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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
You can just imagine the fun local radio DJs in Tucson and Provo might be having right about now, cuing up some vintage Stray Cats tracks or Ted Nugent’s annoying “Cat Scratch Fever.” Anything that might playfully tease the nerve-wrenching excitement building up in both college towns for the season opener between these former Cat vs. Cat rivals, right?
Seriously. Check out the fan message boards for the BYU Cougars and Arizona Wildcats. You can literally feel the pressure cooker of expectations fans have heaped upon Mike Stoops and Bronco Mendenhall and their troops to finally turn the corner and bring more than just respectability back to their once revered programs.
Both coaches will tell you that this game is not the end of the world if it gets chalked up in the loss column. They each respect the other’s rebuilding efforts and the strategies deployed to get the most mileage out of their own talent. The truth is, though, it will be difficult for either Mendenhall or Stoops to conjure up a moral victory out of defeat this weekend. Not when the line is tilted just slightly over six points toward AZ. That’s a spread the Wildcats are counting to defend and the Cougars are poised to bend. They won’t settle for anything less. Neither will their fans.
Arizona is expected to have one of the stingiest defenses in the West this year and BYU sports its most potent offense since the Doman and Staley Show in 2001. Conversely, the Cougar defense is just as suspect as ever (until proven innocent) while the Wildcats’ offense will benefit from having Willie Tuitama at the helm from the get-go this season.
Yep, the oddsmakers’ six-plus on Arizona looks pretty solid, but is there anything we can learn about this game from the numbers in the past? Perhaps. If not, they’re always fun to noodle around, especially before the bullets start flying in this Wild West shootout.
To begin with, the rivalry that used to exist between these schools didn’t really begin until 1962 when they both were members of the old Western Athletic Conference. Prior to that, three games had been played in 1936, 1957 and 1959–all hosted by Arizona–resulting in one win, one loss and one tie for each program.
The next five games were also road trips for Brigham Young, something unheard of by today’s Division I scheduling standards, with Arizona rolling off three consecutive wins (1962-64) followed by BYU’s own three-game win streak from 1965-67. From thereon, the Cougars were actually allowed to be the home team on occasion and the series went 4-6 in favor of the Wildcats, which brings us to the present day where the series now stands at 8-10-1 for the Blue and White, or 10-8-1 for the Blue and Red, however you prefer.
The Cougars’ two greatest all-time coaches both managed .500 win-loss records against Arizona. Tommy Hudspeth was 4-4 and leading the charge when his squads rolled off three straight conquests over the ‘Cats. LaVell Edwards’ boys went 3-3 against AZ, but clearly turned the corner on the rivalry with two utterly explosive and dominating wins in 1974 (37-13) and 1977 (34-14).
After the 1977 spanking, the Wildcats were more than happy to associate their litter box with the former Pac-8 Conference. How could they possibly move their program forward if they were going to be tarred and furred regularly by a lowly WAC school they had once seemed to dominate?
Yes, the Lavell Edwards era was the turning point in this rivalry and, of course, Edwards established how BYU’s Cougars would come to be recognized in post-1970s college football lore. Prior to Edwards’ reign, Arizona held an 18.6 to 16.8 scoring average over BYU. Under the stoic, pass-happy Master, the Cougs held a 21.8 to 20.6 scoring advantage, thanks to a five-point jump in offensive output in six years. For you non-statsmeisters, that’s a huge turnaround by any method of measurement.
So, that’s the table Edwards & Co. set for this week’s renewal of the rivalry. Twenty-nine years have passed since their last clash with Arizona, but the handoff given to Coach Mendenhall is a two-game winning streak and the potential to return to the glory days of the past.
Is there anything to make of the numbers we can cull from last year? Absolutely. Here’s the key numbers that will most likely decide this contest:
Arizona returns its top four receivers from last year — Anthony Johnson, Syndric Steptoe, Mike Thomas and Brad Wood (2005 output: 148 receptions, 1,987 yards and 15 TDs) who should thoroughly dominate BYU’s back four. Folks, it probably won’t be pretty. Remember the Notre Dame game last year? Enough said. Sophomore QB Willie Tuitama has five games under his belt. He’s big, accurate and can scramble for yardage if need be. If he stays healthy, he’s easily a Heisman candidate his next two years in the desert.
