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What BYU history might tell us about how to fix BYU football’s offensive problems

This isn’t the first time BYU needed an offensive overhaul. Perhaps the pre-LaVell Edwards era can provide some clues.

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NCAA Football: Utah at Brigham Young George Frey-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of reasons why BYU is bad this season. The schedule has been challenging. Lackluster recruiting has left the program both with inadequate depth and a lack of high level FBS talent at offensive skill positions. The team has had horrendous injury luck. The list goes on and on.

This is going to be a very interesting offseason for the program. What this recruiting class is going to look like is still up in the air, and some assistant coaching turnover wouldn’t be shocking. But with other challenging schedules ahead, and no blue-chip offensive talent incoming, the immediate path to substantial improvement seems murky. This offseason may be a good time for the program to take stock, and look at what exactly they want its offensive identity to be.

It wouldn’t be the first time BYU considered some drastic changes to how they wanted to score points. The first time didn’t work out very well, but it did lead to their second attempt, which helped bring about one of the most unlikely, and most influential, college football dynasties in history.

A few months ago, I wrote a book, What If? A closer look at college football’s great questions, and devoted an entire chapter to the LaVell Edwards era at BYU, looking at what might have happened had he taken jobs at Miami, Minnesota, or the more well-known dalliance with the Detroit Lions. I poured through several books, and scores of old newspapers, to get a better idea of where BYU was before, and during, the Edwards era.

And I think some of those decisions may be relevant today.

First, let’s consider where BYU football was in the 1950s and 1960s

To put it bluntly, BYU kinda sucked. Prior to Edward’s first season in 1972, BYU had never played in a bowl game, never been ranked in the AP, and won eight games or more exactly twice (1932 and 1966). They played in conferences outside the power structure of the sport, like the Skyline or Mountain States Athletic, and had little hope on dramatically improving their lot.

Not every circumstance is the same, but very broadly, the limiting factors to BYU post WW2 are similar to what might be limiting today. The school lacked administrative support compared to their peers (BYU had a smaller coaching staff and budget compared to Utah, Utah State and other regional programs), and Edwards would later write he had to deal with rumors the school might drop football. Utah was a much smaller state, and the LDS church wasn’t as widespread, leaving a much shallower recruiting pool. And many larger state schools didn’t have scholarship limits, meaning they could add 50, or more, kids in a recruiting class to scholarship, something BYU couldn’t afford to do.

Perhaps the only thing easier might have been roster management, since missionary service was much less common, and RMs were much less likely to return to football.

Other BYU coaches realized this meant they needed to try something different

One, Hal Mitchell, who coached BYU from 1961-1963, decided to bring back the Single Wing offense. The Single Wing, a run-heavy formation which essentially turned the quarterback into a running back, was perhaps the first commonly used offense in college football, (Pop Warner used this to dunk on everybody with Jim Thorpe and Carlisle back in the day) but had fallen out of favor by the 1960s, with almost every major program switching to more modern fronts, like the T Formation.

The thought process was sound, zigging where everybody else in the country was zagging, but it didn’t ever work out on the field. BYU didn’t win more than four games a season in any of Mitchell’s three years. But it did lead him to hire a high school coach in Utah whose teams never made the playoffs or even had a winning record, LaVell Edwards. Edwards would later joke that he was hired because he “was the only Mormon running the Single Wing.”

The Cougars would have a little bit of occasional success under Tommy Hudspeth, the next coach of the Cougars, but nothing really substantial. Edwards was then hired to take over ahead of the 1972 campaign.

We know what happens next. Edwards decides to throw the dang ball

Edwards was never shy about telling folks why BYU’s offense needed to change so dramatically. He realized that they could never recruit enough big, fast players to compete with major programs while playing a similar offensive style (like the popular offensive fronts at the time, the Wishbone, and the Power I). Going to a retro running-focused front didn’t work, and BYU had great success the one year they had a great QB back in 1966, so he decided he should emulate success other private schools, like Stanford and TCU, enjoyed by throwing the dang ball.

This was an enormous and dramatic change!

To get an idea for just how dramatically the game has changed since the early 1970s, and exactly how revolutionary BYU’s offense was when it started, let’s consider a few stats.

BYU’s first season resembling anything like the true pass-first Edwards offenses was in 1973, his second season. The first Edwards year, ironically enough, the Cougars had a running back, Pete Van Valkenburg, who led the entire dang country in rushing. But when personnel changed, the team could finally try to implement his vision.

