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Keys to BYU’s 2006 Bowl Hopes

For the first time since 2001, BYU appears to be as loaded on offense as they were during Lavell Edwards’ heyday.  The program is experiencing a resurgence of confidence led by Bronco Mendenhall, a youthful, second-year head coach who holds his troops accountable to some of the highest off-the-field standards in the country thanks to the university’s student honor code.  The Cougars managed to avert a fourth straight losing season in 2005 with Mendenhall guiding them to a 6-5 regular season record, second place in the MWC, and a bowl bid.

Not many critics gave the Cougars a chance against a veteran, top-ten ranked Cal defensive unit in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, but the Bears had their hands full as BYU became the only team to mount two 80-yard plus scoring drives on them last season.  With just a few minutes remaining in the game, BYU was driving inside Cal territory for the tying touchdown when QB John Beck was picked off.

Although that game ended 35-28 in Cal’s favor, BYU is anxious to build on that effort heading into 2006.  Never before has the BCS looked so inviting in the preseason to the Cougar faithful, many of whom believe the Cougars can run the table this year by outscoring their opponents.  While a BCS berth is certainly within the realm of possibility this year, it is rather unlikely with the defense making a transition from a 3-3-5 scheme to a 3-4, and a young, untested front line.

BYU should contend for the MWC title and give fits to every defensive unit they encounter this year, but two road games against BCS opponents might easily take a little wind out of the Cougar sails early in the season.  An increasingly dangerous Arizona Wildcat team will have first taste of Brigham Young this year in their home lair, followed by Boston College two weeks later.  Both games will be nationally televised, on TBS and ESPN2, respectively.  Look for the Cougars to make both games close and exciting before they turn their attention toward winning the conference and securing another bowl berth.

Following are five keys to BYU making a successful challenge against TCU and Utah for the MWC title this year:

  1. Avoid/Minimize injuries.

Easier said than done.  As much as luck is involved, this also has a lot to do with strength and conditioning in the preseason, and preventing minor ankle, hamstring, and shoulder injuries from festering into season-ending ones during the regular season.  Some coaches lay off heavy scrimmages in the middle of the week as the season wears on.  USC’s legendary coach John McKay never allowed his players have serious contact between the last regular season game and their nearly annual Rose Bowl appointment, explaining, “If they don’t know how to hit by now, they never will.”  BYU doesn’t have the veteran depth they would like at several positions, most notably at cornerback, receiver and the defensive line, so they have to stay healthy to remain competitive deep into the regular season.  Just one day into their August camp, the Cougars have lost promising Louisville transfer cornerback Brandon Bradley to a season ending knee injury.  The players the Cougars can least afford to lose this year, based on depth: QB John Beck, any of the defensive backs, and any defensive lineman who proves to be a real showstopper.

  1. Get veteran-like performances from a very young, inexperienced D-line.

It’s no secret BYU’s defensive strength is in its solid linebacker corps, hence Bronco Mendenhall’s change from his trademark 3-3-5 to a 3-4 setup this year.  The linebackers need to play mistake-free and help the youngsters on the D-line gain quick confidence in their capabilities.  At least one of the incoming freshmen or juco transfers has to step up and assume a starting role.  Don’t think it can’t be done.  Haloti Ngata started as a freshman at Oregon a few years back and gained all-conference honors for his play.  The Cougar defensive backfield is not what you would call a “strength,” by any stretch of the imagination, but if they can remain healthy, and the D-line can create enough consistent pressure on the opposing QB, they are athletic enough to provide adequate coverage.  If the D-line cannot deliver, the floodgates will be wide open and the pressure on the offense will be enormous.

  1. Manage the Schedule Effectively.

Shame on the MWC for allowing TCU a 12-day prep time for their conference home opener vs. BYU, while the Cougars have less than five days to prepare for the Horned Frogs on the road.  Road games don’t come tougher than that.  Bronco and his staff will need to be creative in resting and prepping the team for TCU on the road, while not allowing Utah State to sneak into Edwards Stadium and snatch an upset victory.   Another challenging spot on the schedule comes with back-to-back road games in Colorado vs. Air Force on October 28 and Colorado State on November 4.  There are also two stretches where battle weary and wounded Cougars can heal:  They’ll have two weeks off after the October 7 home game vs. SDSU and a 9-day break following a November 9 home game vs. Wyoming.  One non-conference game that must not be underestimated is the September 9 home opener vs. a wily Tulsa team that is sandwiched between the Arizona and B.C. road contests.

  1. Special teams need to become a positive factor.

Ask Texas coach Mack Brown or Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer how important special teams are.   They’ll tell you it’s impossible to even challenge for their own conference titles without a top notch special teams unit.  In fact, Beamer even insists on handling the special teams for the Hokies himself.  Special teams play is an element of the game that can quickly swing momentum in your favor.  BYU hasn’t fielded an all-round terrific special teams unit since the 14-1 team back in 1996.  Take a look at the Cougar coaching staff assignments on their official team website and you won’t find a designated special teams coach.  Hopefully, that means Mendenhall is pulling a Beamer and personally handling the special teams from now on.  With the offensive firepower BYU can field this year, a solid kicking game and a bevy of clutch turnovers by the defensive special teams will go a long way in helping make up for some of the points the defense is sure to yield.

  1. Win the games you are expected to win.

In the words of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s famous blue collar ballad, it’s called “Takin’ Care of Business.”  If the Cougars can do this, at the very least, they’ll be 8-4 and bowling at the end of the year.  Add road wins at TCU and Utah and they’ll be 10-2 and MWC champs.  Win ‘em all and they’ll secure that coveted BCS slot, for sure.  Improbable early season road wins vs. Arizona and Boston College could make for a very giddy Cougar Nation, but if that happens, BYU needs to make sure they don’t have any letdowns in the games they are expected to win.  All too often in the Crowton years, the Blue and White coughed up humiliating losses to inferior opponents like UNLV and Wyoming when they should have been slam-dunk, straight deposits into the win column.

