PROVO — Long nights and early mornings. Little sleep, lots of work, film sessions through blurry, tired eyes, then on to team meetings and practice. All of that registered on the face of ever-smiling BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer Wednesday.
BYU, 1-2, seeks a win — any win. And it won’t be any easier Saturday with No. 10 Wisconsin coming to town.
Detmer’s been here before. In 1991 as BYU's QB, he faced a September that became a horror show. A year ago, in his first season as BYU's BYU’s O-coordinator, he endured a 1-3 start.
And those experiences are helping his staff and offensive players deal with back-to-back losses to LSU and Utah heading into the game with the Badgers.
Detmer knows there are no easy fixes, cheat sheets or magic fairy dust. All that remains is hard work for an offense chugging along among the worst in Division I. BYU is averaging 11 points per game and has totaled just 695 net yards through three games.
“All the coaches take it hard,” Detmer said of the team's quest for more touchdowns.
“It’s getting up early and staying late, trying to find solutions,” he said.
Back in 1991, after he’d won the Heisman Trophy, Detmer had lost star players like Matt Bellini, Chris Smith and other weapons, and was breaking in a pair of young players coming off LDS Church missions named Mark Atuaia and Itula Mili. He was also facing a schedule created by somebody with a cruel sense of humor.
That year, the Cougars started off 0-3 yet went on to win the WAC and played Iowa in the Holiday Bowl. It was a season that included the NCAA’s highest scoring tie game in history, a 52-52 draw against Marshall Faulk and San Diego State, an ESPN classic.
But that September was a killer. BYU opened against the mighty Florida State Seminoles, who featured future nine-year NFL running back Amp Lee. That was a 44-28 blowout in which Bobby Bowden took it easy on his buddy LaVell Edwards.
The next game was at UCLA, where the Bruins won 27-23, followed by a trip to the opposite coast to play Joe Paterno and Penn State. The Nittany Lions won 33-7. Despair ruled Cougardom.
BYU then turned things around.
In today’s setting, Detmer isn’t working with a Heisman QB, but he does have a challenge similar to what he experienced in 1991.
His offense doesn’t have what former Cougar and NFL QB John Beck says is a receiver with an 80-catch season or a running back who has gained 800 yards or a tight end who has caught 60 passes in a season.
“This offense doesn’t have that hands-on knowledge and experience and players are seeing things for the first time,” said Beck. “They’re learning on the fly. They need to see it to fix it, experience it to know it.”
“Coach Detmer has brought up that 1991 season all the time the past few weeks,” said tight ends coach Steve Clark. “He’s tried to use it to teach and help players understand what they are going through.”
Said Detmer: “It’s a constant work for coaches to work on what we can do to get guys better, to help them. As an independent, the schedule is going to be front loaded, there isn’t time to take a breath or rest. It’s all about needing to play at a high level right now.”
Detmer said some veteran players experienced last year's 1-3 start and understand. “It’s helping the younger guys to not get down, focus a little bit more, work a little bit harder. We’re not playing Pop Warner, we’re playing to win games.”
In the meantime, BYU’s offense is running to beat time. It is cramming every minute into making a turnaround. It’s like a caged hamster running the wire wheel. Junior QB Tanner Mangum is banged up and may or may not play, a possibility no BYU coach is confirming or denying.
And now comes mighty Wisconsin and a national TV date on ABC.