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Unforced errors killing BYU’s offense

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Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) recovers his own fumble as Oregon State Beavers linebacker Michael Doctor (40) defends in Provo Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) recovers his own fumble as Oregon State Beavers linebacker Michael Doctor (40) defends in Provo Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012.

Jeffrey Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — Unforced errors.

The Big Miss.

These are terms in sports that denote how a team or athlete makes a mistake that pushes away wins.

BYU’s offense is wrestling with unforced errors, and Saturday’s loss to Oregon State shows it hasn’t been corrected through seven games.

In tennis, an unforced error is hitting a serve out of bounds. It’s a mistake that takes the player right out of a point without the opponent doing anything. Same with volleyball.

In golf, the rich PGA Tour guys you see on TV abhor The Big Miss. Hank Haney’s book on Tiger Woods uses that phrase as its title. It’s a situation where a golfer is making birdies and eagles and scoring and sees himself atop the leaderboard. Then, out of nowhere, he misses a green on the short side, has an approach shot come up short in a lake or simply drives the ball out of bounds.

The Big Miss. One shot, one mistake, and it is over.

Against Oregon State, Riley Nelson repeated a mistake seen over and over again. It came in the first half with the Cougars trading scores with OSU while driving for a score. On second down, Riley found himself in trouble, surrounded by defenders, and rather than throw the ball out of bounds, he forced a pass to a triple-covered Cody Hoffman for a pick.

We saw this last year in Dallas against TCU when BYU was in the middle of making a comeback and a possible run at an upset. In scoring position, in the grasp, Nelson tried to throw and it ended up in a backward toss for a lost fumble.

This unforced error is something we saw freshman Taysom Hill avoid several times in his two starts and half a game. He threw it away. Thing is, Hill had been away from football for almost three years. Trouble? Pressured? It is not there? He threw the ball away. It is Football 101.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” Nelson said after the game, his 27th Division I contest.

Well, that may help.

But it may be too late.

Nelson’s a senior. He’s a leader. He’s respected by teammates. He’s looked up to. But all those guys are held accountable for their mistakes. Up till now, Nelson has repeated his.

The difference between the Cougars being 7-0, 6-1 or 5-2 instead of 4-3 is a simple statistical category. It’s called turnovers.

The Cougars were tied with No. 10 OSU 21-21 in the fourth quarter Saturday and had three turnovers in that game, two in that quarter. That was the difference.

Turnovers at Utah and Boise State directly led to easy opponent scores and were the difference in those losses on the road. Not all were on Nelson, but some definitely were. Nelson has thrown six interceptions and one touchdown pass in his last two games.

BYU currently ranks 97th in the country in turnover margin. That means the Cougars' offense, in a big way, is giving the ball up far more than the defense is getting it from opponents.

That single statistic may be the most important in determining the outcome of football games.

Turnovers are gold for defenses and disaster for offenses.

That is why, when driving for a possible score, on a second-down play, a mistake like the one BYU’s senior QB made in that kind of a game is, quite frankly, pretty incredible.

It’s the kind of mistake that tests the loyalty of friends and emboldens foes both on the field, sidelines and in the stands.

It is a mistake that many a coach would react to by benching a quarterback for a series or the game.

On Saturday, Nelson got talked to in a stern manner, TV revealed.

Since the mid-’70s, when LaVell Edwards began a new move in college football to take the ball to the air and out-finesse the bloody nose and cloud of dust traditionalists, he caught defenses by surprise.

One of the biggest elements of his system under Doug Scovil, Ted Tollner and Norm Chow was execution. If they were basically going to hit defenses with a 7-on-7 passing league offense, precision had to rule supreme.

These early pioneers knew for the system to work, dropped passes could not be tolerated. A QB who threw swing passes into the dirt or consistently overthrew receivers on simple or complex throws did not play.

Interceptions could be endured at the time because defenders simply looked cross-eyed with the BYU's system. Jim McMahon didn't mind holding calls on his O-linemen because when you backed him up, it only gave him more yards on a third and 20 and he made the play.

Times have changed. Defenses have caught on. Defensive coordinators have brought NFL schemes to college football with sophisticated coverages and blitzes. The finesse game BYU created back in the day had to change to work. The biggest area in which it cannot afford to fail is ball security.

That’s why Saturday’s second-down interception throw by Nelson was so baffling. Here’s a guy who is in his seventh season of college football, with a two-year LDS mission mixed in. He’s smart, probably headed for medical school. He’s seasoned. He is not dumb.

But somewhere in his DNA, he simply won’t give up on a play that is dead. And then it all dies. It’s myopia on steroids.

Call it stubborn, call it gritty, call it inspirational or anything you want. But you cannot label plays like that smart football. Scovil would do more than have a quarterback who did that run wind sprints in practice. He’d find somebody else.

Nelson otherwise played very well against OSU, minus some weak throws when it counted in the fourth quarter. But that’s the difference between 7-0 and 4-3, those little things.

Right now, in 2012, turnovers are killing Bronco Mendenhall’s team.

It certainly did Saturday, and if not corrected come Saturday in South Bend, it will again.

The Irish rank No. 10 nationally in turnover margin.


Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.