BYU Cougars

BYU Thumps TCU

Thumbing their nose at the Mountain West Conference’s bungling schedulers, the BYU Cougars stormed into Fort Worth’s Amon G. Carter Stadium on just a few days rest and dominated the 17th-ranked, defending conference champion Horned Frogs, 31-17.

It was sweet revenge for the Blue and White after last year’s controversial overtime fumble by TCU was ruled a touchdown, giving the MWC newcomers a tainted 51-50 victory and eventually the conference title. Brigham Young’s victory also ended TCU’s 13-game winning streak, which had been the longest current winning streak in NCAA Division 1 football.

Make no doubt about it, in a contest that ended with TCU leading in most of the offensive team stats, BYU took control of the game’s momentum on its second possession and refused to let the Frogs take it away. The closest Gary Patterson’s crew came to wrestling the momentum away from the Cougars was in the third quarter, when QB Jeff Ballard led the Frogs on an 80-yard touchdown drive immediately following John Beck’s 40-yard TD pass to Michael Reed, which had given BYU a brief 17-3 lead.

After both teams exchanged punts to close out the third quarter, BYU started the final frame from its 28-yard line and quickly moved the chains down the field. The drive was capped by a perfectly executed 26-yard touchdown pass to Matt Allen with 12:33 remaining on the clock. The Cougars had rebuffed TCU’s attempt to steal the momentum and restored their 14-point lead.

The Frogs’ failure to gain the momentum was punctuated by their next possession which ended with a three-and-out punt. With 10:30 left in the fourth quarter, BYU’s offensive coordinator, Robert Anae, went for the jugular with the passing attack. Beck completed big gainers of 24, 19 and 19 yards to Daniel Coats, Zac Collie and McKay Jacobson, respectively, and then plunged the dagger into the Frogs with a 4-yard corner toss to Johnny Harline to make it 31-10 at the 7:27 mark.

The Cougars gave up a touchdown after a 13-play drive in garbage time for the final 31-17 margin.

Clearly, BYU’s stout refusal to surrender the momentum to the Frogs was a significant factor in the game’s outcome. Trailing 3-0 at the beginning of the second quarter, TCU had driven 59 yards to the Brigham Young 10 and faced a third-and-7. Ballard dropped back in the pocket and took a vicious hit from LB David Nixon, causing a fumble. Russell Tialavea recovered the loose pigskin and BYU promptly drove 82 yards for a touchdown to claim an early 10-0 lead. It was the first touchdown the Horned Frogs had given up in seven quarters and it clearly sent shockwaves along the TCU sidelines.

Michael Reed’s 40-yard touchdown reception, which gave BYU a 14-point lead early in the second half, and Matt Allen’s 26-yard scoring grab that restored the 2-touchdown margin after TCU had closed the gap to 17-10, were pivotal momentum-crushers that left Horned Frogs fans standing in silent disbelief.

It can be said that BYU’s two previous road games against Arizona and Boston College had toughened the Cougars for the short week contest against TCU in Fort Worth. In fact, it was mentioned more than once by the Versus network announcers during the game’s telecast.

BYU’s offensive coordinator, Anae, called an exceptionally balanced game, never giving up on the run even though it wasn’t yielding the same chunks of yardage the passing game was accumulating. Occasionally, Curtis Brown and Fui Vakapuna were able to break open a gain of 15 yards here or 9 yards there, and by not abandoning the run, Anae forced TCU to respect all of the weapons John Beck could call upon.

Bronco Mendenhall ought to be mighty proud of his OC and the ability he demonstrated in this breakthrough victory. Anae was able to identify the wrinkles in the Frogs’ defense from the Texas Tech game tapes and then turned loose an offense that executed on those weaknesses to perfection.

The Cougar defense gave up 449 total yards, 296 through the air, but the unit’s bend-but-not-break resilience rendered clutch turnovers like Nixon’s forced fumble late in the first period and Cameron Jensen’s mid-fourth- quarter interception. The secondary allowed four completions over 20 yards, the longest a 26-yard gainer, but they were consistently aided by the linebackers in limiting TCU’s yards after the catch. Unlike last year’s game, the BYU defense did not allow any long distance, game-changing scoring plays that would have certainly shifted the contest’s momentum.

