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Provo • Looking at the big picture, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday it remains to be seen how much Saturday's 24-23 loss to now No. 9 UCLA will affect the Cougars' goal of reaching a New Year's Six bowl game. A lot depends on how the Bruins finish the season.
"I am not sure what would be lost if we play really well from here on out," Mendenhall said.
The Cougars face Michigan on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, but the loss to UCLA was still very much on the minds of Mendenhall and several BYU players who faced the media Monday afternoon.
Specifically, Mendenhall said shoddy tackling against a pair of outstanding running backs Paul Perkins and Nate Starks and so-so special teams play cost the Cougars their undefeated season and a chance to spring a huge upset.
"Our special teams play took a step backwards in that game," Mendenhall said.
The biggest error was giving up a 56-yard punt return to Devin Fuller early in the third quarter that led to UCLA's first touchdown, a 5-yard run by Perkins that tied the score at 10-10. Mendenhall said they had freshman Rhett Almond attempt his first career punt hoping he would get off a boomer to flip the field. He did, but the four players surrounding Fuller couldn't bring him down.
"What UCLA made clear was that if they have an athlete in space, and you are not exactly right, they can make you miss pretty easily," Mendenhall said. "That's what happened."
The Cougars kicked off five times, but didn't get any touchbacks. An onside kick executed perfectly by Jonny Linehan worked well and was recovered by Michael Davis.
Twice, though, UCLA took over on its 32 or better after short kicks and/or long returns.
"We attempted to use more directional kickoffs [from Austin Brasher], and with some of that direction, we lost some distance," Mendenhall said. "It wasn't a good trade. If we knew the outcome, we certainly wouldn't have done it. … It actually backfired."
The special teams' highlight was senior Trevor Samson making all three of his field goals, although some fans questioned why Mendenhall opted for the field goal late in the game on fourth-and-3 from the UCLA 14, especially when the coach stated postgame that his goal was to "manage the game aggressively."
Mendenhall said Samson's range extends to about 42 yards. He is now 17 for 19 (89.5 percent) on field goals in his career, a BYU record for accuracy.
Another small special teams blunder came after UCLA took the 24-23 lead and kicked it to the goal line. Devon Blackmon and Eric Takenaka booted it a bit, then Takenaka could only get to the 15. That extra 10 yards might have put BYU in field goal position after a 43-yard drive.
Mendenhall said Adam Hine, one of the nation's top kick returners last year, has too heavy a workload carrying the ball in the absence of backs Algie Brown (knee) and freshman Francis Bernard (finger) and won't return kicks until those two return, which could be this week, especially in the case of Bernard. Brown is more questionable.
Nose tackle Travis Tuiloma (knee) is also questionable for the Michigan game, a development that didn't seem likely when doctors said he'd be out 4-6 weeks after the Nebraska game.
"This will be a great week [for Tuiloma to come back] because we will see power [runs] about 5,000 times," Mendenhall said, having previously noted that the Wolverines under new coach Jim Harbaugh look like Stanford when Harbaugh was there.
As for the tackling against UCLA, which rushed for 296 yards, Mendenhall called it "not good" and said, "We have a long ways to go, in terms of tackling. There were five rushes that accumulated 173 yards. Every one of them had an unblocked player that missed a tackle."
Mendenhall said it will take "constant emphasis" to improve the tackling.
"It doesn't change overnight," he said. "We have been addressing it since what I saw in the opener against Nebraska, on the perimeter especially."
No. 22 BYU at Michigan
Saturday, 10 a.m.
TV • Ch. 4