This is a key stat from Saturday: BYU's 4th down conversions. The Cougars did not try to convert any 4th downs, and there were two key opportunities where they could have, one of which they certainly should have. And this after going for it on 4th down 14 times this season and having a very good success rate (10 of 14).
The first opportunity I'm talking about came with about 6 minutes left in the third quarter. The Cougars took their second drive of the second half from their 26 to the Fighting Irish 28. On a key third down, Riley Nelson was rushed and threw an incomplete pass to JD Falslev. So now it was 4th and 6, and the decision was really between a long field goal and difficult 4th down conversion.
I don't think I have to tell you about the state of the BYU kicking game, but let me elaborate a little. BYU is just 5-for-10 on kicking FGs this season, and Justin Sorensen, who was called on to kick, was 1-for-3 coming into this game, with a long of 35. Sorensen has been hurt, and has looked nothing like the kicker who was 15-of-25 on FG attempts last season, including a long of 46.
But Sorensen is not that kicker, and a 46-yard FG was going to be a career best, a career best that happened when he was healthy. Sorensen badly missed the attempt, and, because I was at the game, I got to hear the collective grown of thousands of BYU fans. Some even blamed Sorensen, saying he was terrible.
But Sorensen isn't terrible -- he's actually a good kicker, as his career prior to this season shows. I don't know what Bronco Mendenhall was thinking in sending Sorensen out for that FG attempt, but it was a bad decision, and he put Sorensen in a bad position. I don't know what Mendenhall (or the other coaches) saw, but I watched Sorensen in pre-game and halftime warm-ups, and he didn't hit a single FG from that distance.
The second attempt the Cougars should have made was just as obvious to me, though maybe more unconventional. In the 4th quarter down 17-14, Nelson led the Cougars from their own 8-yard line the ND 31. But then came a 9-yard sack, which was followed by a short pass to Cody Hoffman and an incomplete pass. It's 4th and 13 with just over 6 minutes to go and the ball is at the 34.
A 50+ yard FG was out of the question, so it was go for it on the long 4th down, or punt it. I know convention says punt, but it's not a smart play. In order to make it really worth your while, to punt, you need two things to happen: your punter has to pin the opposition deep, and your defense needs to get the ball back quickly. (We also discuss this decision at length on this week's Rise & Shout podcast and Zach talks about them a little on his cranium clearing thoughts.)
I'm not sure if Riley Stephenson is likely to pin a punt inside the opponents 10, but I can tell you that in the second half, the defense had shown some vulnerability to the ND rushing attack. I know Bronco is a defensive coach, but he had been pretty aggressive in the past. This was a chance to go for it against the 5th best team in country, on the road, with a senior QB. And Bronco decided to punt.
The result was a 14-yard net punt, the Irish used most of the clock, and Nelson & Co. got the ball back with 22 second left. It was not enough time for a miracle, and the Cougars lost a game that could have turned the season from a disappointing one to a memorable one.
I know many fans are defending both of these calls, but it seems inconsistent with a man who went for 2 against Boise State when an extra point would have likely forced overtime.
You can always second guess, but I would go for it on 4th in both the situations described above 100 times out of 100. And I think the decision to let a wounded kicker and a punter decide the game will haunt BYU fans for a long time.
This season has become a season of questioning the coaching staff's decisions, and Saturday's game only added fuel to that fire.