Nearly perfect: How a couple of plays have kept BYU football from a 5-0 record

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After a 1-2 start to the season, it would be strange to describe BYU’s football team as almost perfect in 2013 — even after improving to 3-2 with a win over Utah State on Oct. 4. Yet, in retrospect, the Cougars are only a couple of plays from going into their matchup against Georgia Tech on Oct. 12 with a 5-0 record and Top 25 ranking.

“We put ourselves in more positions to win that game,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall following BYU’s seven-point loss to Utah on Sept. 21. “We need our execution to match our opportunities.”

JD Falslev celebrates after returning a punt 36 yards in the second quarter against Utah last season. Photo by Sarah Hill.
JD Falslev celebrates after returning a punt 36 yards in the second quarter against Utah last season. (Photo by Sarah Hill)

That’s also how Mendenhall spoke of the loss in the season opener against Virginia — saying the team easily could have left Charlottesville with a win had one or two plays resulted differently. Against Virginia, BYU staged an impressive fourth-quarter comeback and only rescinded the lead because of a late interception that set up the game-winning touchdown for the Cavaliers. Without the interception, the Cougars would have been on top at the end 16-12.

Against Utah, there were several plays that could have changed the outcome of the game had they gone another way. In the early goings, a holding call reversed Adam Hine’s kickoff return for a touchdown. An apparently muffed punt return came about an inch from giving the ball to BYU deep in Ute territory. The Cougars couldn’t capitalize on four red zone attempts, and the game ended with BYU marching down the field and finally throwing an interception — all things to consider in a game decided by seven points.

Receiver and punt returner J.D. Falslev reflected on early losses.

“There were just a few plays here and there where we didn’t play hard enough,” he said.

To be fair, perhaps the difference between great teams and mediocre teams is the ability to execute each play in close games. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, BYU is 1-6 in games decided by seven points or less. From November of 2006 to 2011, the Cougars were 18-2 in such games.

Inexperienced players, turnovers and penalties are all contributors in close games lost. BYU is certainly young on offense and has battled turnover and penalty issues in 2013. The Cougars won the turnover battle against Utah State while committing only three penalties. It’s a trend they would like to continue moving forward, as they look to reverse their recent record in close contests.

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