The moment a BYU player held up two fingers Thursday night in Boise, indicating coach Bronco Mendenhall's intentions, this was my thought: It had better work.
Those are not my original words. They're Mendenhall's.
Remember the Armed Forces Bowl last December? After quarterback Riley Nelson initiated his fake-spike play to beat Tulsa with 11 seconds remaining, Mendenhall repeated his first thought in the news conference afterward, only half-kidding: "He'd better throw a touchdown, put it that way."
Thursday's episode, involving backup quarterback Taysom Hill, was pretty much the same story only this was Mendenhall's doing. After the Cougars scored a touchdown to cut Boise State's lead to 7-6 with 3:37 remaining, Mendenhall chose to try for a two-point conversion. Hill's pass under pressure fell incomplete in the end zone.
Some would say it was a bad choice only because it didn't work. I say the coaching decision was going to be defensible only if it did work.
Offenses have about a 40 percent chance of converting a two-point play, regardless of the circumstances. Mix in the pressure of the moment, with a freshman quarterback, and the odds of success are reduced even more even with a perfectly designed play.
Above all, the way BYU's defense was playing, and the fact that Boise State was refusing to attempt field goals, the Cougars' chances of winning in overtime were far greater than 40 percent, wouldn't you say?
I've said for months that BYU's season would be judged by four road games: Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
Even one victory would be a breakthrough. In Boise, Mendenhall defied a conventional approach and in doing so failed to give his team its best shot at winning.
The irony is that going back to his very first game as a head coach, against Boston College in 2005, I've accused Mendenhall of thinking too much like a defensive coordinator in managing games. In this case, he should have done exactly that.
By the logic of Mendenhall's explanation of "momentum," teams should go for two after every touchdown.
Having said that, Boise State coach Chris Petersen hardly distinguished himself in this game. His most egregious error was not kicking a field goal at the 1-yard line with a 7-0 lead in the third quarter. The Broncos' kicker is good enough to make the equivalent of an extra point, and a 10-0 lead would have been insurmountable.
As it turned out, BYU certainly could have won. In a 7-0 game, all it would take to pull even was one sustained drive, and Hill managed to make it happen. Asking him to deliver one more time, in that situation, was just too much.
Mendenhall's problem was falling into the old Gary Crowton trap of thinking that two points would be better than one and disregarding the fact that none is worse than one.
BYU's being out of timeouts was a huge factor. As the Broncos proved, one first down would be sufficient to close out the victory. With more opportunity to stop the clock after missing the two-point opportunity, Mendenhall's decision may have made more sense.
That bold strategy worked for Texas Christian coach Gary Patterson in Boise last November, after he determined that he probably couldn't beat former BSU quarterback Kellen Moore in overtime. In BYU's case, opposing Joe Southwick, there was every reason to think the Cougars would have come through in OT.
Mendenhall probably believed so, too, but he just got caught up in a moment that was too big for him and his team.