Brandon Doman's eyes misted Monday evening as he stood in BYU's indoor practice facility and relived one of his worst moments as a football coach.
The hit that BYU quarterback Taysom Hill's knee absorbed from Utah State safety Brian Suite late in Friday's game, which ended Hill's freshman season, came during a completely unnecessary play.
In Doman's defense, Hill's run resulted from miscommunication as opposed to mismanagement by the offensive coordinator or coach Bronco Mendenhall. Yet Doman is understandably horrified by the outcome, with Hill requiring surgery and four to six months of rehabilitation.
"I'm responsible for that," Doman said. "I don't know that I'll ever get over it, him getting injured the way he did and the circumstances of how it happened."
In reality, Hill's carry into the middle of the field was no more risky than with any of his previous 18 runs. The fact Doman did not order the run also is a critical point, although the miscommunication and its devastating effect play into a series of mistakes involving Doman and Mendenhall this season.
Leading 6-3 in the last 90 seconds, BYU recorded a second consecutive first down on Jamaal Williams' run. Hill then misinterpreted a signal (Doman twirling his index finger) to let the clock tick down, believing he should go ahead and run another standard play. Actually, as Mendenhall and others yelled from the sideline, Hill was supposed to take the snap and kneel. Three such "victory formation" plays would have ended the game, with USU down to one timeout.
Doman tried too late to get Mendenhall to call a timeout before the ball was snapped. Hill never heard the repeated "victory" instruction or looked toward the sideline again, Mendenhall said.
"It's not his fault, it's our fault," Mendenhall said.
The irony of the episode is Mendenhall apparently learned from the 2007 Las Vegas Bowl, when he allowed then-offensive coordinator Robert Anae to call a running play instead of having Max Hall take a knee with 19 seconds remaining in the first half and BYU inside its 10-yard line. Harvey Unga fumbled and UCLA recovered, then threw a touchdown pass.
Hill's injury coincides with senior quarterback Riley Nelson's return Saturday against No. 10 Oregon State. Nelson missed two games after having played two games with what he acknowledged was a "fractured" back. As for Hill, the impact of his injury involves the recovery process and missing playing time that would have helped him in preparing for 2013, when he'll become the clear-cut starter as a sophomore.
By holding out Nelson the last two games, Doman and Mendenhall have acknowledged tacitly that he was not healthy enough to play effectively in losses to Utah and Boise State.
Asked if he regretted insisting on playing in those games, Nelson said, "There's no second-guessing. … I sleep good at night knowing that I gave everything I had."
BYU (4-2) is at an interesting stage of its season, facing an Oregon State team that's missing quarterback Sean Mannion, himself facing knee surgery. Let's face it, with Nelson, James Lark or anybody else at quarterback, BYU will become bowl-eligible merely by beating Idaho and New Mexico State. What's lost is Hill's ability to enhance BYU's offense in at least a specialty role in high-profile games against OSU, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech this month, while preparing for next season.
The one positive aspect of all this turmoil and turnover is Nelson's absence gave everyone a glimpse of what Hill can do, solidifying the Cougars' quarterbacking future. The bad news is how Hill's injury affects the present, while his coaches remain haunted by the recent past.