BYU Cougars

Keys to Game vs. UNLV Rebels

Will the real Brigham Young Cougars of 2008 please step forward this game? Since peaking in early September with a near-perfect 59-0 blowout of UCLA, the Cougars have progressively descended beyond mediocrity in just four games, finally hitting rock bottom in Fort Worth last Thursday night.

UNLV can relate. They surprised everyone with a 3-1 start this season, including two shocking overtime upsets over BCS opponents. Since then, they’ve dropped three in a row. They’re edgy and anxious for another upset.

Cougar Keys to defeating UNLV

1. Shut down the Rebels’ passing game. The Cougars will be fine allowing Rebel running back Frank Summers his 83.4 yards per game average. Heck, they can even give up 140 yards to Summers and they’ll survive. But they’d better corral Omar Clayton and his three top receivers—Ryan Wolfe, Phillip Payne and Casey Flair—or they’re in for a boatload of trouble on Saturday.

Clayton is the second-ranked quarterback in the MWC, completing passes at a 59 percent clip with 16 TDs and only two picks. Wolfe has 49 receptions and three TDs, Payne has 24 grabs and seven TDs, and Flair has 31 catches and four scores. Every UNLV win has hinged on the success of its passing game.

2. Establish the rushing attack and don’t abandon it. BYU can easily get a couple hundred yards through the air against any opponent, but it needs to have a balanced offensive attack. The Cougars abandoned the rushing attack too early against TCU last week and paid for it by forcing Max Hall to carry the team with his arm.

Besides chewing up the clock and wearing down UNLV’s defense, a successful Cougar ground game will keep their potentially explosive passing attack on the sideline as much as possible. The teams that have been the most successful against the Rebels this year, such as Nevada and Utah, have had balanced offensive attacks, slightly favoring the run over the pass.

One more item about the Cougar running game. It’s too predictable. Harvey Unga accounts for 87 percent of the yardage from the starting backfield. BYU needs to mix it up with an alternative style of running back (DiLuigi, Latu, or Kariya) lugging the rock out of some new formations. And what about Austin Collie taking the snap from the shotgun and running the option?

3. Put the game away early. Listen, this sounds really simple, but you don’t want to mess around with the Rebels. Especially after you’ve had your hat handed to you in the preceding game. The Cougars need to get their confidence back quickly and nothing will make that happen better than lighting up the scoreboard early and often.

UNLV hasn’t been down at halftime by more than eight points in any game this season. They know what it’s like to hang around and have a chance at the end of the game. Arizona State and Iowa State learned this lesson last month and Air Force narrowly avoided learning this the hard way last week.

Prediction

UNLV and BYU are both hungry teams eager to get back on a winning track. Still, the Cougars have more to play for this season and they have home-field advantage. Expect the scoreboard to light up for both teams. BYU 45, UNLV 28

Report Card vs. UNLV

Final score: BYU 42, UNLV 35
BYU team grade: C-plus

Brigham Young looked like two different teams on the field against UNLV on Saturday. The offense clicked and the defense stumbled time after time. Cougar fans can start writing thank-you notes to Matt Putnam. The backup defensive end shed a block and chased down UNLV quarterback Omar Clayton for a 9-yard loss with seven seconds remaining.

The play forced the Rebels to take their final timeout, and the game ended on the next play when Clayton tossed an ill-advised Hail Mary pass into the end zone for an interception.

Major props also go to UNLV head coach Mike Sanford for his decision to go for a first down with a fourth-and-3 on the Rebel 34 early in the fourth quarter.

Trailing just 31-28 with 11:35 remaining on the clock, Sanford elected to try a quick 5-yard sideline pass. It was one of the few times in the game the Cougar defense wasn’t fooled and the pass was broken up. BYU kicked a field goal five plays later to go up 34-28.

Cougar offense grade: A-minus

Max Hall was on fire at the start of the game, connecting on his first eight passes for 92 yards and two TDs. He was only sacked once, and he could’ve easily avoided it by throwing the ball away. His line for the game was 24 of 30 for 245 yards and four aerial scores. He also picked up 28 yards on three scrambles

The entire offense responded positively to last week’s loss at TCU. The group played turnover-free and balanced football, picking up 205 yards on the ground and 245 in the air.

It was refreshing to see O-coordinator Robert Anae open the playbook a bit more and get the ball into the hands of other playmakers (such as more touches by Fui Vakapuna).

