Face to Face with Reality

As BYU sent the field goal unit out against Utah two weeks ago, some fifty yards of kick away from sending the rivalry game into overtime in the literal last second, I went to my knees and clasped my hands in the air, a prayer to the football gods on my lips.

“Please,” I said, “bless that my team isn’t really going to attempt this kick.”

I don’t know how favorable the odds are of making a do-or-die, 51-yard field goal on the road when playing an opponent you’ve choked against all night. I do know the odds decrease dramatically – probably to about zero percent -- when your kicker hasn’t practiced during fall camp, is 0-3 lifetime from beyond fifty yards, has attempted one kick all season (a miss earlier in the game) and is recovering from back surgery. Nevertheless, there was Justin Sorenson, lining up for a career long attempt.

To the astonishment of everyone involved, the kick was no good.

Fan foolery from the Utes provided BYU an unorthodox second field goal attempt, this time a 36-yard version of the same pressure-packed kick. Cougar coaches decided to swap the broken-back kicker for – get this – Riley Stephenson, who goes under the alias of 'BYU's punter'. I can only imagine how filled with confidence he was after being overlooked for the first kick. 

“Hey, this 51-yarder is a little long for you, but don’t worry, if we get closer and need a weaker leg, you’re our guy.”

That being said, the 36-yard try was the longest of Stephenson’s collegiate career. To the astonishment of everyone involved, the kick was no good.

This was a hard game for me to get over, evidenced by the fact that it’s taken me two weeks to muster any words on the subject. In a game where BYU’s most consistent play was the false start; in a game where BYU showed no improvement in the ‘not fumbling’ department after the debacle of one year ago; in a game where Utah’s two offensive touchdowns came on a pair of improbable one-handed and no-look catches, it was the attempting of two hopeless field goal that officially pushed me over the edge.

I can live with the 36-yard attempt from converted punter Riley Stephenson, but only barely considering the guy had never made or even tried a kick of that importance or distance in his time at BYU. But to attempt a 51-yard field goal with a kicker who has not practiced during fall camp, who is recovering from surgery, who proved earlier in the game he wasn’t reliable from 15-yards closer? To expect that kick to ever even get close to approaching good was an absolute denial of reality on the part of the BYU coaching staff.

The art of denying reality has been commonplace in Provo over the last few seasons. From the idea of using a rotating quarterback system to the refusal to blitz skittish, injury-prone quarterbacks (see BYU vs. Utah, 2011), BYU as of late has simply done stuff that I can’t understand. Trusting Justin Sorenson to be ready to make a season-defining kick when all the evidence suggests he will miss it is only one of them. (Trusting a quarterback who is playing injured and describes himself as 65% healthy is another) Of course faking the kick would have been beyond risky, maybe the gutsiest play call in the history of the BYU-Utah rivalry. I get that. But can you imagine how awesome a fake in that moment would have been? With Utah bringing the entire house for the block one BYU player could have stall-blocked on the edge before sprinting downfield looking for a wide-open game winning touchdown pass. Regardless the outcome it certainly would have made for remarkable discussion and memory. And it also would have proven that football gods answer prayers.

Unfortunately (spoiler alert) BYU doesn’t gamble. I’ve wondered before if this is a trickle-down effect of BYU being run by a church that is against all forms of wagering. However, I’ve come to realize that this refusal to gamble on big plays is yet another BYU denial of reality, the ruse being that BYU is too good for trick plays or fake kicks, that they don’t need to blitz six guys to get to the quarterback, that simply out-executing their opponent will be enough. Never mind that a half-back pass from Eddie Stinnett to Steve Young comprises one of the greatest moments in BYU history. Never mind that overloading Sam Bradford with blitzes led to BYU’s last great win, the 2009 triumph over Oklahoma. Nevermind that Utah turns the momentum against BYU every other year by executing a “where in the world did that come from, we never expected that!” fake punt. To admit to needing trick plays, the coaches must think, is to admit weakness.

All of this would explain why I was so unbelievably happy when BYU went for two points last week against Boise State. For those unaware, BYU scored against Boise State with three minutes left in the game to make the score 7-6 for Boise. (A real shoot-out, I know) Conventional wisdom suggested BYU kick the extra point and test their chances in overtime. Yet Bronco Mendenhall – in a move that went against every precedent he’d set since becoming coach -- revolted against the safe play, electing instead to risk it all and go for the win then and there. BYU missed on the conversion and the critics have eaten coach Mendenhall in the seven days following.

Close, but no candy cigar.

I, however, couldn’t have been happier with the decision as it signaled the arrival of what I’ve long been waiting for: evidence that BYU’s brain trust had finally accepted reality. The chances of winning that game in overtime, with a freshman quarterback playing behind a perpetually flustered offensive line, in a stadium that has seen the home team win 76 of their last 79 games while knowing that you would likely be relying once again on a broken-back kicker and a converted punter to make clutch field goals, the likes of which they were 0-3 on one week earlier CANNOT IN ANY WORLD BE BETTER THAN THE ODDS OF GAINING THREE YARDS!!!. They just can’t.

So it was that Bronco confronted the brutal facts and rolled the dice. It didn’t work, but at least BYU tried. And after watching whatever it was BYU attempted to do against Utah one week earlier, simply trying to win was good enough for me. 

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