1. Teach quarterback John Beck to hang on to the ball.
In two consecutive games last season against San Diego State and Colorado State, Beck had three fumbles that were returned for touchdowns. The next week against Wyoming, Beck gave Tyler Gottschalk another 60-yard touchdown gift for the Cowboys. It was Wyoming's only touchdown and it gave them the win.
Blindside hits and not hanging on to the ball in the pocket caused Beck's problems last year. The worst part about a quarterback fumble is that he is alone, often with his offensive line facing away from him. If he fumbles, it's him against every defender facing him with no line of defense behind him accept the BYU marching band.
Except for several mishandled snap exchanges, Cougar quarterbacks have held on to the ball so far this season. Help has come from the offensive line. My count so far is one blindside quarterback hit. Third-team quarterback Jason Beck endured the smack during the Stanford game. Truth be told, he held on to the ball too long.
John Beck, on the other hand, is getting rid of the ball quicker, throwing it away, or he's running for positive yardage and then sliding to avoid the gratuitous hits. He has demonstrated better awareness and execution this year, coupled with improved play from his offensive line. Consequently, quarterback turnovers are significantly lower so far this year.
Can we check this off the list? OK, check.
2. Teach receivers to curl AFTER the first down marker.
How many times last season did Cougar fans watch a receiver run a 4-yard curl on 3rd and 8? A chorus of "Duh" and "HELLO!" rang from the stands and dandruff fluttered in the wind as thousands scratched their heads in unison.
What an improvement this year! Did the markers get a new orange paint job? Maybe the superimposed ESPN first down line isn't just a TV trick; maybe it's actually marked on the field? Did Cougar coaches resort to placing candy bar treats on first down markers? Except for a few times when John Beck had to pass to a "safety valve" receiver, third-down pass patterns are being run correctly this year.
3. Help players understand that unsportsmanlike conduct is a 15-yard penalty.
At first it was just players being overly aggressive; next it was the questionable calls by officials; now it's just plain getting old. And they always seemed to happen at the worst times.
Maybe it's the little "A+" decals on the player helmets. Maybe it's the wind sprint torture runs implemented by coaches for those guilty of unsportsmanship penalties during games. Maybe it's the shock therapy. We don't really care what fixed it. It's just great to have less of them.
A turning point might have been when the entire team, behind the positive example and influence of Todd Watkins and Curtis Brown, joined their guilty brethren in running wind sprints to reinforce they were a team when they did good and bad. Maybe the team finally understood that dumb penalties adversely impacted them all. It's a team game and if any player side-stepped their responsibility, the whole team paid the price – on the field and in practice.
4. Remind ball handlers that fumbling is bad.
Touchdowns are good; fumbles are bad. Repeat one more time, guys … It seems simple enough, but when you consider that BYU had 20 touchdowns last year and 30 fumbles … that definitely spelled trouble in zion.
Even worse, if you combine the 22 interceptions with the 30 fumbles, that's 52 reasons for a season to go wrong … nearly two and a half turnovers for every touchdown. Maybe the Cougars were lucky to be 4-8!
Naufahu Tahi was one of the biggest fumble offenders. To his credit, Tahi is one of those runners that just won't give up easy. Typically, he twisting, grinding and spinning for more yards and defensive "strippers" take their shots at him.
This year, Tahi is still working for extra yardage, but coaches have trained him to secure the ball with both hands wrapped around the pigskin. It's always a good sign to see him hold it like a fireman running out of a burning building like he's bringing an infant to safety. Curtis Brown gets a "A" grade in this department as well. There will likely still be fumbles once in a while, but there is clearly improvement in this area. Touchdowns are good; fumbles are bad …
5. Remind the quarterback and coaches signaling in the plays that 25 seconds is all the time they have to run plays.
Hmmm … if memory serves, this was a inexplicable, recurring problem last season. The yellow hankies flew, whistles blew and the quarterbacks pull away from center with a confused look on their face.
"Delay of game on the offense; five yards … still 2nd down." Aahhgggg…..
Crowton has saved John Beck's bacon several times this season with hastily-called timeouts with the 25-second clock about to run out. That was a good rule change allowing coaches to call timeouts from the sideline. Beck, a true sophomore, will only get better with game-time experience.
6. Bring in a witch doctor to ward off injuries.
The curse was lifted sometime between the end of fall practice and the beginning of the season against Notre Dame.
In an extraordinary, inexplicable run of bad breaks and luck, the Cougars have collectively suffered two years – plus one spring and fall practice session – with some of the most devastating injuries ever to plague the Provo program. I mean … really! Two consecutive seasons where you have to play your third and fourth string quarterback in games because the top-two starters are sidelined by injury – let along suffer broken bones in their throwing hands in the same season? The odds of that happening are off the charts, but it happened in Provo last year.
Fingers crossed … there have been no serious injuries since the season started. That statement alone is amazing considering the Cougars just ground it out against possibly their toughest preseason out-of-conference schedule ever! Knock on wood …
7. Master the "little things."
The little things do matter … Stretch out for that extra few inches. Hold that block one more second. Get rid of the ball half a second sooner.
BYU's game has definitely improved in this area, but they're not quite there. Against Boise State, I counted 13 "little things" that could have been better executed to help the Cougars win the game. Against Colorado State, there were seven "little things" they could have done to make it a blowout.
We'll give them a couple more weeks before we re-evaluate the "little things" department for any improvement.
8. Clear the field! Find Crowton's lucky rabbit's foot that disappeared in November, 2001.
I remember the season-opener against Tulane in 2001: Brandon Doman's pass was fumbled and Reno Mahe, Jr., happened to be "junior" on the spot. A lucky bounce put it right in his hands and he advanced the ball for a good gain.
All the good bounces, positive opportunities and all the right breaks left BYU that season. I can't confirm the report, but a little birdie whispered that Crowton lost his lucky rabbit's foot somewhere on the football field late in the Mississippi State game in Nov. 2001, just before Luke Staley suffered his career-ending injury.
This remains unchecked because no one's sure whether he's found it yet. Gary Crowton is not talking, but those of us in the know … know better. Crowton and his Cougars discovered something between the Boise State and Colorado State matchups; they found their game again …
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