Notable highlights:

• Austin Collie extended his current streak of 100-yard receiving games with 113 yards on seven catches, including two clutch third-down grabs. He returned the opening kickoff 75 yards to set up the Cougars’ first score.
• Freshman WR O’Neill Chambers caught his first touchdown pass of the year.
• Vakapuna had 71 yards on eight carries (8.9.-yard average). On the Cougars’ first possession of the second half, he ripped off gains of 11 and 33 yards and then scored on a 1-yard TD pass from Hall.
• Harvey Unga contributed 85 yards on 20 carries and 24 yards on three receptions.

Cougar defense grade: D

BYU’s defense gave up 465 total yards (353 passing, 112 rushing) and allowed a woeful 11 third-down conversions on 15 attempts. They forced the Rebels to punt just twice, and the only turnover came on the last play of the game when safety Andrew Rich intercepted Clayton’s Hail Mary pass in the end zone.

The only sack of the game was the previously mentioned game-changer by Putnam. Why isn’t this kid playing more?

It was known going into this game that UNLV’s offensive strength was in its passing game with Clayton and his top three receivers. BYU fans knew that their team could give up some serious rushing yardage and still win by shutting down the pass.

As it turned out, the Cougars held the Rebels to 112 yards rushing, but the Y’s porous pass defense was shredded by Clayton (26 of 40, 323 yards) and his backup, Mike Clausen (2 for 3, 30 yards).

Whatever the plan was for defending the Rebel passing game, it didn’t work.

Cougar Special Teams grade: B

The special teams offered a mixed performance against UNLV. Collie’s 75-yard kickoff return was the major highlight, and the blocked punt recovered by Brandon Bradley in the second quarter also turned out to be critical.

So did Mitch Payne’s two fourth-quarter field goals (26- and 39-yarders). Without Payne’s six points, the Rebels could have been playing for a field goal at the end of the game instead of being forced to score a touchdown.

Justin Sorensen twice sent his kickoffs out of bounds, which gave UNLV excellent field position on its 40-yard line. The Rebels proceeded to score touchdowns after both of Sorensen’s penalized kicks.

Keys to Game vs. Colorado State Rams

Cougar fans, if you think playing Colorado State in Fort Collins is going to be a cakewalk, think again. The Rams are 3-1 at home, including wins over two above-average passing teams in UNLV and Houston. Their only loss at home was to TCU, 13-7, and they blew ample opportunities to win that game.

Colorado State is a Jekyll and Hyde outfit. Put them on the road this year and the result is completely opposite. They struggled at San Diego State in their only win, and got creamed by Cal (42-7), Utah (49-16) and by Colorado in Denver (38-17).

Expect the Rams’ better half to show up Saturday.

Cougar keys to the game

1. Shut down the Rams’ playmakers. The math is simple in breaking down the Rams’ offensive equation. CSU has relied on five key players to provide nearly 90 percent of its scoring power. Bottling up these playmakers is easier said than done, but if the Cougars can manage to minimize the contributions of Gartrell Johnson on the ground, and two of Billy Farris’ three favorite receivers, mission accomplished.

Johnson is a solid running back, averaging 4.6 yards per carry (161 tries, 746 yards, six TDs) and he has good hands (17 receptions, 115 yards). Farris averages over 212 yards passing per game, completing his attempts at better than a 65 percent clip (148 for 227, 1,703 yards, nine TDs).

His three targets that are eager to shred BYU’s suspect secondary are wideouts Rashaun Greer (40 grabs, 17.9 yards per catch), Dion Morton (26 catches, 15.7 yards per) and tight end Kory Sperry, who leads all Ram receivers with five TDs (30 receptions, 12.4 YPC).

2. Go plus-2 on turnovers. More simple math. Colorado State has capitalized on turnovers in each of its wins this season. Conversely, they haven’t held on to the ball very well in their losses. In their close loss to TCU at home a few weeks ago, they lost a close turnover battle, 3-2.

The Cougars need to make sure they protect the ball on offense and get really nasty with some takeaways on defense. They’ll need the plus-2 margin in turnovers to win this one because it should be close.

3. Keep that offensive machine running. BYU’s balanced attack last week against UNLV was vital to winning the shootout. The Rebel defense was visibly fatigued in the final quarter, giving up 14 points and relinquishing the lead for good. Don’t overlook the fact that 209 of the Cougars’ 454 total yards came on the ground.

BYU’s offensive linemen take pride in their pass protection abilities, but they love to run block where they can thrust their massive frames around and stick it to their opponents. They look like a gridiron version of the bulls of Pamplona when the linemen truly go on the offensive and scatter defender bodies left and right, opening up lanes that baby bulls Harvey Unga and Fui Vakapuna can burst through.

