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Why does BYU football rack up so many penalties?

The Cougars tend to commit a lot of penalties, which is curious for a school with special conduct requirements. But do they play dirty?

Jay Drowns

BYU's 33-25 victory over Houston on Thursday night was not a well-played football game, but the game did have one redeeming factor: It had pretty much everything. There was a safety, a hail mary, an ejection, a near-ejection, a group of missed field goals, poor clock management and sprinkled in between, there were some nice Taysom Hill highlights.

But really, this game was far closer than it should have been, and that might be due in part to how BYU played. Among 10 other penalties, Bronco Mendenhall's team got a personal foul penalty in the Houston red zone when a player fell on quarterback John O'Korn.

And a personal foul that really could have been elevated to a targeting penalty extended a drive. The Cougars also had another big hit that was initially ruled targeting, but the penalty and ejection were overturned:

On offense, center Tejan Koroma was ejected for throwing an air punch. That questionable ejection and the near-ejection could be considered evidence that officials are on high alert during BYU games.

All in all, BYU racked up 98 yards' worth of flags. That's a high total, but it's only two yards per game above the Cougars' average. They rank 120th nationally in that category, and this year is no fluke. They ranked 114th last year and haven't ranked among the 50 least-penalized since 2009.

Given all the flags and all the big hits, a discussion began to emerge: Is BYU a dirty team?

To a lot of people, that doesn't make sense. The Cougars have a strict honor code, and off the field, they're highly disciplined. Other schools that fit that mantra, like the service academies, are generally among the least-penalized teams in the country.

Apparently, that's by design. Rather than focusing on limiting penalties, Mendenhall told the Deseret News that he wants his teams "on the edge of playing within the rules."

"When I've seen BYU play at its best, the teams I've watched in the past, they are physically dominant, they are very tough. They are on the edge of playing within the rules because they are so aggressive."

The penalties don't necessarily mean that BYU players are coached to be dirty. A better explanation is that Mendenhall coaches his players to play barely within the rules, understanding that a slip-up might occur and cause an illegal play, whereas other coaches might tell their players to be more conservative, so they wouldn't be as likely to be penalized.

From a competitive standpoint, that's not necessarily a bad strategy. There's not much of a correlation between penalties and success (or lack thereof), and the Cougars have maintained a stout defense, even in years they've been penalized a lot. The penalties don't really show a lack of discipline — rather, they show Mendenhall's accepted the consequences of aggression.