So let’s look at 1973. BYU’s QB that season, Gary Sheide, finished 3rd in the country in passing yards, with 2,350. Sheide completed 60% of his passes, threw 22 TDs, and 12 picks, and by every easily available passing metric, was one of the most prolific and effective at his position in the country that season.

That might lead one to conclude that BYU was running some Mike Leach-like Air Raid system, chucking the ball on first, second, third and fourth down. But that wasn’t really the case. Sheide chucked the ball 294 times, which sure, was in the top ten in the country, but BYU still ran the ball more than it passed that season!

Basically, in 1973, deciding that “hey, throwing the football is going to be an important part of our offense,” regardless of how you did it, was almost a revolutionary act. QB instruction and evaluation wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is today, and most coaches regarded throwing the ball 22 times a game to be beyond reckless. But now, everybody does it. In 2016, over 80 QBs threw the ball more times than Sheide.

The excellent look at the history of the Air Raid, The Perfect Pass, breaks this down in more detail, but BYU remained a big outlier for most of the next two decades. While a few other programs would occasionally join them in the pursuit of pass-first offenses, like the Bill Walsh Stanford squads, or programs like San Jose State or Long Beach State (and the rise of the Run and Shoot at programs like Houston in the late 80s and early 90s), most programs still limited their passing attacks to “when absolutely necessary, and then maybe occasionally play actions on 1st and 2nd down”

The sport didn’t really change until the mid 1990s. In 1996, BYU’s last real elite season, QB Steve Sarkisian was still second nationally in passing yards (4,027) and 6th in attempts, but now 10 QBs across the country threw for over 3,000 yards. Bigger schools, like Florida and Tennessee were realizing how dangerous their offenses could be with well-coached, big armed QBs. It took a while, but much of BYU’s offensive system had finally been co-opted by the rest of the sport. What BYU had established in the mid 1970s as an underdog tactic was no longer an underdog tactic.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that BYU’s national run started to end around this time.

This wasn’t the only factor, of course. But BYU hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 1996, and has only really come close twice.

If anything, BYU might be in an even tougher position now

BYU has a gorgeous stadium, a case full of trophies and a national TV deal, but the need for underdog tactics might be even stronger now than it was decades before.

For one, BYU’s schedules are much harder. By the early 80s, no matter what offense BYU decided to run, they could count of having talent comparable, if not superior, to many of their WAC conference-mates, since the league typically only produced 2-3 good teams a season. That isn’t the case now, as BYU plays an independent schedule where a good half, if not more, of their opponents will typically recruit at a higher level than the Cougars.

It’s also worth noting that much of BYU’s biggest historical success came in the era before college football telecast deregulation (NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma was settled in 1984, but the true financial aftereffects didn’t begin to kick in until the late 80s/early 90s). The financial gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in college football now is absolutely massive.

BYU recruiting can and needs to improve, but like I’ve written a few other times, I think it’s clear there’s a ceiling to what the program can hope to do. I’d wager that the best case scenario would be regular recruiting rankings in the 40s, with a few blue-chip prospects a class. Given their schedules for the next several seasons, even hitting that mark would put them as underdogs in many games.

If BYU lines up with an offensive philosophy predicated on superior talent at a few positions (QB, TE, between-the-tackles RBs), with their schedule, and their recruiting, they are very unlikely to be successful, in my humble opinion.

What underdog tactic should they use?

I don’t think there’s a perfect answer, because it depends on your coaches, where you’re recruiting, and more. I was a fan, philosophically, of BYU pushing the tempo, which they did during the tail-end of the Mendenhall era, although that can backfire if you don’t have linemen depth. Right now, BYU runs one of the slowest tempos in football, which can also be an underdog tactic (see Kansas State), but again, requires efficiency.

Underdog tactics might be recruiting focused, by going after populations or position-group changes that other schools are not doing (BYU may be better equipped to do this than some other programs). They could also be schematic, which is why so many teams adopt Air Raid principles now, and why a few are kicking the tires on going back to the option.

I don’t think the question is so much Pro vs. Spread, since those words mean really different things to different programs (the spread offenses at Ohio State, Arizona and, say, Northwestern are all really different and try to achieve different aims).

But I do think the question that the staff needs to answer is “what innovation are we going to introduce to help us compensate for our offensive deficiencies?” And it’s the same one the new staff at Oregon State will need to ask themselves. And the new staff at UTEP. And what whoever takes over Kansas next.

If there isn’t a good answer, seasons like this will probably happen more regularly than once every 40 years.