Brigham Young’s inability to execute consistently in big games, such as the two contests earlier this season versus Arizona and Boston College, was finally reversed. The Cougars were called for six penalties in the entire game, and only two of those were on the offense. Remarkably, the patchwork offensive line wasn’t flagged for holding in the entire contest. They provided exceptional pocket protection for Beck throughout the game, yielding two uneventful sacks for minus-11 yards on the night. The receiving corps was outstanding and held onto nearly every rope they were thrown; many of their clutch receptions were made with TCU defenders wrapped around them on crucial third-and-long situations.

For the first time after several years of frustration against ranked opponents, BYU played like a real team that had chemistry and heart, and a determination to see their gameplan through to the final whistle of the fourth quarter. And for that reason, there’s no need to cite individual statistics. A thoroughly convincing 31-17 road win over a highly ranked defending conference champion TCU squad says it all.

BYU Keys to Game vs. Air Force Falcons

There really is no way to beat the U.S. Air Force…that is, if you are talking about those heroic men and their magnificent flying machines that protect and promote freedom around the globe. However, on the football field it’s a different matter, where the Air Force Academy grinds it out on the ground more like a platoon of crack infantrymen storming an enemy stronghold.

The Falcons are tough and can hang with any team on any given day, as evidenced by their 31-30 loss at No. 11 Tennessee earlier this season (when they opted for two points and the win rather than OT). They can also be thwarted from their battle plan, as San Diego State managed to do last week while capturing its first win of the year at the Falcons’ expense. The Academy squad is especially dangerous on its own turf, but it is possible to escape Colorado Springs with a victory if you can execute your game plan and keep the Falcons’ ground troops off the field as much as possible.

In college football, teams are more susceptible to emotional swings within a game and sudden shifts of momentum. Highly disciplined teams, like Air Force and the other service academies, tend to weather these shifts in a game better than their opponents do because of their rigorous, disciplined training and lifestyle. You can never count them out of any game if they have enough time to put points on the board with their running game. Therein is the first key to beating Air Force:

Key No. 1 – Keep the Falcons’ offense off the field

The Air Force option attack is designed to steadily chew up yardage on long, clock-eating drives. They lead the MWC in time of possession, averaging 33:17 minutes per game. Led by QB Shaun Carney, Air Force spreads rushing touches out to as many as eight players during the course of a game, with Carney and RB Chad Hall being the most dangerous of all the Falcon rushers. When executed properly, the Air Force option is incredibly tough on your defense. It is a relentless system, it just keeps attacking your defenders at multiple read points along the line of scrimmage, always penetrating, counter-reacting quickly to defender reactions, trying to find the most vulnerable area to exploit.

As BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall pointed out in his weekly pre-game press conference, “There are two to three elements per play that have to be defended with precise execution. You have to play assignment sound and you have to play physical and with effort with all 11 players at the same time. Any scheme that asks you to do that is very difficult to stop.”

Even in last week’s loss, the Falcons gained 297 yards on the ground and had an 11-minute advantage in time of possession over the Aztecs. It was a recipe for disaster and SDSU was extremely fortunate to get the win. BYU will need to be very physical from the start and its tackling has to be sure and decisive.

The Falcons are capable of making the big play, especially if your defensive backfield gets caught out of their assignments. Justin Handley and Vic Thompson are the leading receivers for Air Force with 17.4 and 10.6 yards per-catch averages, respectively. Air Force is far from being a pass-happy team because it don’t need to be. The Falcons average only 10 attempts per game, and will rarely abandon their running game unless it becomes impossible to keep pace with their opponent’s offense and the time remaining on the clock.

The Cougar offense needs to stay balanced and establish its preferred tempo for the contest. A balanced attack will keep the Falcons guessing and mitigate their blitz packages. Last year, Curtis Brown rushed for 219 yards, but he’s currently nursing a tender knee that was slightly sprained in the UNLV contest. If he cannot pack the pigskin this week, hope that Fui Vakapuna or Manase Tonga can turn up the heat on the ground. John Beck will find that his tight ends match up very well against the Falcon linebackers in man coverage. The best-case scenario is to start strong on both sides of the ball and build up enough of a cushion in the point spread early. It’s critical to avoid a see-saw scoring affair with Air Force.

Key No. 2 – Stress execution and force turnovers

Execution is critical against the smaller Falcon defenders. Drive-killing penalties and turnovers have to be minimized or outright eliminated. BYU leads the Mountain West Conference in penalties, although it has improved significantly since the first three games this season. In contrast, Air Force is the least penalized team in the conference. Both teams rank among the conference leaders in turnover margin.