The Wildcats’ defensive backfield is led by veterans Antoine Cason, Michael Johnson and Wilrey Fontenot (nine interceptions from this trio in 2005). These ‘Catbacks will be playing lockdown Air Traffic Control on BYU’s passing game. It will be a bloody miracle if the Cougars can go deep vertical on this crew. Don’t bet on it happening.
On Brigham Young’s part, there are three keys to win this game, and trust me, this is not rocket science strategy. It’s all about prevailing in smash-mouth trench warfare. The Cougars have to win this game on both sides of the line and through special teams play. Solid line play on defense will force the Wildcats away from their gameplan and help to mask some of BYU’s DB weaknesses. That’s a lot to ask from a d-line sadly lacking game-time experience.
The Y offensive line has to give Curtis Brown (5.3 yards per carry and 14 TDs in ’05) and bruiser-cruiser Fui Vakapuna some consistent shafts of daylight to roll up the yardage on the ground and wear down Arizona’s front seven. John Beck must play mistake-free and use the short passing game with his tight ends to keep Wildcat linebackers from crowding the box. Special teams have to convert every field goal opportunity and create either turnovers or huge field position shifts with their kicking and coverage game.
What if BYU manages to pull off the upset in Tucson this weekend? Well, as Keith Jackson used to exclaim, “Katie, bar the door!” These Cougars just might have started cat-dancing their way far beyond what most number-crunchers are predicting for them in 2006.
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.
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.
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.
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?
The Mountain West Conference turned down ESPN for a more lucrative broadcast deal with CSTV that has raised the ire of BYU fans from around the country. The CSTV deal also entailed the creation of a new television network known as “The mtn.,” which MWC officials promised would be carried nationally by the beginning of the 2006 college football season. The MWC’s broadcast package of games for BYU have the Cougars scheduled to air over a combination of CSTV, Versus (formerly OLN) and the mtn., in addition to last week’s appearance on TBS versus Arizona and next week’s non-conference contest vs. Boston College on ESPN2.
Unfortunately, the mtn. network has not been able to reach a deal with DISH or DirecTV, or any cable companies outside of Utah, Colorado, Idaho and New Mexico. So, when BYU’s first home game of the year against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane was aired on the mtn network Saturday afternoon, the only Cougar fans on the entire planet that were able to watch a live broadcast of the game were those with cable subscriptions in the four aforementioned states. BYU defeated Tulsa, the defending C-USA champions, 49-24.
Thousands of fans who subscribe to other cable carriers or DISH and DirecTV were left with the only option of listening to the game thru KSL.com’s Internet streamcast of Salt Lake City’s KSL radio game coverage. The fans’ outcry became so intense prior to the game that BYU’s athletic department communications had to post a Q&A on their Web site on Friday urging fans to contact their satellite or cable providers and request them to carry the mtn.
Adding insult to injury, CSTV did not even offer the game over the Internet as a video option on their All Access XXL subscription package, and a replay of the game that was scheduled to air on satellite channel BYU-TV Saturday evening was cancelled just hours before the telecast. A disclaimer note on byutv.org’s programming schedule page stated “Due to a change in broadcast rights, BYU Television will be unable to bring you highlights from the Tulsa versus BYU football game played Sept. 9.”
Two popular BYU fan discussion boards, Cougarboard.com and Cougarfan.com, were buzzing with rage toward CSTV and MWC commissioner Craig Thompson as well as Brigham Young University athletic director, Tom Holmoe. The majority of posts on the two discussion board sites expressed sentiments of feeling cheated, and proclaiming they are being used as pawns in the negotiations between CSTV and cable as well as satellite providers to carry the mtn.
Some Cougarboard members even discussed ways to share the mtn broadcasts via Slingshot and streaming video uploads, prompting the board’s grand guru known as “El Jefe” to post a warning about copyright violations using these technologies. El Jefe’s post banned further discussion of content sharing and indicated that board members who violated the ban would be subject to “lengthy penalty.”
Fan discussions also lamented dramatically lessened exposure on sports news programs that typically used to carry highlights of their games including ESPN Sportscenter.
BYU football games are scheduled to be carried on the mtn four more times this season, but next week Cougar fans can rest easy as their team plays a road game at Boston College that will be carried on ESPN2.
The Mountain West Conference referred calls to CSTV and Comcast regarding their ongoing negotiations with satellite and cable companies to carry the mtn. network. Stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.
