Loyal Cougars

Season review: Defense, not injuries, had BYU bottoming out in October

BYU coaches and players rightly celebrated beating a California team with a great offense, on the road, on Saturday. Winning on the road in the Pac-12 is no easy task. Before this year, Utah had won three road conference games in 13 tries.

With the regular season complete, fans and writers alike are looking back and evaluating what happened. There’s a narrative emerging on the BYU season that puts the October collapse at the feet of the unforeseeable injury to star quarterback Taysom Hill.

The narrative goes something like this: Things were rolling, then Hill got hurt, then BYU started losing, then BYU rebounded and pulled things back together.

It’s true, but also incomplete.

BYU’s defense was struggling well before Hill got hurt. The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) tracks not only opponent-adjusted drive efficiency, but also accounts for the contribution to a win or a loss from each side of the ball, called Game Splits.

“Game Splits data are a function of possessions in FBS vs. FBS games in the given season, excluding first-half clock kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores. Game Splits represent the scoring margin components of a game, the value contributed to the margin of victory or defeat. The value contributed by the offense, defense, and special teams units.”

Below is a chart of BYU’s FEI Game Splits for the 2014 regular season. These numbers say the defense’s best game was Texas and their worst games were Nevada and Cal. The offense’s best game came against Cal and their worst was against UCF.

BYU 2014 Game Splits

BYU’s offense (blue) does take a big hit as the losses of Kurtz, Hill, and Williams added up over the season. Hill’s loss in particular is obvious with the drop in the Utah State and UCF games.

The narrative that BYU’s team suffered a huge loss when Hill went down, struggled, and then bounced back is not without merit. Other than Utah State, where Hill was hurt during the game, and then the short week with a trip all the way across the country, the offense performed well. Boise State is the only other possible exception, but they are also both the best team and best defense BYU played.

The other story of BYU’s season is the defense, shown in the chart as the green line. Overall for the season, FEI rates BYU’s defense as an average college defense when adjusting for the strength of the opponent. After trouncing Texas in an amazing all-around performance, things started to go downhill. Starting with what originally seemed like a fluke Hail Mary at the end of the first half to Houston, BYU’s passing defense followed up that game with another less-than-stellar effort against Virginia.

At the time, some were worried. Some hoped that with a bye week to prepare for Utah State, things would get sorted out. BYU then allowed Darell Garretson to complete 19 of 25 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns; an insane 223.5 passer rating. FEI ranks BYU’s defensive performance versus Utah State as the 1104th-best performance of a college defense in 2014 out of 1412 college games played so far. It was bad.

Knowing the offense was hurting, the defense bounced back and gave a huge effort and one of its best games against Central Florida, but the team came up short in Orlando as BYU got some bad turnover luck and less than friendly officiating at the end of the game.

Some fans wonder if BYU could have beaten Nevada with Taysom Hill. BYU’s offense put up huge numbers without him and still lost. Looking at the FEI numbers, it is very clear that offense wasn’t the problem against Nevada.

Bronco Mendenhall then took over play calling duties from first year defensive coordinator Nick Howell before the Boise State game, but the problems seemed to run deeper than just which plays were being run.

Looking at these stats, especially the defensive numbers, I think the only game fans can truly set at the feet of a very unfortunate injury is UCF.

Once BYU did get the second bye week and the month of November to prepare for Cal, things got better. Getting better is hard. Cal scored a lot of points on a lot of teams this year, and although the defense wasn’t exactly world-beaters, the players did enough to win. They closed out the year strong and should be proud of it.

There’s still one more game to play in the 2014 season, but in the wet cement of the narratives of what this year was about, the defensive numbers are impossible to ignore.

BYU has oddly gone from having a shaky offense and strong defenses from 2011 to 2013 to the opposite in 2014. Being good at both is obviously really hard.

Rather than asking “what if,” I imagine the coaches and administrators will be busy laying the ground for 2015 and asking what can be learned from the defensive collapse of 2014 and what can be done to avoid it in Taysom Hill’s senior campaign.


  1. Sanpete

    December 3, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    I agree that blaming the losses on the Hill injury alone would be wrong, and that defense had a big role in those (though turnovers by the offense made the D look worse than it was sometimes).

    But the title of the article seems wrong, and misleading about what the article actually says. I think injuries were the main cause of problems on both sides of the ball, including the defense. Key defensive players have been injured off and on from fall camp started to now, Kaufusi, Fua, Bills, etc. Because they weren’t 100% or not able to play at all, they didn’t play up to potential or they were replaced by inexperienced players. That explained the weaker-than-expected pass rush, problems in the secondary, and so on.

