PROVO — If ever there were an indicator just how things might go for BYU the rest of this football season, it probably showed up Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium. There were the fumbles (6) and the interception (1). The threes-and-out. The over-thrown and under-thrown passes. The missed 29-yard field goal.
And who could forget the late moments, when John Beck found his favorite target, Todd Watkins, for a 35-yard pass only to fumble away the ball?
And the late comeback that ended at the UNLV 10.
It seems bound to be that sort of season. And that sort of era.
The cast of characters changes some, but the end result is similar to last year— mental mistakes, turnovers and plain old tough breaks. Bad stuff happens when you're struggling. Sometimes you break out. But other times the old angst returns, like a recurring water drip. You think have it under control and then — oops! — there it is again.
And you wonder: Would whacking it with a pipe wrench do any harm?
BYU's one-game win streak ended in a 24-20 loss to UNLV. Watkins' fumble after a 35-yard catch with 2:18 to go was recovered by UNLV, and that was it. The sort of end that keeps players up nights and coaches on edge. BYU came back, but three incompletions ended the suspense.
A team goes through a lot of emotions on these types of years.
They vary from anger to denial to joy to confusion. After last week's win at Colorado State, a humiliating loss to Stanford can actually start looking like ancient history. The defeat against USC can look strangely like a learning experience. The heart-breaker at Boise State can be construed as a turning point, rather than a low point.
Then you lose again and realize something: a loss is a loss.
Then you go looking for a pipe wrench.
Whatever the case, the days of knowing exactly what to expect from the BYU Cougars are over. BYU took a 10-7 late in the first half. But it was nothing to alert the Fiesta Bowl about (even though, for some inexplicable reason, the Fiesta Bowl actually did have a representative in attendance). The damages: two lost fumbles, a near interception, a missed field goal, a couple of long range passes gone bad, and a fake field goal called back on a penalty.
The hang-up in the second half: After going ahead in the third quarter, the Cougars immediately gave up a 12-yard touchdown score for a 21-20 UNLV lead.
Another loss in a troubled season.
Through it all, the Cougars have insisted they aren't bad. They made their case last week by beating Colorado State 31-21, churning out 207 ground yards — which was bad news for opponents and good news for a team that had all but abandoned hope of traveling by ground. Curtis Brown was strong again on Friday, rushing for 102 yards.
But all season the Cougars have felt their passing game would finally be their ticket out. They unnerved opponents with their deep threat passing from John Beck to Todd Watkins and Austin Collie. That threat eventually led to a loosening in the middle, last week, which at last improved the running game. Consequently, the mood in Provo went from despair to downright optimism almost overnight. The close call at Boise got fans hoping, the win over CSU got them talking.
Then came Friday's reality TV moment. The long passes didn't connect. The short ones, at times, came up way short.
No, the Cougars aren't out of contention quiet yet. But next week's opponent is Wyoming, the most mysterious team in the league this year. The Cowboys looked awful in a 31-0 loss to Texas A&M but faked out Mississippi 37-32. Who knows what wins over Appalachian State (53-7) and Louisiana-Monroe (31-10) mean?
Thus, the Cougars can only forge ahead in this strange season.
A season that, in spite of a few good moments, is starting to look a lot like the last.