LANDOVER — I only remember hearing cussing once in the press box, which is a bit unusual. The timing, however, wasn’t.
With 4:14 left in the game, the Mountaineers looked ready to finally put away the Cougars, after a dramatically up and down game. They had 1st and goal at the 4, and a simple plunge into the end zone would push the game out of reach.
Instead, Tyler Orlosky fumbled, and the words you can’t say on television starting flying out.
Not because of the fumble. But for the poor writers on deadline, who suddenly had to throw out their narratives and write new ones, on the double, because the deadline was looming and now this game didn’t make sense anymore.
That remained true even after Taysom Hill tossed his third interception of the game near the goal line, finally ending BYU’s comeback chances for good.
Everything about this game was weird. From the location — a concrete slab in suburban Maryland, hundreds of miles away from either campus — to the flow of the game and especially to the turnover filed final minutes.
Was it a referendum on Taysom Hill? It sure looked that way in the first half, as Hill looked unable, or unwilling, to throw the ball downfield, and tentative when escaping the pocket. Two BYU miscues in the red zone broke serve, and fans who were clamoring for Tanner Mangum had plenty of ammo heading into the break.
But in the second half, Hill erupted, especially in the confines of a perhaps-more-familiar two-minute offense. He even nearly hurdled a pair of West Virginia defenders, just for old time’s sake. The struggles with downfield passing didn’t go away, and his ill-fated pick-six arguably swung the game to WVU. But he also clearly demonstrated why BYU’s coaches went with him in the first place.
Hill ran for over 100 yards, threw for 241, and helped BYU convert 10-15 third downs. Take away the pick six, or if one more tipped pass bounces a different way, and it’s a different story.
Was this a referendum on BYU’s Big 12 chances? I talked to dozens of West Virginia fans before the game, and the near consensus reaction to potentially having BYU as a conference-mate was a resounding shrug.
Kalani Sitake wouldn’t entertain the notion at the end of the game either, when asked, saying, “I just don’t think that way.” Over the course of the game, BYU demonstrated the talent disparity between the two programs wasn’t massive, but it’s hard to make an overly declarative statement with a loss, even a close one.
BYU’s normally stout defense was gashed repeatedly along the perimeter, forcing the Cougars to make tackles in space with bubble screens and short, horizontal passes, something the Cougars were not often able to do. The much maligned offensive line improved dramatically, opening up significant holes for Jamaal Williams, who had one of his best games in recent memory, rumbling for 170 yards and two scores on 24 carries, good for a tidy seven yards a carry.
After the game, Williams said he “couldn’t be prouder” of his offensive line. So that talking point goes on the shelf for a week as well.
In the end, there were only two real constants. BYU fans showed up again, even though the game was over 2,000 miles away. The full crowd was modest (the announced figure was 38,207, far below what it would have been if this game was played on either campus), but Sitake mentioned that the BYU crowd played a big role in forcing the late game fumble.
The other constant is that even though they played a talented major-conference team close, the Cougars were a few plays away from a victory.
Part of that may be a depth issue, even though Sitake said he wasn’t concerned about the team’s stamina or conditioning (physical or mental). BYU hasn’t recruited at the level of anybody they’ve played so far, and it showed at times during the game. But to hear the players after the game, they repeatedly pointed to execution.
At this point, you can be pretty justified in reading whatever you want into BYU this season.
On one hand, the Cougars have played four good teams this year, something perhaps nobody else in the country can say, and played all four nearly even. Many of the glaring issues from their first three games, especially on offense, were corrected against West Virginia. In fact, BYU played their best game of the year on offense. If you want to be encouraged by this, I think that’s justified.
You could also point to the fact that with three losses, BYU’s season is “over”, in many respects. It isn’t even October yet, and BYU’s postseason destination is already defined. They don’t face another Big 12 opponent this season, and will likely fall out of national relevance and conversations soon, especially with a loss. It’s also a relatively experienced team, one that shouldn’t be making these small execution mistakes.
I can’t tell you what to think, because everything I’ve thought about this team has been turned upside down multiple times already, even during this game.
What we think about the 2016 BYU team, in many respects, will come down to how the team handles these past four weeks mentally. Such results would be draining to even the most talented and mature program with veteran coaches.
Right now, BYU is 1-3. Those kinds of starts tend to lead to a certain kind of story at the end of the year.
Will we need to rewrite it before the deadline looms? We’ll find out a little more next week.