Some are explaining it away by fingering the "quarterback mess," as it has come to be called, but perhaps that's just masking flaws that are more difficult to pinpoint.
Mendenhall has been saying as much this week as the Cougars prepare to play Nevada on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium (4 p.m, The Mtn.), in his own peculiar way. Told that the Cougars were going to be underdogs Saturday, he conceded, "It is a role that we've earned to this point."
Coaches hate the description "rebuilding," and Mendenhall acted defensively at July's Mountain West Conference media gather when it was suggested that was what was in store for his team this season with the losses of its all-time leading rusher (Unga), its winningest quarterback in school history (Hall), its all-time leader in career receptions (Pitta) and one of its best-ever pass rushers (Jorgensen). But the fact the Cougars placed just two players safety Andrew Rich on defense, tackle Matt Reynolds on offense on the league's preseason all-conference team was telling.
"Routine plays we are used to seeing made at BYU just aren't being made," allowed one Cougar assistant.
Even an offensive line being touted as one of the best in the past 10 years gave up eight sacks to Florida State last week. One coach said the most talented defensive player in practice is linebacker Uona Kaveinga, a transfer from Southern California who is sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules.
The Cougars have started 1-2 three other times in Mendenhall's six seasons only to finish 6-6, 11-2 and 11-2, giving hope to fans that another turnaround is coming. But the losses to Air Force and Florida State, and even the 23-17 win over Washington, exposed weaknesses that previous early season setbacks to teams such as Arizona, Boston College, UCLA and Tulsa never did.
For instance, the Cougars rank dead last in the country in average yards per pass attempt (4.65 yards), and are close to the bottom in average per reception (9.3). That can't all be blamed on the quarterback quandary.
Slow starts are "familiar" in his tenure, Mendenhall said, but then acknowledged, "this particular team and this place it is in is different than any of the previous seasons … it is going to take some time."
Running backs coach Lance Reynolds, the only holdover from coach LaVell Edwards' staff, has seen football talent at BYU come and go for 28 seasons. He says the ability is there, but he is also preaching patience.
"I think the receivers are talented, and our tight ends are talented," he said. "But there's a lot of inexperience there. So the older, more experienced guys need to lead the way and pull the wagon along and get everybody else to take pride and execute at the same level as we are used to doing. And right now, that's not happening."
Mendenhall said Monday that his defense is playing better than the statistics show (98th in total defense, 86th in scoring defense). Several times this week he shouldered the blame for the two-quarterback decision and the way it has effected execution because Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson split reps in practices before Nelson was sidelined for the season by a shoulder injury that will require surgery Friday.
"I don't believe the statistics are accurate right now in relation to how it is going to be at the end of the season," Mendenhall said. "But there are certainly some [defensive] front seven issues just in youth, with so many seniors that are gone and continuity that I think will shore up over time."
Whether the talent level is there to make that happen remains to be seen.
email@example.com Twitter: @sltribbyu, @drewjay
BYU national offensive rankings
Out of 120 FBS teams:
Total offense • 100th (302.6 yards per game)
Passing offense • 101st (155.0 yards per game)
Rushing offense • 67th (147.6 yards per game)
Scoring offense • 110th (15.6 points per game)
Yards per passing attempt • 120th (4.6 yards per attempt)
Passing efficiency • 115th (94.96)
Nevada at BYU
P Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV • The Mtn.