In a close game, turnovers and fourth-down stops are the only types of occurrences on the field that immediately cause three things to happen: 1) your opponents are halted from a scoring opportunity; 2) you jump-start your own scoring opportunity; and 3) you dramatically shift the momentum of the game in your favor. Momentum is that emotional surge that ripples throughout your sideline and elevates the intensity of your teammates’ play on both sides of the ball, often leading to more big plays. It’s a palpable feeling and easily recognizable when it occurs, even by the spectators.

The Falcons are currently converting their fourth-down attempts at an alarming 71.4 percent rate and they also lead the conference in third-down conversion rate at 59.3 percent effectiveness–all the more reason for BYU to execute, force turnovers and control the momentum of the game. The Cougars must win the turnover tally this Saturday if it’s a closely fought, you score-I score type of game.

Key No. 3 – Special teams must deliver the goods

Air Force has a punter/placekicker who has been instrumental in each of its wins this year. Zach Sasser has a 43.1 punting average and is seven out of nine in field goal attempts with a 48-yarder to his credit. Conversely, BYU’s Derek McLaughlin is punting at a 41.5 clip and Jared McLaughlin is 8 for 11 in field goal attempts with his longest being a 50-yarder. The Cougars have an edge on returns with McKay Jacobson, Nate Meikle and Curtis Brown racking up some pretty solid yardage averages (13.2 on punts, 19.4 on kickoffs). On special team defense, Russell Tialavea leads BYU with two blocked kicks. If you’ll recall the Boston College contest, both McLaughlins (no relation) played a major role in keeping the Cougars competitive. Derek averaged 49.5 yards per punt in that game, with two of his punts pinning the Eagles deep in their own territory during key exchanges. Jared had three field goals against B.C. with his longest of the season coming in that game.

In a close game, special teams are often the determining factor. One need not look any farther than BYU’s two losses this year for illustrations of that fact. Jared McLauglin missed one field goal against Arizona and two against Boston College. A bad snap on a FG attempt in the B.C. game caused another missed scoring opportunity. While other factors certainly played a role in the two early season losses, had the Cougars’ kicking game been perfect this year, BYU would be sporting a 7-0 record and would easily be ranked higher than Boise State’s current No. 15 ranking.

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There’s a lot riding on this week’s game. It’s a must-win for Air Force, if it hopes to win the conference this year. A win over BYU would put the Falcons in control of their own destiny–and a loss would knock the Flyboys two games back while allowing the Cougars to retain driver’s seat privileges in the MWC. Revenge has played an important role in the past decade of Air Force/BYU football, and this year’s payback rights belong to the Falcons.

Over the past nine years, the Falcons have won five times, so the Cougars certainly don’t represent the impossible to this year’s cadets. Brigham Young needs to play mistake-free football and execute its game plan with focus and intensity. If John Beck & Co. can manage a performance that equals their collective talent potential, they should be able to escape the ambush Air Force has planned.

A Return to Glory Days?

There aren’t many 6-2 teams left in Division I-A right now– eight to be exact. And there is only one 6-2 team in the country that can easily say it is two plays away from being undefeated. It’s a team of cool-headed cats that are on fire right now with five wins in a row and a two-game lead in the race for their conference title. We’re not talking about Tigers, as in LSU, or Panthers, as in Pitt. We’re talking about Cougars, as in BYU.

Led by second-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Brigham Young is intent on bringing back the glory days of Cougar football, which flourished under Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards, and then withered for several years under Gary Crowton, who now serves as the Oregon Ducks’ offensive coordinator.

Mendenhall took over the reins of the BYU program last year and was wise enough to keep longtime assistant coach Lance Reynolds on the staff. Reynolds, a former player under Edwards, and beloved by every crop of student-athletes since his playing days concluded, had been the top internal contender for the head coaching position. The fact that Mendenhall kept him onboard, and that Reynolds wanted to stay, speaks volumes about the character of these two men and their belief that the football program Edwards built was greater than any individual.

Several other key personnel were either brought on board last year with the regime change, or retained from the former administration. Chief among the new hires was Robert Anae, a former Cougar who played on four straight WAC championship teams in the 1980s and was offensive line coach at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Anae brought the old BYU playbook (that Leach had modified at Tech) back with him to Provo and the team’s ability to execute the finer points of the playbook confidently increases with every game.

