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Kragthorpe: BYU's season already at critical juncture

Published September 14, 2010 11:33 pm

Cougars could learn a lesson from what Utes did with QBs last year.
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Provo • Nobody loses like BYU.

For a supposedly elite program, one that wins about 80 percent of the time in recent years, the Cougars sure have a way of collapsing. They also recover well, which would be a good idea right about now.

Mix in Saturday's second-half crumbling at Air Force, the quarterbacking dilemma, a head coach who's never had to deal with anything like this and the remaining September schedule, and you have all the makings of a season at a crossroads after only two games.

"I'm still very hopeful, I guess, and still looking up to the bright side of these things that we can fix," defensive end Vic So'oto said Monday. "You never want to lose, but if you do lose, you've got to learn from it."

The worse, the better, apparently.

During a stretch in which they've gone 43-8, the Cougars have lost five games by 21 points or more. Obviously, they do bounce back. They won four games after losing by 26 to Florida State last September and closed with five victories after losing by 31 to Texas Christian in October.

"I do like the idea of really treating those losses as a valuable tool to move the program forward," said coach Bronco Mendenhall.

The biggest flaw in the forecast of another recovery? This week's opponent happens to be Florida State, which ransacked Provo with 313 rushing yards and 54 points last year. Then comes Nevada, which racked up 51 points and 631 total yards against Colorado State last weekend.

Anyone care to guess where this team is headed?

For those of us who like intrigue, these guys are serving it up in healthy portions. After the perfectly scripted season opener, with quarterbacks Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps alternately passing for exactly 131 yards each in a win over Washington, the whole scheme disintegrated at Air Force.

Heaps was benched after throwing an interception, the rotation was scrapped and the Cougars failed to score in the last three quarters of a 35-14 loss.

Everything is in question now, with the only assurance being that Mendenhall is getting involved.

During his first five years in charge, quarterbacking was never an issue. Mendenhall inherited John Beck, who started the coach's first 25 games. Max Hall was the obvious successor, and he handled the next 39 games.

Now, there's Nelson/Heaps, and Mendenhall appears to recognize that rotating quarterbacks is not like substituting middle linebackers. The lifelong defensive coach met with his offensive staff Monday and emerged "closer to having an opinion" about the QB staffing.

That's a start. Having left the decision to offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman, Mendenhall said he "could project" making his own ruling at some point. That's not soon enough.

The one word I've wanted to hear did come from Mendenhall's mouth Monday: "situational."

That's the way to utilize these two divergent quarterbacks, to take advantage of Heaps' arm and Nelson's legs. I understand the appeal of Nelson, in terms of leadership, competitiveness and everything you look for in a quarterback, except for the little detail of throwing the football.

BYU would probably have a winning season with Nelson as a full-time player. Is that good enough?

Mendenhall said the coaches wanted to "protect" Heaps from failure at Air Force, which is silly. BYU's defense and running game are just average, so Heaps provides the only hope of anything special happening this season.

Utah was 6-1 last October when coach Kyle Whittingham switched to freshman QB Jordan Wynn, unsatisfied with an offense that was just getting by.

That's what Mendenhall and his staff can learn from a team that was winning, in case their latest loss was not enough of a lesson.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com —

Saturday's game

P BYU (1-1) at Florida State (1-1), 1:30 p.m. MDT







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