Bronco Mendenhall can take a lot of pride in the fact his defense outscored San Diego State last Thursday in Qualcomm Stadium. The BYU coach appeared very loose and sincerely grateful for the 23-6 win afterward.
Mendenhall’s defense was money with two touchdowns as his offense watched on the sideline.
Allow Mendenhall that pride. His defense was that good in 2012. It rose up and performed at the highest level.
Now, to the future.
Mendenhall’s defense should be solid in 2013 again. In the two-and-a-half years since he retook the reigns as BYU's defensive coordinator, the numbers prove he’s on to something. Before Thursday, his defense was No. 2 in rush defense, No. 3 in total defense (behind only Alabama), No. 5 in scoring defense, No. 2 in net punting, No. 3 in third-down percentage defense and No. 1 in red zone efficiency defense.
Little if any changes are expected in those numbers after the bowl season finishes.
Mendenhall’s defense is about the ways and means, style, tradition, effort, intensity and execution. As is written in his book, “Running Against the Wind,” his defensive organization is perfectly designed to get the results it experiences.
But what about his offense?
The 2012 season is the third-straight year in which quarterback injuries and inconsistencies, turnovers, offensive line injuries, issues with pass protection and underwhelming run blocking held BYU back. BYU’s offense, once nationally renowned, will finish about 65th in scoring and 50-something in rushing and total offense.
It appears, it too, is perfectly designed to get the results it is experiencing, to quote chapter and verse.
What it means is Mendenhall has to make some tough decisions in coming weeks. I expect there will be changes on his offensive staff — beyond longtime assistant Lance Reynolds departing. (He announced his retirement to the team after the bowl game Thursday.)
Mendenhall told reporters after the bowl game he intends to grow his program by winning games under more exposure and scrutiny as BYU’s independent schedule becomes more difficult, "which means," as he said, "that I have to continue to develop the program and improve myself and our players to perform on the biggest stages.”
Historically, when it's gotten on the biggest stages, BYU football has deployed extraordinary playmakers at the quarterback position. They're players who lift BYU up to actually compete across the field by making finesse plays, putting up numbers and scoring points. It is a big equalizer. When the Cougars have that, they compete. When they don’t, they can only defeat average opponents.
BYU needs to start another era where that position rises up and dominates. It hasn’t done so since Max Hall, Austin Collie, Dennis Pitta and Harvey Unga left for the NFL.
The past three seasons have been defined by controversial QB time-sharing, QB injuries, playing injured QBs and hoping things work. It's an era best put in the rearview mirror. This year, it all started with BYU's offensive line riddled with surgery and injuries to the point there were not enough players to conduct spring practice scrimmages. Mendenhall and his offensive staff worked hard to set weight and performance standards for the linemen. Some worked. Some did not. BYU’s offense was perfectly set up to be in the thick of thin performances.
“We don’t intend to back away if the competition or the exposure [or pressure] is on members of our coaching staff. We’re increasing the demands because we want more and that’s the direction we’re going,” said Mendenhall last Thursday.
Does this mean there will be more offensive staff changes?
I’d suspect, yes.
One guy on the hot seat is likable, talented, player-loved offensive line coach Mark Weber.
After BYU’s loss to Boise State, Weber’s always affable demeanor with the media changed. He began avoiding interviews, making eye contact, being himself. In other words, pressure, which Weber has experienced in a myriad forms at Oregon State, North Carolina and UCLA came to him at BYU.
This week in San Diego, I bumped into a lawyer from Albuquerque, N.M. named Michael Danoff. He knew SDSU coach Rocky Long and Mendenhall when they coached at New Mexico. He knew Mark Weber as a UCLA coach who recruited and signed his son to play for the Bruins. He loves all three men.
For more than an hour in the plaza at Old Town in San Diego, we talked of the men we both knew. They included Rick Majerus, Roger Reid and his sons, Mendenhall, Long and Weber — to mention only a few of dozens.
As our bored wives wandered in opposite directions, Danoff and I stood our ground. It was remarkable that we knew so many of the same faces and stories behind them. We both agreed on Weber; he is a great guy.
“Mark told me BYU was the best job he’s ever had,” said Danoff. “It is the only coaching job he’s ever had where his family time was respected and valued. He loves it there.”
I told him how Weber was always good to interview and very accommodating until about a month into this season, and then he wasn’t the same jovial guy.
We speculated whether Weber would return to BYU next year.
That remains to be seen.
What is obvious is BYU’s offense needs an overhaul. It needs what Mendenhall’s defense is drinking — and probably some different servers. Certainly an element of it is injuries to the line, but a chunk of it is recruiting and revolving missionary service.
And yes, it is true, BYU could have won 11 or 12 games if it had made eight or so more plays. But the dilemma is, how do you design a product on offense to get more of those plays?
Mendenhall could replace only one or two offensive staffers, or he could replace them all. Of the two extremes, I think Mendenhall will do a facelift on that side of the ball in coming weeks.
For those who expect coordinator Brandon Doman to be fired, I wouldn’t bet that to happen.
But to not do something is to set his offense up to be perfectly designed to produce the same results in 2013 — games where Mendenhall’s defense rushes in with lifelines and life rafts just like they did in San Diego. Like they did throughout 2012.
That is not a picture BYU’s ESPN partner expected in this Cougar run at independence.
To re-quote Mendenhall: “We’re increasing the demands, because we want more.”
It will be interesting to see what changes he is willing to make to get more.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.