Paul Peterson is currently serving as an offensive intern for the Brigham Young University Cougars football program. During his college playing days, Paul compiled a 12-2 career record as Boston College’s starting quarterback and was the first QB in BC football history to begin his career 6-0. He led the Golden Eagles to two consecutive bowl game victories over Colorado State and North Carolina. He was named the Big East Offensive Player of the Week twice, the MVP of the Continental Tire Bowl, and BC’s team MVP his senior year. He was also a J.C. Grid-Wire All-America Quarterback at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah before attending Boston College. His oldest brother Charlie is a former BYU quarterback.
CG365: What are your thoughts and feelings as you contemplate returning with the BYU football squad to Boston College and the site of many great football memories for you?
PP: I’m excited. I have a lot of friends out there that I’m anxious to see and the coaches who I played for are still there and I’m excited to see them. On the other side of the ball, I’m part of a new team now, so I want to see BYU have a lot of success and come home with a victory.
CG365: Tell us a little about your studies at Boston College. What did you major in?
PP: I majored in business. You know, coming from a junior college, there was a little bit of a curve in adapting, but I had a great academic experience there and the faculty was great. It’s just an awesome school.
CG365: Did you find yourself to be quite the anomaly on campus as a returned LDS missionary at a private Catholic university?
PP: You know, the Boston College environment is very tolerant of other religions. There are Muslims and Jewish people, many different faiths are represented—the biggest thing was being married. I was the only married guy on the team, and I think I was the only married guy in the whole undergraduate school, so everyone thought that was kind of different.
CG365: You probably feel pretty comfortable around the BYU team now, right?
PP: Oh definitely, definitely. The guys are in the same situation and I can relate to them a bit better.
CG365: Can you share a thought or two of what was running through your mind as you and your wife were driving in your car from Utah to the East Coast the summer you transferred to Boston College?
PP: We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know what the culture would be like back East…We didn’t really understand how it would be…we were just excited for the new adventure. We both had an awesome experience. My wife, Meghan, was able to find a job on campus and get her school paid for and we both graduated. I think she misses Boston. She made some good friends out there as well.
CG365: Do you miss the culture of a historic and dynamic city like Boston?
PP: Yeah, it has a cool feel. It takes people a while to warm up to you, but once they do, you’re friends for life. We had such a great experience there. Besides Boston College, you’ve got Boston U., Harvard, MIT, Emerson, Berkley College of Music—it’s just a mecca for education. There’s a lot of students, so there’s a lot of activities geared toward students … Boston just has its own unique atmosphere that’s different from any other place in the United States.
CG365: Is your wife going to be able to go back there for the game?
PP: Well, we have a 2-month old baby, so the timing isn’t quite right for her to make the trip back East this time.
CG365: Are you hearing any smack talk coming from your old teammates about this week’s game with BYU?
PP: BC’s really the type of team—I don’t think anybody really likes to talk smack over there. I remember every game, the head coach [Tom O’Brien] he would say, “Let’s be about it, not talk about it.”
CG365: Would you say the BYU team has the same type of discipline under Bronco?
PP: Oh exactly. I think they are very similar in the way they lead their teams with their leadership qualities.
CG365: What do you recall about when you first got your break to take over at quarterback for BC?
PP: It was awesome. When I came in—when I first started—we were like 5 and 5, so we were just trying to make that push to be bowl eligible. So, to be able to go to a bowl game that year, we were way excited about that. To play a good team like Colorado State in San Francisco was a fun time. Being a Division 1 quarterback, that first [junior] year I was still trying to figure it out. Midway through, maybe I started figuring it out a little better and they could see that. It was fun playing. There’s nothing better than a bowl game and coming out on top.
CG365: What about your senior year when you were already the established starter?
PP: The next year was going well until I got injured the second to the last game of the regular season at Temple. I broke my hand so I had to sit out the Syracuse game and we ended up losing. We would have played in the Fiesta Bowl if we’d have won that. But I came back for the bowl game with that broken hand still, and we came out on top of that game, too, against North Carolina.
CG365: Didn’t you end up breaking your leg in the second half of that game?
PP: I did—the first part of the fourth quarter. My hand was getting a little weak throughout the game and I had fumbled … when I went to scoop up my fumble, a guy caught me from behind and snapped my leg.
CG365: Ouch. I remember seeing photographs of you being wheeled off the field and you were flashing a victory sign to the fans—
PP: No, I think I was pumping my fist. But, I was watching on the Jumbotron and we had just executed the fake field goal to score a touchdown. I was pretty sure we we’re going to come out on top, after that.
CG365: Having played at Boston College and knowing the system there, do you think they will take BYU lightly?
