2012 football season review

(Photo by Jon Hardy/BYU)

PROVO, Utah -- A dominant defense led BYU to its seventh winning season in as many years as the BYU football team finished the 2012 season with eight wins, a program-best fourth bowl victory and the No. 3 defense in the nation.

With an 8-5 record, BYU claimed its sixth season with at least eight wins under Bronco Mendenhall’s eight-year head coaching tenure. Mendenhall (more wins, number of teams facts)

The story in 2012 was the Cougars stingy defense. Incredibly consistent all year long, BYU finished the year ranked No. 3 in total defense, allowing just 266.1 yards per game. In fact, the Cougars ended the season ranked in the top four in six defensive categories.

BYU was No. 1 in third down conversions allowed (26.52 percent), No. 2 in rushing yards allowed (86.92 ypg), No. 2 in red zone conversions allowed (64.29 percent), No. 3 in scoring defense (14.0 ppg) and No. 4 in first downs allowed (14.7 per game).

An up and down season filled with injuries, changes and dramatic finishes sent BYU to the San Diego Country Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl to face off against former conference foe San Diego State.

Trailing 6-3 heading into the fourth quarter, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and the BYU defense took matters into their own hands. Van Noy sacked Aztec quarterback Adam Dingwell, stripping the ball and recovering it in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.

The defense wasn’t done yet, on the Aztecs first play of the next possession Dingwell fumbled and Jordan Johnson recovered. Running back Jamaal Williams took it 14 yards for the first and only offensive touchdown of the game, giving BYU a 16-6 lead.

Just to be sure, Van Noy sealed the win with an interception and returned it 17 yards for a score, his second touchdown of the game, to give BYU a 23-6 bowl win. Van Noy was named the defensive MVP with eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception, one blocked kick and two touchdowns.

Many expected Van Noy, a junior, to declare for the NFL Draft after such a dominating performance but the Reno, Nev. announced he would return for the 2013 season a few weeks later.

Van Noy finished the season No. 2 in the nation with 13.0 sacks and No. 4 in tackles for loss with 22.0. He was also the only player in the nation to record a statistic in every major defensive category for the second-straight season.

Van Noy earned All-America honors from CBSSports.com (2nd team), Associated Press (3rd team), Phil Steele (3rd team) and SI.com (honorable mention).

BYU had three additional players earn All-America honors including punter Riley Stephenson, wide receiver Cody Hoffman and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah.

Stephenson finished 2012 No. 2 in punting average and the most punts inside the 20 yard line and No. 2 in punts of 50 or more yards. Stephenson had six punts inside the 20 vs. SDSU in the Poinsettia Bowl, including boots downed at the 16, 9, 5, 2 and two at the one-yard line.

Hoffman exploded in 2012 with 100 catches for 1,248 yards and 11 touchdowns. The junior was just the third player in school history to log 100 receptions in a single season and his 1,248 yards marked the second-most in school history behind Austin Collie in 2008 (1,538). Hoffman had eight games with at least 100 receiving yards including a 12 reception, 182 yard performance with a program-record five touchdown catches vs. New Mexico State.

When lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna went down with an injury Ansah stepped into the starting role and never looked back. He recorded 62 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. “Ziggy” also notched nine pass breakups, six quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and one interception.

Ansah grew into one of the best stories of college football in 2012. A 6-foot-6, 270-pound former track athlete from Ghana walked onto the football team in 2010 and is now projected to be an NFL first-round draft pick with his incredible combination of size and speed.

En route to the eighth-straight bowl game under Mendenhall, the Cougars battled through a unique and challenging schedule. BYU opened the season against an enigma in Washington State, led by BYU alum Mike Leach, carrying his pedigree of high-powered offenses into LaVell Edwards Stadium for a Thursday evening, opening-night matchup.

The blue Cougars of BYU dominated the game from start to finish, sending Wazzou home with a 30-6 loss, holding WSU without a touchdown. It was the first time in XX years a Mike Leach coached team hadn’t gotten into the end zone.

BYU’s defense set the tone for the entire season with a performance to remember, allowing just 224 total yards. Meanwhile the home Cougars’ offense rolled with senior Riley Nelson completing 25 of 36 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Kaneakua Friel caught six passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns.

The Cougars kept the opening-season momentum into a 45-13 romp of in-state FCS foe Weber State the next week but an second-quarter back injury to Nelson would change the feel the rest of the 2012 season.

Playing through broken vertebrae Nelson and BYU nearly completed another memorable comeback against Utah the following week at Rice-Eccles Stadium in one of the wildest college football games of the year.

After falling behind 24-7 in the fourth quarter the Cougars got a score with a seven-yard run from Jamaal Williams then Friel caught a 1-yard toss with under four minutes to go to make it interesting at 24-21. BYU’s defense got the stop they needed and got the ball back with 1:11 to go from the Cougars’ eight-yard line.

On a 4th-and-12 from the BYU 19-yard line Nelson heaved a 47-yard bomb to Cody Hoffman to set the Cougars up at the Utah 34.