Former all-conference quarterback Brandon Doman was brought in from a backup role in the NFL to coach the signal callers. Jeff Grimes, the offensive line coach, was retained after serving one year in the Crowton administration. He had previously coached at Arizona State under Dirk Koetter with great success and is extremely popular with the Cougar O-linemen.

On the defensive side of the ball, Mendenhall retained himself as the defensive coordinator and kept the staff mostly intact. Chief among the retained assistants was line coach Steve Kaufusi, a former Cougar lineman who had achieved a great deal of success with BYU’s biggest rival, Utah. Kaufusi is also a very popular coach with his D-linemen and an extremely valuable recruiter.

The most recent addition to the defensive coaching unit, secondary coach Jaime Hill, has paid immediate dividends this season. Hill retrained several players in their technique and essentially shored up a group of defenders who were repeatedly picked on last year as the Achilles’ heel of the BYU defense. This year, the Y is second in interceptions in the MWC with 12 picks, and Cougar defenders have been holding opposing passing attacks to nearly 70 yards less per game than last year.

It isn’t possible to single out every individual coach on BYU’s staff, but they are all goal-oriented, team players in their own right, working with their positional players to buy into the “one-for-all and all-for-one” team concept that has taken deep root in the program again.

Watching Brigham Young on the road in Colorado Springs this past weekend, one couldn’t help but begin to reminisce about the glory days of BYU football under Edwards. These new era Cougars play like their care about their heritage and the legacy they have been charged to uphold.

QB John Beck seems to have finally turned the corner in his maturation as one of the school’s more elite passers. He marches the Y offense up and down the field, eating up clock and deftly finding the open receiver regardless of zone or man coverage. Beck’s improvised shovel pass to Fui Vakupuna for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter of the Air Force game averted a sure sack and was a transcendent moment on the field.

Enough can’t be said about the youthful defensive line and the swift, hard-hitting linebacker corps. They executed assignment football to near-perfection against the Falcons, who came into the game with one of the top five ranked rushing attacks in the nation. Time after time, Cougar defenders could be seen chasing down the speedy Falcon running backs from behind like they were prey in the open field.

“Their defense is a little bit stronger than I thought it was coming into the game,” said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry.

The final score of 33-14 doesn’t adequately convey how thoroughly convincing the victory was over the Falcons on Saturday. BYU led 24-0 midway through the third quarter, and seemed to take its foot off the gas until Air Force scored to cut the lead to 17. The Cougars quickly revved their offensive engine back into turbo mode and laid nine quick points on the board to create a 33-7 cushion. The Falcons’ final score came during the final moments of the contest, long after the outcome had been decided.

Brigham Young returns to Colorado this weekend to face the Colorado State Rams. The Cougars then have a two-game homestand against the Wyoming Cowboys and New Mexico Lobos before winding up the regular season against archrival Utah in Salt Lake City. It’s conceivable this Cougar team could run the table in the conference and end up with a perfect record. Don’t bother asking any of the players about it, though. Bronco Mendenhall has them properly focused on the season, keeping their cool and their sights set on one game at a time.

If BYU does manage to finish the regular season with a 10-2 mark and undefeated in conference play, it will be a shame that they will be relegated to an early bowl season matchup in the Las Vegas Bowl as MWC champions. The way the Cougars are playing right now, they could easily match up with most of the top 15 teams in the country.

Cougars and Ducks Roll the Dice in Vegas

You can’t help but find intrigue in the multiple storylines that connect the Brigham Young University and Oregon football programs as they prepare to clash in the 15th annual Las Vegas Bowl. Both teams are looking to end embarrassing bowl game losing streaks. The Cougars’ drought stretches back nine years to when they knocked off Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl, and the Ducks are winless since their 2002 Fiesta Bowl victory over Colorado.

Speaking of streaks, the Cougars would like to extend their nine-game winning streak they bring into the contest, while Oregon carries the burden of a three-game losing streak, although those losses came to two Top 25 teams and an Arizona Wildcat squad that was just beginning to reach its potential at the close of the season.

Both teams regularly butt heads on the recruiting trail in the Pacific and Mountain West regions but rarely on the field (Oregon leads the series 3-2, and their last meeting was 15 years ago). Luke Staley, the 2001 Doak Walker Award winner and a former high school Player of the Year in Oregon, holds most of BYU’s single-season rushing and scoring records. Haloti Ngata, the Ducks’ best defensive lineman in the history of their program, and now a standout rookie in the NFL, hails from Utah and verbally committed to Brigham Young in 2001 but reneged at the last minute and signed with Oregon.