UCLA’s 1976 Rose Bowl Champs Reunite

For the past fifty years, like clockwork, Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, has honored the two elite college football teams who have earned the right to compete in the annual Rose Bowl Game with a feast fit for royalty known as the Lawry’s Beef Bowl. The Sporting News calls it the “Best Tradition” among all the bowl games.

This summer, the 1976 Rose Bowl Champion UCLA Bruins created their own sort of time machine, turning back the clock 30 years to reunite and raise a toast to each other at Lawry’s in honor of their monumental bowl game upset over Woody Hayes’ top ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

To refresh your memory, the 1976 Rose Bowl Game pitted the 17-point underdog Bruins against an undefeated Buckeye squad that had already whipped UCLA 41-20 earlier in the season. However, behind the combination of Dick Vermeil’s coaching, near-flawless execution of his offensive strategies, and a relentless, opportunistic defense, UCLA prevailed over Ohio State in convincing fashion, 23-10, thus handing the national championship to the Oklahoma Sooners by default.

So, that was the honey-glory that attracted former Bruin players, coaches, pep squad and administrators back to the hive in Westwood where they filled up two buses before heading over to Lawry’s to celebrate the pinnacle achievement of that Cinderella season.  As the buses rolled up to the traditional red carpet “walk of champions” at Lawry’s, they were greeted by present day Bruin cheerleaders and UCLA band members heralding their arrival with the school fight song.

The improbability of that Rose Bowl victory three decades ago cannot help but draw comparisons to the current state of UCLA football. Prior to that magical season, the Bruins had posted respectable win-loss records of 8-3, 9-2, and 6-3-2, over a three-year period. Meanwhile, cross-town rival USC won the Pac-8 title and earned the right to compete in the coveted Rose Bowl Game each of those seasons, with all three games deciding or factoring into the outcome of the national championship.

Contrast that with the past three years, where UCLA fielded competitive teams that made three straight bowl appearances (Silicon Valley Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, and Sun Bowl) while the Trojans dominated the Pac-10, and played for a piece of the national championship all three years, twice in the Rose Bowl and once in the Orange Bowl.

Is it possible for the 2006 version of UCLA Bruins football to pull off the improbable this season by ending USC’s current stranglehold on the conference title and earn an appearance in the Rose Bowl Game?

John Sciarra, former Bruin quarterback and one of the stars of the 1976 Rose Bowl Game, thinks that it’s possible, but more than likely another year away.

“USC is certainly vulnerable on offense with the loss of Bush, White, Leinart, and three linemen, but their defense will be as solid as ever, and that’s one of the three keys to winning championships in football,” says Sciarra. “You have to play great defense, run the ball effectively, and create turnovers with your special teams.”

From his perspective, Sciarra feels USC still holds the edge on paper, with recent recruiting classes keeping them ahead of the pack in overall talent. Still, he doesn’t see the Trojans’ quarterback situation being a difference maker like it has the past few years with Leinart at the helm. If redshirt sophomore Ben Olson can live up to the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders, and the Bruin defense can keep USC’s big play offense off-balance and hungering for possession time, UCLA just might have a shot at the upset.

“That’s what made the difference for us back in 1975,” recalls Sciarra. “Our defense played their best two games of the year against USC and Ohio State. Without those stellar performances from our D, there wouldn’t be a conference championship or a historic Rose Bowl victory, period.”

Sciarra believes this year will be the turning point for the Bruins’ return to glory. Citing their 8-game winning streak at the start of last season, coupled with the lessons they learned in the two blow-out road losses to Arizona and USC last year, he expects a bowl appearance and a shift in the recruiting wars that will start bringing local talent back to Westwood.

“Karl [Dorrell] led UCLA over the edge last year and his players believe they can win now,” says Sciarra. “The team developed a lot of character during the course of winning five come-from-behind games last season. I’m really excited to see how they perform this year with an improved defense and new faces at the skill positions. I think the tide is turning in their favor.”

When asked to share some of his favorite gridiron recollections stemming from the 1976 Rose Bowl victory, the former Canadian Football League Rookie of the Year (B.C. Lions, 1976) and six-year NFL vet (Philadelphia Eagles) didn’t hesitate to pull a couple memories out of his bag.

The week after the Rose Bowl Game, John and fellow Bruin Randy Cross were on their way to Hawaii to play in the Hula Bowl.  When they arrived at the airport, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer was there to personally greet them, complete with island beauties placing the traditional leis around their necks. Thanks to the windfall national title Oklahoma gained from UCLA’s win over Ohio State, Sciarra and Cross were treated like kings that week by Switzer and his staff.

“To this day, I still have the t-shirt Barry Switzer sent me the week after the Hula Bowl,” says Sciarra. “The note he sent read: ‘As promised, enclosed please find the t-shirt.  Wear it on the beaches of California and you’ll attract all the lovelies.’ The front of the t-shirt says, ‘Oklahoma Sooners, 1975 National Champions,’ and the back reads: ‘Thank you John Sciarra and the UCLA Bruins for making this possible.’”

Another powerful moment that lingers in Sciarra’s memory occurred just before the Philadelphia Eagles’ 1981 Super Bowl clash with the Oakland Raiders. Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil invited a special guest to speak to his players.

“Dick introduced [then retired] coach Woody Hayes to the team and we gave him a standing ovation,” recalls Sciarra. “Woody spoke for about an hour and he managed to toss in a few jokes about the 1976 Rose Bowl Game, too. It was a powerful example to see these two great coaches relating with each other away from the game time pressures under which you would normally see them.”