In incomplete pass to JD Falslev fell to the turf as time was thought to be expired and the Utah fans rushed the field, only to be forced off by officials as one second was placed on the clock. BYU lined up for a 51-yard field goal from Justin Sorensen and had it blocked, sending the Utah fans into an on-field frenzy again.

Not one to give up, JD Falslev picked up the blocked ball and continued to run as the ball was still live. Officials threw a flag on Utah due to their fans rushing the field during play, giving the Cougars another chance at a 36-yard field goal. This time Stephenson went for the try but the kick hit the upright, ending in a heartbreaking 24-21 loss.

The following week was another heartbreaker in a 7-6 loss in an epic defensive battle with No. 24 Boise State.

Despite five turnovers including a pick-six for the Broncos only touchdown, BYU found itself in it until the end. Freshman Taysom Hill took over for Nelson and his ailing back in the fourth quarter and led BYU on a 95-yard touchdown drive. The Cougars elected to go for two and the win but the pass was batted down in the end zone to end hopes of another thrilling win.

Hill started the next two games while Nelson recovered and went 2-0 in his stint before suffering a knee injury. Against Hawai’i, Hill did his damage on the ground and in the air, rushing for 143 yards and one touchdown while throwing for 112 and two more scores. Williams also ran for 155 and two touchdowns in his first game as the main ball carrier after Michael Alisa broke an arm early in the game. The Cougars rushed for a season-best 396 yards in a 47-0 win over the Warriors.

After pitching a shutout, BYU’s defense continued its stingy trend against the Aggies of Utah State in another defensive gem, this time a 6-3 win for the Cougars. BYU held the eventual WAC champs to just 243 total yards and only 41 yards on the ground. It was the third game in a row the defense had not allowed an offensive touchdown.

The Cougars got all the offense they needed in a 25-second drive at the end of the first half. Hill hit Hoffman three times in a row and then tossed a six-yarder to Falslev for the only touchdown. The game ended with the Cougars on top but Hill was injured in the final seconds of the game with a hit to the knee, ending the freshman’s promising season.

BYU faced two top-10 teams the following two weeks in No. 10 Oregon State and No. 5 Notre Dame. Unfortunately the Cougars were tied or leading in both games heading into the fourth quarter but suffered defeat in both contests.

In the first game in school history when the team wore special all-black uniforms, BYU went into the fourth quarter with a 21-21 tie with the unbeaten Beavers with a healthy Nelson back in the lineup but the defense struggled for the first time in the season, having trouble with Oregon State’s speedy receivers.

A tipped pass falling into the hands of an OSU receiver for a score, a pass popped up in the air by Ross Apo landing in the arms of a streaking Beaver defensive back for a pick-six ended hopes of an upset in a 42-24 loss.

BYU went into South Bend looking to upset another undefeated team and led the Fighting Irish 14-10 in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame’s ground game was too much, wearing down the Cougars for 270 rushing yards and an eventual 17-14 loss for BYU.

A road trip to Georgia Tech to face the spread option was the remedy the Cougars needed to bounce back. BYU stymied the Yellow Jacket attack, putting together one of the best defensive performannces of the year in a 41-17 victory.

The Cougars held Georgia Tech to season lows in scoring, rushing yards and total yards and got back to their ways of not allowing any offensive touchdowns.

Williams was the offensive story, scoring four touchdowns to lead BYU. The freshman ran 28 times for 107 yards and three scores, catching three passes for 54 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown.

BYU rolled Idaho 52-13 on senior night with Nelson tossing three touchdowns and fellow senior quarterback James Lark throwing another. The Cougars then headed to San Jose State to face an underrated Spartan team.

BYU was downed by San Jose State 20-14 after falling behind early and then having hopes ended of another comeback when a blitzing linebacker had an open hit on Nelson’s blindside in the final minute, forcing a fumble to take the ball back and the win. Nelson was injured again on the play.

Lark started the final regular season game against New Mexico State, his first career start, and made the most of it,  throwing for 384 yards and six touchdowns, five going to Hoffman. BYU rolled to a 50-14 win, ending the regular season 7-5.

After another bowl victory, the 8-5 Cougars had put together another memorable season with several playmakers on both sides of the football in addition to the All-America honorees, Van Noy, Stephenson, Hoffman and Ansah.

BYU also had 15 first and second team selections on Phil Steele’s All-Independent teams and seven FBS All-Independent honorees.

Linebacker Brandon Ogletree led the team in tackles for the second-straight year, rallying for 102 takedowns and 13.5 tackles for loss.

Also on the defensive side Spencer Hadley and Uona Kaveinga manned one of the nation’s best linebacking crews and combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.

On offense, 17-year old freshman Jamaal Williams ending up having a huge impact on the season. Junior Michael Alisa went down with a broken arm and Williams stepped into the spotlight against Hawai’i, rushing for 155 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries.

Williams set a new rushing record for true freshman at BYU with 166 carries, 775 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also caught 27 passes for 315 yards and one touchdown.