The Ducks are currently trying to persuade two of BYU’s top 2007 verbal commits, J.J. DiLuigi of Canyon Country, Calif. and Marcus Matthews of Beaverton, Ore., to renege as well.

And then there’s the Gary Crowton-Bronco Mendenhall storyline. Crowton, the Ducks’ current offensive coordinator, was forced to resign from the BYU head coaching post in 2004 after three consecutive losing seasons. The defensive coordinator he recruited from New Mexico during his reign in Provo, Mendenhall, is now the head coach and the D-coordinator for the Cougars. Both coaches are inventive tacticians on their respective sides of the ball and have a pretty good handle on each other’s tendencies.

The press has been feasting on the underlying emotions of this storyline ever since the matchup was announced in late November, but the real crux of this connective issue is which coach will be able to outscheme the other and get his players to execute at the highest level.

Crowton is a master at game planning when he has several weeks to prepare (he never lost a season opener as head coach at BYU) so it won’t be a surprise to see the Ducks throwing several new wrinkles into their offense to confound BYU. Likewise, Mendenhall will probably show some new looks with the Cougar defense–especially since his depth chart at cornerback has been decimated by injury and a player suspension–although Mendenhall is prone to focus more on execution of fundamentals and containing Oregon’s big-play capabilities.

BYU’s keys to a 2006 Las Vegas Bowl victory

1. Control the clock

Even if the Cougars can manage some quick-strike scoring, they’ll be better off by managing long, time-consuming drives that keep their defense off the field. The more clock time BYU can control, the fewer attempts the Ducks will have at penetrating the Cougars’ severely weakened defensive secondary. Long, time-consuming drives have been the staple of offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s unit since Beck & Co. began executing it to near-perfection in their second game of the year this season against Tulsa. It’s a rhythmic–almost poetic in football terms–offensive attack that methodically surges toward the opponents’ goal with remarkable efficiency. You can be sure that Oregon will be doing everything it can to disrupt the flow of the Cougar offense, but BYU needs to maintain its poise and draw upon experience from last year’s Las Vegas Bowl game versus Cal.

2. Force and convert turnovers

Quite simply, the Cougars need to win the battle of turnovers. Besides the obvious, where potential points are taken away from the Ducks, turnovers provide shifts in momentum that can inspire their teammates’ offensive efforts. Oregon has been turnover-prone this season, handing the ball over to opponents 30 times–with 18 of those miscues occurring in the Ducks’ five losses. Conversely, BYU has one of the best turnover margins in the country this year.

3. Contain Jonathan Stewart

Stewart is the most potent offensive threat in the Ducks’ arsenal. BYU needs to contain him to force Oregon to rely on its passing game. If they can succeed in making the Ducks one-dimensional by chewing up the clock and limiting Stewart’s effectiveness, it will free up the Cougars to implement more blitz packages. Heavy pressure on the Duck QB, whether it’s David Dixon or Brady Leaf, will help prevent them from picking on the cornerbacks with the deep ball. It’s important to note that Dixon is a good scrambler and he’ll need to be contained as well if he’s calling the signals. Look for Crowton to try confusing the Cougars by using both QBs and changing up or disguising the type of plays each has been running during the season.

Oregon’s keys to a 2006 Las Vegas Bowl victory

1. Pressure and harass John Beck

The BYU offense runs like a precision time piece when the quarterback has time to survey his options. Archrival Utah had the most success of getting to Beck this season, and for two quarters, the Utes stymied the Cougar attack. Oregon has looked at that game film over and over to identify weaknesses in Brigham Young’s pass protection, and the Ducks will be doing everything they can to mimic the Utes’ success for an entire 60 minutes. The Ducks have the best pass defense in the Pac-10, holding opponents to a measly 156.7 yards per game. On the other hand, Oregon ranks second from last in rushing defense in the Pac-10, yielding an average of 146 yards per game at a 4.2-yard per rush clip. This brings us to…

2. Strangle the Cougar ground attack

BYU has a formidable running game and will force the Ducks to pick their poison. It’s really next to impossible to contain the Cougar passing and rushing attacks for an entire game. Arizona stifled the Blue and White rush, holding Brigham Young to 26 net yards on the ground. Conversely, John Beck notched 286 yards passing and had one touchdown pass called back for receiver interference–a highly questionable call that even the Pac-10’s announcers disagreed with–that would have given BYU the win in Tucson at the start of the season. Utah was also successful in limiting the Cougars to only 54 yards on the ground, but the Utes were sliced and diced for 376 yards passing.