When the running game is moving the ball well, Max Hall and his receiver corps reap the rewards, and the scoreboard gets more exercise.

Prediction

The weather in Fort Collins on Saturday will be conducive to moving the ball through the air. Partly cloudy temperatures are expected to reach a high of 74 and then gradually start cooling down into the low 60s before game time. I don’t have a lot of faith in BYU’s pass defense right now and I don’t see quick improvement happening in that area for this matchup. The Cougars should be able to contain Johnson, but unless they get some serious pressure on Farris, he could have a career day passing. Look for another shootout this weekend that could come down to the leg of Ram kicker Jason Smith. BYU 42, Colorado State 39.

Report Card vs. Colorado State

BYU 45, Colorado State 42
Cougar team grade: C-plus

After yielding 42 points Saturday to Colorado State—20 more than the Rams were averaging—the Cougars have now given up 109 points in their last trio of games. Remember those two early season back-to-back shutouts over UCLA and Wyoming? Don’t try to figure out where that team went. It will drive you crazy.

Just hope they figure out how to get some of that mojo back on defense before they hit the road to Colorado Springs and Salt Lake City later this month.

Cougar Offense grade: B

Despite three turnovers that contributed to half the Ram scoreboard, the offense is beginning to click like the version folks saw earlier this season.

First, the bad. Max Hall fumbled on BYU’s second play from scrimmage and the Rams cashed it in for seven points and a quick lead. Much later in the game, with three minutes remaining, he tossed an ill-advised pass that was intercepted. One play later, CSU scored on a 55-yard touchdown pass. J.J. Diluigi fumbled in the fourth quarter and the Rams scored four plays later. That’s 21 points the offense gave the Rams.

Fortunately for BYU, the good was really good. Hall managed to overcome his two turnovers with 391 yards passing (28 of 35 with five TDs). His two favorite targets had huge games: Dennis Pitta had 12 receptions for 175 yards and two TDs. Austin Collie had his seventh straight 100-yard receiving performance with nine for 159 yards and three touchdowns. Michael Reed was largely overlooked with 16 yards gained on two receptions. Still, opposing defenses respect him and he keeps them honest on his side of the field.

Harvey Unga bulled out 130 yards on 24 carries (5.4 per-attempt average) and scored the Cougars’ other touchdown. Fui Vakapuna only had two carries, but he picked up 17 clutch yards and caught another pass for seven.

Cougar Defense grade: C

The numbers don’t lie. The Cougar defense isn’t the same animal it was earlier this season. Still, with the offense bailing it out, the unit’s bend-but-not-break personality managed to work once again.

The defense gave up 392 total yards (270 passing, 122 rushing) and Colorado State scored on two long pass plays. Gartrell Johnson became the first 100-yard rusher against BYU this season with 102 yards on 18 carries (5.7 per try).

Even though it seemed like Billy Farris could pass at will against the Y, he barely completed over 50 percent of his throws (18 of 35). The Rams converted 5 of 12 third-down attempts and failed once on a fourth-down try. That’s a big improvement over the 11 for 15 third-down conversions UNLV recorded last week against the Cougars.

If you take away the seven points Hall handed to the Rams on the first possession of the game, the short field the Rams picked up on their fourth-quarter interception that led to a quick score, and the questionable penalty on the blocked punt attempt that led to CSU’s second touchdown, the defense played well enough to win this game better than the final score indicates.

Cougar Special Teams grade: B

The Cougar special teams turned in a solid, above-average performance. Mitch Payne was perfect on six extra point attempts and he nailed a 30-yard field goal that turned out to be the winning margin. Justin Sorensen recorded four touchbacks off seven kickoffs.

C.J. Santiago punted twice for a 48.5-yard average. Spencer Hafoka fumbled a punt early in the fourth quarter that Brandon Howard recovered after losing 18 yards from the fumble point.

Collie averaged over 25 yards per kick return on four tries. O’Neill Chambers returned two kicks for a 21.5-yard average. The Rams averaged 29 yards per kickoff return on three opportunities and 9 yards per punt return

Keys to Game vs. San Diego State Aztecs

Some analysts say that all you need to know about this weekend’s matchup is that the BYU Cougars have won their five home games this year by a 207-55 margin, and San Diego State has been outscored 202-47 in losing all five of its road contests. They are probably right.

However, there’s really more to figuring out this game than the potential margin of victory.

With a share of the MWC championship and a BCS invitation still a legitimate possibility if they finish the regular season 11-1, the Cougars cannot afford to overlook any opponent.