PP: No. The head coach over there, he prepares those guys pretty well. I don’t think they take any game lightly.
CG365: Okay, BC played a really tough, double-overtime game last week.
PP: Yeah, that was a grinder—and good for BC to come out on top of that.
CG365: So, when you’ve played in a highly emotional, physical game like that against a conference foe—you gotta win that game?
CG365: Is it hard to get back “up” the next week?
PP: I don’t think so. Well, not for me anyway. When I was playing, I was excited to play every game. It didn’t matter who the opponent was. I don’t think you can take anyone lightly.You’ve seen the Division 1 teams losing to these 1-AA teams who are ready to play, so I don’t think you can really take anyone lightly, and BC definitely won’t be taking BYU lightly after our great victory over Tulsa last week.
CG365: What was it like being a quarterback at Boston College—did you feel like you were playing in the shadow of Doug Flutie back there?
PP: There were a lot of comparisons with Flutie, and I was always worried that he’d get offended because I wasn’t half the quarterback that he was … but, I mean, he’s a living legend for BC … I was just really excited to be able to play and be a part of that team, coming from where I’d came from, and the chances that I didn’t have before, to be able to have that chance to play … I was ecstatic just to be the starting quarterback, and to be compared to him was a huge compliment.
CG365: Did you ever meet Flutie?
PP: Yeah I did, a bunch of times. Actually, he would come during the summertime and we got to throw and work out a couple times together. He’s a great guy.
CG365: What did you learn from him in those workouts?
PP: I asked him some questions regarding the similar height disadvantage that we shared, particularly about a couple strategic things he would do to try and take advantage of pass plays, or situations, or finding certain reads, when really, you can’t see and you’ve got 6’8” tackles in your way.
CG365: I was reading where Steve Young said he had to learn to have faith where his receivers were going to be when he couldn’t see them, and just let the ball fly—
PP: Exactly. You’ve got all those repetitions and practice and stuff, so you know where your guy’s gonna be…you just gotta make the right decision…it’s not that difficult. You definitely have to move around a little bit if you don’t know what’s going on behind the other side of the line and try to find the lanes where you can throw.
CG365: Are you interested in coaching as a career?
PP: Yes, definitely. That’s why I’m here. I’m trying to get into coaching.
CG365: Would you want to go back to BC to coach?
PP: Oh, I’d go back there to coach in a second.
CG365: How do you feel your business degree will help you in coaching?
PP: (laughs). I don’t know if it will. No, seriously, I took a lot of management classes and I think that’s what you are as a coach, you’re trying to manage your players in the positions that you’re coaching to be successful and have the same output. The main goal is wins, and in business it’s similar, where you’re trying to win business, earn money, be successful. I think there’s that type of connection I can make with my background.
RF365: Okay. What’s your favorite non-football memory at Boston College?
PP: There might be more than one! The basketball team had won about 21 games in a row and was playing Pittsburgh at home, so it was a big game.
CG365: This is your senior year?
PP: Right, my senior year, after the bowl game I had just gotten off crutches, and I’m hobbling onto the basketball court. Coach O’Brien presented the team MVP award to me and there was a standing ovation for quite a while, so that was a pretty cool experience.
CG365: What’s your favorite food in Boston?
PP: My favorite place to eat would probably be Anna’s Taquarilla. They have cheap burritos and they’re good!
CG365: What about your favorite tourist site?
PP: Believe it or not, I love the Museum of Fine Arts.
CG365: If you have the choice between a Patriot game and a Celtic game, which do you go to?
PP: Oh, you gotta go to a Pats game. They’re sold out for twenty years, I think.
CG365: I’m sure your answer would probably be different if we were back in the Sixties.
CG365: Any special message you would like to share with BYU fans?
PP: I want to make sure that Cougar fans know that I’m part of a new team. Although I have good friends back there and those connections, I’m part of a new team and we are going to do our best to bring a victory back here this weekend.
CG365: When you were playing at Boston College and having success, BYU was going through a really dark period in the program with consecutive losing seasons and some serious off-the-field problems with a handful of players … from what you read or heard about the program during that time period, how would you describe the program as you see it today?
PP: You know, I think this team has some great, great players, and our coaches do an awesome job here of getting production out of those players. Our team as a whole—there’s a different feeling here at BYU. There’s obviously a different atmosphere here than in the past, and a different tradition that Coach Mendenhall is trying to instill in the players. The guys want to be successful and I think they are doing everything they possibly can to do that. The program is definitely headed in a great direction.