3. Exploit BYU’s weakened defensive secondary

Much has been made of the injuries and a player suspension that have crippled BYU’s defensive secondary since the Utah game. It will be interesting to see what Mendenhall and his DB coach Jaime Hill have done to shore up this vulnerability. It would stand to reason that if the Cougars had some reliable depth at cornerback, they would have been getting more reps during the regular season, and this didn’t happen. It behooves Oregon to launch an all-out aerial invasion on whomever BYU plays at cornerback because they are either hobbling with a not-quite healed injury or lacking sufficient game time experience to keep Jaison Williams, Jordan Kent and Dante Rosario from compiling some pretty big reception numbers.

What to expect

Because of BYU’s weakened secondary, this game has all the makings of a shootout. Oregon has faced several prolific offenses this season with Cal and USC providing the closest resemblance to the Cougars’ offensive weaponry. Both games were resounding losses, but while the Ducks held Cal to 189 yards passing and USC to 176 yards through the air, both opponents’ running games were able to get the job done with the Bears gaining 239 yards on the ground and USC notching 180 markers. Oregon also turned the ball over four times against Cal and yielded a punt return for a TD, while USC forced two turnovers. A major key for both teams in their wins against the Ducks came in limiting Jonathan Stewart to 42 yards or less on the ground.

The only common opponent BYU and Oregon have played this year is Arizona. The Cougars lost on the road in their season opener 16-13 and the Wildcats went to Autzen Stadium on Nov. 18 and spanked the Ducks, 37-10. Oregon limited Arizona’s passing attack to 133 yards, but the Ducks yielded 230 on the ground while also committing six turnovers (four interceptions, two fumbles).

Historically, BYU has had a very difficult time containing big-time playmaking running backs during the bowl season, and Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart clearly fills the bill as a ball carrier of that stature. One need not look any farther than last year’s fiasco in trying to stop Cal’s Marshawn Lynch as an example. However, save for the secondary vulnerabilities, which only came to light in the past month, the Cougar defense is drastically improved from last year.

Oregon will pose the strongest pass defense the Cougars have faced this season; conversely, BYU’s passing attack is more refined than any the Ducks have went up against. If regular-season momentum and close-call experience from the previous Las Vegas Bowl are worth anything in a matchup like this, then it should be a close, high-scoring affair with a slight edge to the team that has possession of the ball in the closing minutes of the game. If you’re a gambler, this matchup is too close to call, so just roll the dice.

Oregon Quacks Under Furious Cougar Pressure

The score was 31- zip in favor of BYU with just over eleven minutes to go in the fourth quarter of the Las Vegas Bowl when play-by-play announcer Brent Musberger relied on one of his trademark clichés to put the game into context for a nationwide audience of ESPN viewers:

“Folks, this is just a good, old-fashioned butt kicking.”

It was that and more before a Nevada state record crowd of 44,615. Playing with a patchwork secondary, Brigham Young’s defense surprised everyone but themselves by pitching a shutout against the 8th ranked offense in the nation for fifty minutes into the contest.

So dominating were the Cougar defenders that Oregon didn’t pass the 200-yard mark in total offense until the remaining eight minutes of garbage time with the scoreboard reading 38-8 in favor of the Mountain West Conference champions.

This was a BYU team that Oregon head coach Mike Belotti had claimed the day before couldn’t compete with the Pac-10’s best teams. Gee, nothing like defining your own program by comparison with a presumably inferior opponent that whacks you up and down the gridiron.

Prognosticators, including yours truly, had forecast a high scoring shootout in the desert, but the Cougars were the only ones that came with their guns loaded.

After an uncharacteristic blank first frame, only the second time all year BYU had experienced such a drought, the Cougar offense took a deep breath and then revved into overdrive, racking up scoreboard and a list of record-setting individual accomplishments along the way. Quarterback John Beck finished his stellar career with 375 yards and 2 TDs, breaking his own Las Vegas Bowl passing yardage record (set last year against Cal).

Beck’s passing yardage was the most compiled this year against Oregon’s Pac-10 leading pass defense—and 219 yards above their average yield of 156. Were it not for six dropped passes by Cougar receivers in the first half, Beck would have easily surpassed the 400-yard milestone. He also threw two interceptions, however one of those picks came at the end of the first half on a 60-yard Hail Mary pass attempt.

