PROVO — Losing streaks are tough to fight through.
They’re like wrestling in a fishing net — kicking, poking, swinging for space, an opening.
BYU has had its share — but thankfully not too many — of these losing streaks during the past 50 years. The current one stands at five straight losses, after setbacks to LSU, Utah, Wisconsin, Utah State and Boise State.
It’s a nightmare head coach Kalani Sitake wants to end.
This is the stage where coaches look at changes of direction. Some schools fire people. Some shake up lineups. Some shift staff members around and play musical chairs.
BYU is not firing anybody and no one is expected to resign. But I predict Sitake will make some changes with personnel on and off the field immediately and some new faces will be given chances to prove themselves as he shifts to develop talent for 2018.
Of late, BYU football has had two seasons in which it ran into four-game losing streaks. Both were under Bronco Mendenhall. The first came in 2014 in losses to Utah State, Central Florida, Nevada and Boise State. The other came in 2010 with consecutive losses to Air Force, Florida State, Nevada and Utah State.
Common hurdles? One can make the case.
Here is a look at BYU losing streaks over the past 50 years and the QB situation during those seasons.
2014: Taysom Hill, Christian Stewart
In 2014 BYU’s skid followed an injury to quarterback Taysom Hill against Utah State. Hill was injured late in the first half against USU, fracturing his left leg after being tackled from behind on a scramble out of the pocket. Christian Stewart, a former walk-on who left BYU to play at Snow College and then returned, replaced Hill and offensive coordinator Robert Anae had to redesign the offense to fit Stewart’s strengths. He got his first career start in a loss at Central Florida and the Cougars lost the next two in a row, stretching the losing streak to four.
2010: Jake Heaps, Riley Nelson
The 2010 season kicked off with Anae splitting time between Jake Heaps and USU transfer Riley Nelson against Washington, a 23-17 win. The two-headed QB experiment worked as the pair combined to complete 24 of 40 passes. The next week at Air Force, Anae benched Heaps after a 2-for-6 passing start for the more agile Nelson to add a spark. The Falcons rallied for a 35-14 win. An injured Nelson could not perform the next week at Florida State and Heaps was thrown in against the ACC traditional power, a 34-10 loss.
Heaps started the next two games, losses to Nevada and USU, which led to Mendenhall's decision to fire defensive coordinator Jaime Hill. Heaps helped rally BYU past San Diego State, 24-21, the next week, a game where Mendenhall took over the defense and said was a turning point in his program.
2003: Matt Berry, John Beck, Todd Mortensen, Lance Pendleton, Jackson Brown
You’d have to go back to Gary Crowton’s 2003 season to see a BYU team have another 1-5 losing stretch and this came at the end of a circus season for QBs.
In 2003 the Cougars beat UNLV for the only win in their final six games. The streak included losses to CSU, Wyoming, Boise State, Notre Dame and Utah. That was a season similar to this current one with tough opponents like USC and Notre Dame on the road and Stanford in Provo.
In 2003 Crowton started the season with Matt Berry at quarterback but brought in freshman returned LDS missionary John Beck to replace Berry in the season-opening win over Georgia Tech. In Beck’s first collegiate play against GT, he was sacked for 10 yards. On his second play, he fumbled the ball and the Cougars recovered. On the third play, his first-ever college pass, he threw an interception.
Crowton ended up using Beck, Mortensen and Lance Pendleton and recycled Berry later in the season. It was the worst season in decades for BYU, a 40-year low for the program.
If BYU’s ever had an expert on what it's like to break in QBs, be thrust into the fray, break in new coordinators and quarterback coaches on the fly in both the NFL and college, it is Beck, now a passing guru in Southern California.
“Until you are in Ty Detmer’s shoes, you know nothing,” said Beck. “Until you know what was counted on and schemed for, you know nothing.”
He was referencing August injuries to Ula Tolutau and wide receiver-turned-tight-end Moroni Laulu-Pututau, key building blocks of a pro-style offense that was to feature the Laulu-Pututau-Matt Bushman combo. Bushman is currently the Cougars' leading receiving.
“When you start losing pieces that were the shape you were beginning to have, it completely changes things,” he said.
Part of that was losing Tanner Mangum in BYU’s third game against Utah.
“I say it’s like someone sculpting a piece of art and they have a specific rock to work with," Beck continued. "As he starts chipping off pieces to create the shape, he hits a vein with his chisel, something he didn’t anticipate and a big chunk of rock falls off.
“Well, guess what, the original piece of art can’t be done and now the artist has to decide what he’s going to do with what is left. That is what these guys have been doing right now with what is left. That is the hardest thing to do.
“People don’t give that consideration and want to hold an offense to the same standard as if a big chunk had never fallen off the rock.”
The common thread in 2003, 2010 and 2014 losing streaks was the same: injuries and other challenges at the QB position. Over four decades, BYU has proven it is at its best when a talented playmaker is healthy and is able to finesse the passing game past more talented, deeper opponents. When that fragile balance is shaken, it usually proves costly.
Jackson Brown came in a 3-0 loss to Utah when all other quarterbacks were injured.