Key to defeating the Aztecs

1. Focus on this game and put it away quickly. The Cougars have two incredibly tough road games against Air Force and Utah after the contest with the Aztecs, but they can’t take this one for granted.

Two months ago, San Diego State went to South Bend, Ind., and nearly upset Notre Dame. Six losses later, it can be argued that the Aztecs are totally deflated and incapable of putting up any sort of battle like they did against the Fighting Irish. That is precisely why the Cougars need to get after the Aztecs and put the game out of reach within the first 40 minutes of regulation.

Aside from their only win (over Idaho), the only team besides Notre Dame to allow the Aztecs to hang around was Colorado State. The Aztecs raced to an early lead and fought the Rams all the way before losing 38-34. In that game, the Aztecs’ Atiyyah Henderson rushed for 177 yards and Ryan Lindley passed for 166 (24 of 33 with a touchdown and a pick).

2. That’s it. What—no other keys to winning this game? Well, no disrespect to San Diego State, but the fact is that the Cougars haven’t lost at home since the end of the 2005 season, 18 games ago. This is their last game at home this year. They have survived two consecutive last-minute shootouts the past couple of weeks, and they are extremely motivated to put a complete game together and use it as a launching point for the final two contests of the season. The defense is going to look better, and there’s no stopping Max Hall, Austin Collie, Dennis Pitta and Harvey Unga in this game.

Conversely, the Aztecs are playing for little more than scant pride and a desire to get the season over with.

Prediction

BYU’s offense is humming and the defense is struggling, but both units will turn in solid performances against San Diego State in the final home game of 2008. The only question mark in this game is how long coach Bronco Mendenhall will keep the starters on the field. BYU 49, SDSU 10

Report Card vs. San Diego State

Final score: BYU 41, San Diego St. 12
Team grade: B-plus

As expected, the Cougars ran into little resistance Saturday against the Aztecs in their final home game of the 2008 season. Now sporting a 9-1 record, BYU’s win marked the 18th straight home victory — a school record.

Two staunch conference rivals remain on the Cougars’ schedule and they’ll need to vanquish both of them if they want to grab a share of the MWC title this year. BYU travels to Colorado Springs next week to face the Air Force Academy and Salt Lake City on Nov. 22 to take on bitter rival Utah.

Cougar Offense: B-plus

First, the negatives. The Aztec defense gave up an average of 292 yards on the ground per game entering the BYU contest. BYU gained just 101 yards rushing on 37 carries (2.7 yards per try). Harvey Unga had only 38 yards on 12 carries before leaving in the third quarter with a shoulder stinger. The team’s lone turnover was a fumble that SDSU converted into a field goal near the end of the third quarter. The Cougars were also a disappointing 46 percent on third-down conversions (6 for 13).

Max Hall (25 of 30 for 319 yards and three TDs) had another solid game in hooking up with his three top receivers. Austin Collie extended his streak of 100-yard receiving games to eight with nine catches, 126 yards and two touchdowns, including a 61-yard TD grab. Senior Michael Reed compiled 97 yards on five catches, featuring a 56-yarder, and Dennis Pitta added 60 more yards on five receptions.

Senior Wayne Latu carried three times for 15 yards and a touchdown. Does anyone else notice how much quicker Latu hits the line of scrimmage than Unga and Fui Vakapuna?

Cougar Defense: B-plus

The Aztecs entered the game averaging 231 yards passing and 66 yards rushing per contest. BYU held them to 163 yards passing (68 yards below their average) and gave up 119 yards rushing (53 yards above their mean). The Cougars intercepted Ryan Lindley once and recovered three fumbles for a plus-3 turnover margin.

Senior linebacker David Nixon registered 14 tackles and snagged the Y’s lone interception.

It would be refreshing to say that the Cougar secondary was responsible for holding Lindley to 19 of 34 passing (4.5 yards per attempt), but Lindley’s inconsistency in delivering an accurate ball had more to do with his final stats than the defense.

BYU held San Diego State a touchdown below its 18-point-per-game average.

Cougar Special Teams: A-minus

Mitch Payne was a perfect 5 for 5 on extra points and nailed two field goals from 33 and 25 yards out. Justin Sorensen had just one touchback on eight kickoff attempts. C.J. Santiago averaged 41.5 yards on four punts, nailing one inside the 20-yard line.

Collie returned one kickoff for 41 yards and O’Neill Chambers totaled 63 kickoff return yards on three tries. Reid White returned one punt for a yard.

The Cougars gave up 21 yards on one punt return and quashed the other two SDSU attempts for minus-4 yards. The Aztecs picked up 110 yards on six kickoff returns.