Senior running back Curtis Brown rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries, adding 55 more yards on seven receptions. He passed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive year and became the first Cougar running back in the program’s history to accomplish that feat.

All-American tight end Jonny Harline hauled in nine passes for a personal best and Las Vegas Bowl game record 181 receiving yards, and one touchdown. For his efforts, he was named the 2006 Pioneer PureVision Las Vegas Bowl MVP.

Down by 17 points at intermission, the Ducks took the second half kick-off and continued shooting blanks at their opponent. BYU promptly drove deep into Oregon territory before Beck was intercepted inside the red zone. That would prove to be the last Duck opportunity to make a game of it, as Justin Robinson intercepted Brady Leaf at the 7-minute mark of the third quarter and three minutes later the Cougars reached pay dirt on a 4-yard Curtis Brown scamper to make it 24-0.

Oregon’s Belotti had failed to name a starting quarterback until game time and he continued to waffle back and forth between Leaf and the more nimble Dennis Dixon throughout the contest. Neither signal caller had time to get into any sort of rhythm.  Dixon re-entered the game on the Ducks’ next series and drove his team 40 yards before Robinson notched his second pick of the day at the BYU 17-yard line.

The Cougars licked their chops and proceeded to march down the field once again with the stealthy efficiency of a big game mountain cat ready to finish off its dazed and confused prey. This time, BYU mounted a scoring drive that was powered by the longest run from scrimmage of the night, a Curtis Brown 47-yard shake and bake thru the Ducks’ front seven and down the left sideline. Two plays later, Beck scrambled in from fourteen yards out and the PAT made it 31-0.

By this point, Musberger and color commentators, Craig James and Bob Davie, had already engaged former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian in conversation from the announcer’s booth for several minutes, having long ago run out of superlatives to describe the slaughter taking place on the field below.

The Ducks’ were baffled at every turn and dominated by BYU on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Brigham Young’s front seven consistently plugged up any rushing lanes that appeared, holding the vaunted Oregon rushing attack to a net 97 yards (with feature back Jonathan Stewart registering his lowest output of the season, 20 yards on seven carries).

Oregon’s offensive line had only given up 14 sacks in 12 games entering the match-up, but BYU registered nearly one-third that amount in the first half alone, ending up with four sacks on the night for negative 30 yards.

The Cougars’ injury and suspension depleted secondary was supposed to have been their defense’s Achilles’ heel, but aside from Dennis Dixon’s 48-yard scoring strike to Brian Paysinger at the 10:27 mark of the fourth quarter, the Cats only gave up 118 yards thru the air the entire night. At least three of BYU’s four sacks were coverage related with Robinson, senior Cole Miyahara (playing cornerback for the first time in his career) and safeties Quinn Gooch and Dustin Gabriel shutting out star receiver Jaison Williams and limiting Oregon’s two other biggest receiving threats, Jordan Kent and Dante Rosario, to 45 yards on four catches.

The only facet of the game that the Ducks took flight in was on punt and kickoff returns. Jonathan Stewart logged 117 yards off five kick returns and Patrick Chung picking up 51 yards on three punt returns.

When the final seconds had elapsed from the stadium clock, thousands of blue-clad fans swarmed onto the field, engulfing their Cougar heroes with a season-ending celebratory zeal that had been dormant since the 1997 Cotton Bowl.

For the record, Brigham Young held Oregon to a total offensive output of 260 yards and 23 points below their average output of 31 points per game.  Conversely, the Cougars racked up 548 total yards, scoring 13 more points than the Ducks’ average 25-point yield.

“I’m disappointed. I’m shocked,” Bellotti said afterward. “We didn’t play well. We got out-played and out-coached.”

When asked to reflect on Belotti’s comments from the day before regarding his lack of respect for the Cougar football program, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “I have the utmost respect for Coach Belotti and his staff. I will not address another coach’s comments about our program.”

Perhaps Duck running back Jeremiah Johnson summed up best when he said, “That was a Mountain West team that wasn’t supposed to be as good as us, but they clobbered us.”

Look-back on BYU’s Keys to 2006 Season

The following article titled “Five keys for BYU to go bowling in 2006″ was published last August before the start of the 2006 regular season. As it turned out, the five keys were accurately identified, so we thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the prognostic elements of this article and add commentary where appropriate.