CG365: I don’t think Arizona was better than BYU in that first game. The team beat themselves with penalties and other mistakes.
PP: I definitely agree.
CG365: When it comes to practice, is it really possible to see improvement in a team on a daily basis, or is that just another coach-speak platitude?
PP: I think you can. There’s kind of this little cycle that happens … after the game, usually Mondays and Tuesdays are not the best practices … you get a lot accomplished. You’re going over new material, so there might be some slow parts, or some things we’re trying to pick up, going from one defense to a different defense, to different personnel, and there’s a learning curve those first couple of days. And then, after that, it’s expected to get better, to get crisper, know the game plan … I think you peak toward the end of the week … and that game, obviously, is where you’re going to have the most experience and gain the most.
CG365: As the season wears on, do you feel it’s important to lay off the heavy hitting in practice and save it for the game?
PP: Yeah, we did that at BC. You have to. Physically, to be able to grind it out in full pads throughout the week, it’s just too hard on the players … they’re still trying to recover on Monday and Tuesday. You gotta get their legs so they’re fresh—so they can be 100 percent for the game. It’s a total disadvantage if you’ve got guys banged up for your game. It’s not smart management of your assets.
CG365: Have you been helping to pattern the BYU scout team so they run their offense the way Boston College runs it?
PP: One of my responsibilities is that I get to write down the plays in practice that we run and load them into the computer—
CG365: But aren’t the coaches trying to utilize your knowledge, pick your brain about BC—
PP: Sure, during the day when they’re watching film, I definitely answer any questions they have for me. I think I’ve been able to help the team prepare in that regard.
CG365: So, what kind of memories came back to you when you were watching the film of BC with the Cougar coaches—were you able to immediately, instinctively pick out things that you would notice from being the QB in their offense?
PP: Yeah, exactly, because their offensive coordinator has been there forever, Coach Dana Bible. I love the guy. He does some great things with the offense, and watching it, you know—most of the guys that are playing there now were there when I was, so I get to see my buddies playing on film.
CG365: Who are some of your best buddies that are still playing at BC right now?
PP: Matt Ryan and I were pretty good buddies. He came in with me, and we spent a lot of time in meetings cracking jokes and poking each other in the ribs, trying to stay focused in the meetings we were having … some of the offensive linemen are still there, the running backs … Josh Beekman, the guard, and James Martin, the tackle, are still good, good buddies of mine.
CG365: Okay, a couple more question. Recruiting. What’s more important, a top rated package of physical skills or heart?
PP: That’s a good question. You’re obviously going to try and find the athletes that have both of those. That’s your main goal. But, I feel like I was a guy that was mostly heart. I didn’t have a lot of talent, or certain physical attributes that separated me from other people. So, if you find an athlete that’s lacking some of the physical attributes you’re looking for, you hope the heart can make up for it. As a coach, your job is on the line, and you gotta be able to find those players that have both as much as possible.
CG365: How about this BYU team–do you think they have heart?
PP: Definitely. They definitely have heart. They have great athletes, but they have a huge heart. They are going to do whatever it takes to get that victory.
Following the gut-wrenching double-overtime loss to the Boston College Eagles, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “Our team simply was one play short.”
As much as Cougar fans might want to discount that simplistic evaluation, one could certainly make the argument that it’s true. Several times throughout the course of regulation play, BYU held in its hands the opportunity where one play would have changed the outcome in the team’s favor, avoiding overtime altogether.
One of the earliest opportunities you could point to would be when John Beck overthrew a wide open Zac Collie near the goal line with 8:40 remaining in the first quarter and BYU leading 7-0. That score could have been a dagger in the heart of the B.C. resistance; instead, the Cougars settled for a 49-yard field goal attempt that failed.
The argument could be made that either a touchdown pass to Collie or a successful field goal during that possession would have made the difference at the end of the game, and coach Mendenhall would be right about coming up one play short. The same “one-play” scenario could be said for Ben Criddle’s almost-interception in the end zone with 3:50 remaining in the first half. On the next play, Eagle QB Matt Ryan connected with Tony Gonzalez for an 18-yard TD pass. One play, such as that potential interception, could have changed the outcome of the game.