    So the narrative about the injury to Hill being the problem may well be wrong, at least partly, but that injuries in general have been the main problem is probably correct.

  2. BigCougar

    December 3, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    “BYU has oddly gone from having a shaky offense and strong defenses from 2011 to 2013 to the opposite in 2014. Being good at both is obviously really hard.”


    It’s obviously hard for Bronco Mendenhall, other schools don’t seem to have a problem. For Bronco this has been a problem going back to 2010. He only seems to be able to manage one half of a team each year. We lost games and had seasons affected in the past 5 seasons due to not having an adequate PK, not having an adequate #1 QB, not having an adequate OL, no depth at QB, etc. These are repeating themes. The one thing that’s been consistent is the defense (since the firing of Jaime Hill) and now that’s not the case anymore.

    I think Bronco has hit his ceiling as HC. Are we okay with BYU being a 7.5 win program (playing very light schedules) or do we want a little more than that?

    • juliusand1

      December 4, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      I think people are being overly pessimistic about Bronco. Bronco’s teams have averaged 9 wins a season over his 10 years as HC, and 8.2 wins over the last 5. You say other schools do not have a problem fielding good offense and good defense at the same time. Over the last 5 seasons, only 5 teams have finished (or are currently) in the AP Top 25 all five seasons: Alabama, FSU, Oregon, Oklahoma, & LSU. Of those currently in the AP Top 25, only 6 have been able to do it 4 of the last 5 seasons. Only 7 current teams have done it 3 of the last 5. That is only 18 of 117+ teams that are showing much positive consistency over the last 5 years. Historically good teams like Texas, ND, Florida, Michigan, and USC have only finished top 25 once or twice in the last 5 years. It is most definitely harder than you make it sound.

      Compare, if you will, LaVell and Bronco. LaVell guided BYU to 22 bowl games over 29 years. BYU only won seven, SEVEN of those games. So BYU beat up on WAC teams and generally lost to the better competition found in bowl games. Bronco has lead BYU to bowl games in each of his ten years as HC, and won 6 with one left to play. He can match LaVell’s Bowl win count with a win in 3 weeks in a third of the time. I grant you that getting into a bowl has been easier for all teams during Bronco’s tenure than it was during LaVell’s. But I would say that Bronco got to bowls against stiffer competition than LaVell did. The bottom half of the MWC was just as bad as that of the WAC, but the upper half of the MWC was way better than that of the WAC, especially during the 80s.

      LaVell had it pretty rough in the late 80s and the post-Detmer early 90s. But if BYU had pulled the plug on LaVell after those struggles, like people want to do with Bronco right now we probably would not have the 94 Copper Bowl or 96 Cotton bowl seasons. I think even for our greatest coach, it took perfect storm conditions to produce great seasons once defenses caught up to our passing schemes.

      And as for those 5 teams in the top 25 each of the last 5 years, How mediocre was Alabama before Nick Saban? FSU during the last several years under Bowden? Oregon before Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich? I think only Oklahoma and LSU have had the most consistency over the last 10+ years.

    • Wahului

      December 4, 2014 at 11:57 pm

      Several good points here. I have this mental image of Bronco running around a leaking boat, plugging holes at one end while new holes pop open at the other end, and not enough vision or teamwork among the staff to split up and keep all the holes plugged. Maybe a little goofy, but it has long seemed that BYU has somewhat failed to maximize the development of it’s players in the big picture, and to keep all the balls in the air, as mentioned by Big Cougar. Once again, promote Bronco to DC and recruit Ken Niumatalolo for HC. It’s doable at BYU, and has a better chance of being a great move than not.

  3. cks1450

    December 4, 2014 at 11:53 am

    The Defense has been the reason we lost games all year, without Hill’s momentum changing and crucial plays, the early part of the season would have been far worse.

    Christian Stewart was still getting up to speed when we lost to UCF, if Hill is in the game, he most likely is able to do enough to power the team to the win.

    The defense is still bad, but Stewart has improved to the point that he can execute now. Cal is horrible at pass defense. But if Cal was Stewart’s first game this season, he would not have made the reads he did that won the game for BYU.

    Stewart made two reads that lead directly and immediately to touchdown passes on the same play he made the read.

    The defense did just enough to win the call game in the end, but I think our inability to recruit well in recent years on the defensive side of the ball is showing at this point. The depth isn’t there.

    Hopefully the returning defensive players can improve for next fall.
    We have seen the kind’s of things Taysom Hill is capable of, he can change the outcome of a game single handedly, even as just an average passer.

    With an improved defense, the 2015 BYU football team would be a very tough opponent for anyone.