Last Saturday, about 70 miles northwest of the site of the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral, another sort of Wild West Shootout was supposed to take place between two old WAC rivals. Instead, the BYU Cougars and Arizona Wildcats dueled to the verge of overtime in the windy desert night, shooting several rounds of blanks and poorly aimed shotgun blasts at each other in a low-scoring, mistake-plagued contest. In the end, Arizona emerged with the win, 16-13.

Several things became very apparent in the BYU Cougars’ road loss to the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night. We’ll review the pros and cons under the categories of Self-Destruction, Potential and Wildcard.

Self-Destruction

One thing very clear to the objective observer is that Arizona did not win the game, the Cougars lost it. The final score could have easily been more like 27-16 in favor of BYU. Missed blocking assignments, penalties, fumbles, dropped passes and tentative play calling in critical short-yardage situations all contributed to the lackluster offensive performance.

The biggest disappointment was the offensive line. It was responsible for the failed rushing attack and two-thirds of the penalty yards, especially the critical, drive-killing penalties. Pass protection blocking was adequate — enough to get the job done — but two QB sacks on the Cougars’ last drive of the first half ended up with John Beck fumbling the ball away at midfield.

The bright spot in the running game was Fui Vakapuna, who took it upon himself during one stretch in the fourth quarter to open his own holes and carry would-be tacklers along for the ride. He picked up 20 yards on four carries during the drive, but then didn’t touch the ball for five consecutive plays and the drive stalled. BYU ended up having to settle for a game-tying field goal with 5:31 remaining. Why didn’t the Cougars keep feeding Vakapuna the rock on that drive? In fact, why didn’t they use him earlier in the game? He had one rushing attempt in the entire first half, and didn’t touch the ball again until there was 6:33 remaining in the third quarter.

Speaking of the rushing attack, Curtis Brown is best utilized going wide when he has a lineman pulling in front of him. He has a natural instinct for keying off his pulling blocker and cutting upfield at the right moment. He rarely got the chance versus Arizona, repeatedly getting the call to run between the tackles. Brown, a finesse runner, simply does not have a low enough center of gravity like Vakapuna or Manase Tonga to crunch the middle of the line.

Aside from a fumble and taking a couple sacks when he should have dumped the ball out of bounds, John Beck played well enough to win. As expected, his receivers were unable to go vertical, but the biggest disappointment was their virtually nonexistent yards after catch (YAC). Tight end Johnny Harline had five grabs against a game opening fumble and three significant dropped passes, while Daniel Coats surprised his critics by grabbing everything thrown his way, including a very nice touchdown catch in the first quarter. Beck hooked up with Matt Allen on a touchdown pass early in the third quarter, but it was called back for offensive pass interference on a highly questionable flag.

The Cougars had fourth-and-one situations twice inside the blue zone and instead of going for the first down, they settled for the field goal attempt. What kind of message do those decisions send to your offense? “We don’t trust you to bust your tail and get us the first down?” If Bronco hopes to recapture the glory and spirit of BYU football’s past, he might want to consider the aggressive play calling and risk taking that was the hallmark of Cougar football under LaVell Edwards.

Potential

If the defensive performance in Tucson wasn’t a mirage, BYU fans have a lot to be excited for this year and the MWC title is a real possibility. The offense should correct most of its first game miscues and start putting points on the board consistently. Even if the offense fails to match last year’s scoring average, the Cougar defense could win several games on its own this season against Mountain West opponents.

The linebacking corps is as good as advertised, period. The inexperienced defensive line was the biggest surprise, combining with the ‘backers to neutralize the Wildcat rushing game, except for one missed tackle 54-yard breakaway run that resulted in the ‘Cats’ only touchdown. The d-line youngsters are only going to get better as they gain more game speed experience.

The defensive backfield delivered far more than anticipated, holding Willie Tuitama and his top four returning receivers from last year to 19 completions, 170 total yards and a meager 4.9 yards per attempt. Syndric Steptoe caused the most problems with six grabs for 93 yards — 48 of those coming on one catch in the first half. The Wildcat receiving corps is as tough as the Cougars will see this year. If the secondary can continue to improve with each game, the entire defensive unit has the potential to be one of the best BYU has fielded since the 1996 squad.

Wildcard

Season openers are different from any other game other than bowl contests. The excessive preparation time can drive coordinators crazy trying to figure out how to plan for new alignments and personnel using the prior season’s game tapes. Saturday’s upsets like Montana State’s 19-10 victory over Colorado and UAB’s shockingly close loss on the road at Oklahoma (24-17) illustrate this fact. This game would have been quite a bit different had it been played in the middle of the season.

Don’t let anyone tell you the officiating is better in the BCS conferences. Pac-10 officiating directly resulted in a 10-point turnaround in the outcome of the Arizona game. The TBS play-by-play announcers (under contract to the Pac-10 Conference) even disagreed with officiating after replaying several botched calls, including Matt Allen’s alleged push-off penalty that negated his touchdown reception.

However, the bottom line is, you have to take care of business and control the scoreboard so a random bad call or two by the officials will not determine the outcome of the game. Remember how the Cougars got burned on the no-fumble call at the goal line in overtime against TCU last year?