But the truth is, dissecting this Cougar loss isn’t that simple. On the possession where Beck overthrew Collie, the Cougars started on the B.C. 26-yard line following a recovered fumble by LB Cameron Jensen. BYU gained 13 yards on two pass plays to Jonny Harline and Manase Tonga, but also committed two procedure penalties thus negating the positive yardage. Instead of third-and-eight from the 32, it should have been first-and-10 from the 13-yard line. At the very least, kicker Derek McLaughlin should have been attempting a 30-yard field goal instead of a 49-yarder.
BYU blundered its way through not only this possession, but the entire game. Just two possessions later, the Cougars were driving and reached midfield, but two more penalties ended up rendering a fourth-and-17 punting situation at the Y’s 41-yard line.
In all, BYU was flagged 10 times for minus 67 yards, and it turned the ball over three times. That the Cougars managed to hang with the Eagles and take the game into two overtimes despite these considerable drawbacks underscores the fact that they have the talent to play Top 25-level football. This is a team that could easily be 3-0 and ranked at this point in the season.
So, what is it that’s kept BYU from cashing in on two very winnable road games this year against non-conference opponents? In a word, it’s execution.
There can be no finger-pointing with the way the Boston College game was lost. You can say that BYU came up one play short, and that might be easy to say, and seem easy to digest, but the fact of the matter is there was a host of players who failed to execute at one crucial moment in the game, or another. Collectively, these momentary lapses in execution kept the Cougars from running away with the game.
The list reads much like the Arizona game with penalties continuing to be a leading problem, especially on the offensive line. John Beck threw his first two interceptions of the year, but that’s going to happen sooner or later when you are airing the ball 60 times a game. In Beck’s defense, I wouldn’t necessarily call the interceptions or his fumble that stalled a drive and led to a B.C. field goal a failure to execute. Overthrowing a wide open Collie early in the game, and failing to check off an ill-fated deep handoff call late in the game were his biggest lapses in execution. The latter play came with only 3:40 remaining in the fourth quarter. BYU faced a third-and-inches situation on the B.C. 22-yard line.
When Beck got behind his center, Sete Aulai, there was no linebacker filling the gap over Aulai. Rather than signaling for a quick-snap quarterback keeper, Beck stuck with the play that was called and Fui Vakapuna was stuffed for a four-yard loss. The resulting 44-yard field goal attempt was wide and Boston College was off the hook once again.
Now, perhaps Beck isn’t given the freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage under certain circumstances. If that is the case, then the blame goes to the coaching staff. However, a fourth-year starting quarterback of Beck’s caliber has to be given the latitude to improvise and it’s difficult to believe that offensive coordinator Robert Anae doesn’t allow that to happen.
To be sure, Beck wasn’t the only player failing to execute the duties of his position on Saturday. He just happens to be the most visible playmaker on the team and, accordingly, tends to take a larger share of the lumps in the postmortem of the game. The last image most fans will remember of Beck in this game was his almost paralyzed immobility in the face of an onrushing linebacker. Rather than sidestepping the leaping defender, Beck tried to get his pass off as planned, and the ball was tipped into the hands of an opportunistic Eagle defender to end the game in the second overtime.
Looking for positives in the aftermath of defeat is rarely a joyful experience for fans, especially when you know your team should be 4-0 (following this week’s home game versus Utah State) and ranked in the Top 25 heading into conference play.
BYU’s defense continues to surprise nearly every preseason prognosticator. The unit has given up an occasional big play, but those moments have been sparse enough to allow the offense plenty of opportunities to win each contest this year. The linebacking corps is as good as advertised, and the young defensive line (with nine players platooning) has been solid against the run and steadily improving in its pass-rush capabilities. The defensive backfield is still the Achilles’ heel of the defense, but new DB coach Jaime Hill has worked wonders with his crew to limit mistakes to a sustainable level of damage. Walk-on CB Ben Criddle has been most impressive to date.
Offensively, the two biggest positives in the Boston College game were 137 yards rushing, and the yards after catch (YAC). Arizona severely limited the Cougars’ YAC in game one, and then BYU broke that stat wide open last week against Tulsa. Against B.C, the Cougars had 18 pass receptions that went for more than 10 yards, and 15 of those were directly attributable to yards gained after the catch.
In addition to limiting penalties and turnovers and delivering on field goal attempts, rushing yardage and YAC will be the two biggest offensive factors against 20th-ranked Mountain West Conference foe TCU in two weeks. Need proof? Texas Tech, which runs a very similar spread offense to BYU, managed only 59 yards rushing and seven pass receptions longer than 10 yards against the Horned Frogs in its 12-3 loss on Saturday.