Five keys for BYU to go bowling in 2006

BYU should contend for the MWC title and give fits to every defensive unit it encounters 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 its 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.

Commentary: BYU certainly did challenge every defensive unit it faced this year and both the Arizona and Boston College games were “close and exciting.” The Cougars lost to Arizona on a last-second field goal and had a sure touchdown pass called back by Pac-10 officials for offensive interference (that even the TBS announcers hired by the Pac-10 to call the game disagreed with). The Boston College game was lost in overtime, but BYU clearly outplayed the Eagles in Boston.

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 year-ending ones during the regular season. Some coaches lay off heavy scrimmages in the middle of the week as the season wears on. Legendary USC coach John McKay never allowed his players to 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 it would like at several positions, most notably at cornerback, receiver and the defensive line, so the team has 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.

Commentary: Shortly after this was written, the Cougars lost promising 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive lineman Tom Sorensen, a post-mission transfer from Vanderbilt University. Running back Fui Vakapuna suffered an ankle injury and saw limited action through the second half of the season. Freshman defensive lineman Ian Dulan broke his leg early in the campaign and was lost for the rest of the season. John Beck sat out the Utah State game to rest his injured ankles and then toughed it out the rest of the season. Three defensive backs went down in the final regular-season game against Utah, and ultimately, Ben Criddle was lost for the Las Vegas Bowl game versus Oregon. All in all, BYU had one of its healthiest campaigns in memory and the general health of the team played a significant role in its season-ending 10-game winning streak.

2. 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 beloved 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.

Commentary: The Cougar defense was far better than anyone anticipated and it all started with the rock-solid linebacker corps and the young, inexperienced linemen who stepped up and got the job done in the trenches. Ian Dulan, Matangi Tonga, Jan Jorgensen, Brett Denney, Romney Fuga and Russell Tialavea are all underclassmen who will be holding down the front line for several years to come as they cycle in and out of the lineup (Dulan, Tonga and Fuga intend to serve missions within the next year or two). The defensive backfield managed to stay pretty healthy throughout the season, until the Utah game, and their coverage was drastically improved from the previous seasons. Much of the credit has to go to new defensive backfield coach Jaime Hill.

3. Manage the Schedule Effectively.

Shame on the MWC for allowing TCU a 12-day prep time for its conference home opener against BYU, while the Cougars have fewer than five days to prepare for the Horned Frogs on the road. Road games don’t come tougher than that. Mendenhall 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 versus Air Force on Oct. 28 and Colorado State on Nov. 4. There are also two stretches where the battle weary and wounded Cougars can heal: They’ll have two weeks off after the Oct. 7 home game vs. SDSU and a nine-day break following a Nov. 9 home game versus Wyoming. One non-conference game that must not be underestimated is the Sept. 9 home opener against a wily Tulsa team that is sandwiched between the Arizona and B.C. road contests.

Commentary: Quick–name one national college football analyst who picked the Cougars to beat TCU on the road with just four days off last September. Was there really anyone so bold? Mendenhall and his staff managed the most dangerous twist in the schedule in Fort Worth with flying colors and BYU was off to the races for the remainder of the season.

4. 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 Web site 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.

Commentary: The Cougars’ special teams play improved tremendously from recent years. Opponents failed to score on kickoff or punt returns in 2006, while McKay Jacobson registered a 77-yard TD punt return and Nate Meikle ripped off an 84-yard kickoff return that replays later showed should have been ruled a touchdown. BYU blocked one punt and had one blocked. There were no field goals blocked on either side of the ball. Jared McLaughlin was 14 for 18 in field goal attempts. Two of those misses came in the overtime loss to Boston College on the road. In that game he connected on a 50-yarder, a 45-yarder and a 25-yard FG, while missing on tries from 44 and 49 yards. The Cougars forced 28 turnovers and ended up plus-14 in that all-important category.

5. 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 against Arizona and Boston College could make for a very giddy Cougar Nation, but if that happens, BYU needs to make sure it doesn’t have any letdowns in the games it’s expected to win. All too often in the Gary 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.

Commentary: Dead on. The Cougars won all the games they were expected to win, and then they took care of the most difficult conference business by defeating both TCU and Utah on the road. They ended up 10-2 and won the MWC championship outright with an undefeated record in conference play. They ended up just a couple or three plays shy of an undefeated regular season; and had that happened, they would have played in the Fiesta Bowl instead of Boise State.