2000: Bret Engemann, Charlie Peterson, Brandon Doman
In LaVell Edwards' last season (2000), BYU started 1-3 but finished 6-6 with a win at Utah, Edwards' final game. It started off with a loss against Florida State with Brett Engemann as the starter, who appeared poised for a big year after leading BYU to 38-straight second-half points in a win at Virginia in the second game of the season.
This was a team that had future Doak Walker Award winner Luke Staley in the backfield along with Brian McDonald, Marcus Whalen and Kalani Sitake. It had Margin Hooks and Jonathan Pittman as receivers and future NFL tight end Doug Jolley. It was a staff that had Robbie Bosco as QB coach and veteran coaches Lance Reynolds and Roger French as co-offensive coordinators.
But a season-ending knee injury in a loss at Syracuse finished Engemann’s career and Edwards then turned to Charlie Peterson for most of the work until Brandon Doman ended up finishing the season with big plays in wins at New Mexico and Utah. Still, it was 6-6 and folks were frustrated as a new era arrived.
The last time BYU lost five consecutive games spanned two seasons, two losses at the end of Ty Detmer’s Heisman season (Hawaii, Texas A&M) and then losses in the first three games of Detmer’s senior season (Florida State on a neutral site, and at UCLA and Penn State). Detmer had just lost top targets Matt Bellini and Chris Smith to graduation.
Losing streaks have been rare at BYU the past 45 years, but they’ve come.
In Edwards' second season (1973), BYU got off to a 1-5 start with losses to CSU, USU, Iowa State, ASU and Wyoming with a win over Oregon State. That year Edwards’ team finished 5-6, his only losing season, a time he was trying to invent a revolutionary new offense in Provo.
1970: Rick Jones, Dave Coon, Don Griffin
As chronicled over the weekend, BYU’s current five-game losing streak has equaled the last “in-season” five-game skid since 1970 under coach Tommy Hudspeth. After an opening win over North Texas State, the Cougars lost to Western Michigan, UTEP, SDSU, Arizona and ASU before a win over USU. While the starting QB was Rick Jones, then offensive coordinator Dave Kragthorpe used Dave Coon in the first game and three quarterbacks, Jones, Coon and Don Griffin in the loss to Western Michigan. He repeated that in a loss to SDSU.
One of the strangest successful QB merry-go-round seasons in BYU history was 1992, an 8-4 campaign. BYU started the year with John Walsh, who got hurt against UCLA and was replaced by Texas recruit Steve Clements, who got hurt and was replaced by baseball pitcher Ryan Hancock, who had a season-ending ACL injury after a sideline hit at Utah. He was replaced by Tom Young, who started in the Aloha Bowl, a loss to Kansas. So, one could say, you can go through four QBs in a season and still have a decent record.
1968: Marc Lyons, Rick Jones, Terry Sanford
You have to go back to 1968 to see a situation like the one BYU is potentially facing year — a possible seven-game losing streak. That team went 2-8. After winning at Western Michigan, the Cougars dropped seven in a row to Iowa State, Wyoming, Arizona, UTEP, Utah, USU and Arizona State.
Marc Lyons was BYU’s starter the first four games of that 1968 but when he fumbled against Arizona and wasn’t playing well, he was told that backup Rick Jones would start the next game against UTEP. “I was told they’d let him start and throw a few long passes and then I’d be in. That never happened. He played the entire game,” said Lyons.
Jones (42 of 129) and Lyons (66 of 157) traded playing time that season and had similar statistics. Terry Sanford (5 of 15) also played until he got a concussion — then he quit to play baseball.
“We thought we would win every game,” said Lyons.
Lyons is now a color analyst for BYU games on KSL Radio. He met seven of his 1968 teammates at the BYU-Wisconsin game a few weeks ago and asked them if any believed they would lose a game that season, “Everyone told me, no, they believed we’d win every time,” said Lyons.
2017: Tanner Mangum, Beau Hoge, Koy Detmer Jr., Joe Critchlow, Austin Kafentzis
Heading into a tough road trip to LSU-killer Mississippi State in Starkville this Saturday, BYU has Tanner Mangum back in the lineup but freshman Joe Critchlow is expected to be firmly placed as his backup. If Mangum isn’t effective on his injured ankle, Critchlow could replace him in that game.
Beau Hoge and Detmer were banged up in the Utah State game. Hoge is out indefinitely and Detmer possibly is out for at least another week. Austin Kafentzis could see time in a wildcat formation as seen the past few games.
Hoge's start ignited BYU to a 21-7 lead against the Aggies, 14 of that from an offense tweaked and designed for Hoge’s read-option capabilities. Until he was injured, Hoge had thrown a pick, but he also was completing drives and moving the chains, something BYU struggled to do in previous games.
A 1-5 start with five straight losses? This is where the Cougars stand heading to SEC country as Sitake scrambles for angles and daylight to kill the streak.
If you look at losing streaks at this school, there are two familiar threads every time: one is scheduling, the other is QB shuffling. “The quarterback and center are the only positions that cannot be replaced by somebody else on the field every play," says Lyons. "This makes their play crucial and struggles and injuries costly."
Scott Taylor contributed to this article.