Hard is the mantra of this offense, and grinding out forty-five rushing plays proved too much for Nevada to handle. 98 passing yards won’t win BYU very many games, but with an offensive line that is still abysmal in the pass-blocking department, allowing the speed of Hill and Williams to do the work is a good idea.
Blue Zone Perfection. In a game where most of the touchdowns came on long plays, BYU only saw the blue zone twice, but converted each trip into seven points. This is a huge accomplishment, as it is well documented that the Cougars are one of the worst red zone offenses in the country. Going two for two only brought them up to 88th place nationally in red zone offense, but it is a step in the right direction.
Don’t get me wrong–the the positive takeaways listed above ought to be the minimum expected from this BYU team against a sub-par Nevada squad. I’m not exactly jumping up and down for joy, but I am also encouraged that some of the players and coaches were able to address some of the basic weaknesses that have plagued the Cougars this season.
The next big test will be against a good PAC 12 team in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in a few weeks. If BYU can make the kinds of improvements it did in the locker room on Saturday, it should be a great game.