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October 17, 2011

BYU: "Look Ma, I'm Clutch!"

According to one simple statistic, BYU's football team has been playing tremendously clutch in close games as of late. Following the team's final minute victory over Utah State earlier this season, BYU improved to 17 and 2 in their last 19 games decided by seven points or less. Those 19 games include an incredible run of 14 straight close-contest victories, dating from Jonny Harline's game-winner versus Utah in 2006 to last season's final home game, a 25-20 victory over Wyoming. Curious as to how this recent run compared to similar trends in BYU history, I locked myself in the basement with the Cougar Media Guide and went to work analyzing the last 30 years of BYU games decided by seven points or less. Here are my findings.

What won't surprise you is that this 17 and 2 stretch (a win percentage of 89.4%) is indeed the most successful string of clutch performances that BYU has had over the past 30 years. At no other point during that span has there been such a consistent stretch of close game success. Cougar teams had one run from 1994 to 1997 in which they won 14 of 15 (the only streak that topped the 89.4 win percentage), but at best those teams only strung together 9 straight wins in tight games. For comparison, the Max Hall-led Cougars won ten consecutive close games by themselves as part of the overall 17 and 2 record. Steve Young and Robbie Boscoe combined to win 10 of 12 during their careers, including 8 straight at one point, but that as well remains a far cry from 17 of 19.

What may surprise you is that immediately prior to its latest hot streak, BYU was mired in its worst run of close game performances in 30 years, having lost 8 of 9 and 13 of 17 ranging from 2002 to 2006. So what prompted the reversal in close-game fortune? Coaching changes would be one's first thought. After all, Coach Gary Crowton was the Cougars lead man for 8 of those 13 small-margin losses. But Bronco Mendenhall wasn't immediately automatic in close contests either, losing 5 of his first 6 before leading the great turn-around.

When asked about his team's tendency to thrive in close games, Mendenhall answered with his best guess. "You know, I have thought about that a lot, and I don’t think I have a fantastic or very clear answer,” said the coach (via Salt Lake Tribune). “… I guess my theory might be the maturity of our players. It might be their ability to handle maybe the chaotic situations a little bit better. It might be tied to age, it might be tied to life experience, or it might be tied to preparation. But I don’t have a strong enough feel to tell you which one of those it is."

I likewise am curious about the source behind the success, and I’ve found the numbers don't support Bronco's initial guess that maturity may be the determinant. During Mendenhall's coaching tenure, his team's close-game record while led by a junior or senior quarterback is 10 and 6. Meanwhile his teams have gone 8 and 2 in close games when led by a freshman or sophomore quarterback. A second thought was that the difficulty of opponent could be the main factor, especially considering a quick glance shows that the two losses in the 17 and 2 record came against ranked opponents (Utah and Texas). The numbers taken over the 30 year span suggest record is not a factor in close games however. The average win percentage of teams BYU has beaten in close games since 1980 is 52.2%, which is on par with the 52.6 winning percentage of the recent victims.

Location of games played appears equally irrelevant, as the Cougs have gone 8 and 2 on the road and 9 and 0 at home during the streak. Bizarrely, those numbers are not reflective of the Cougar's history, where they've been slightly better in close games on the road (64.8 winning percentage) than at home (59.6 win percentage).

One surprising factor in the team's run of clutch successes might actually be its tendency to lose by large margins against competitive teams. Put simply, you can't fail to deliver in the clutch if your opponent blows you out. Since 2008, there have been a handful of BYU matchups that were assumed to be competitive contests that got quickly out of hand. Losses against TCU and Utah in 2008, Florida State and TCU in 2009, Utah State and Air Force in 2010, and the Ute debacle of four weeks ago are examples of BYU's recent custom of winning dramatically or losing miserably.

In the end, the numbers and reasons behind the Cougar's dominance in close games can be debated. For instance, who can say that a team's record in games decided by seven points is even the greatest indicator of clutch performances? Many of those "supposedly" close games were double digit leads that were made closer by irrelevant, end of game scores. Yet there remains one measurement of clutch performance that Cougar fans can hang their hat on.

Since losing in overtime to Boston College in 2006, BYU has faced six circumstances in which they've had to drive for the winning score at the end of a game. They've won five of them -- at Utah in 06', vs Utah in 07', at CSU in 08', vs Utah in 09' and vs USU in 11' -- with the only loss coming when Utah blocked Mitch Payne's field goal in 2010. Regardless of whether its due to luck or pluck, history is proving you can't leave BYU a shot at a dramatic end of game drive. If you're going up against the Cougars, play it safe and make it a blowout.

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