BYU Cougars

Keys to Game vs. Air Force Falcons

All signs point to another nail-biter for the BYU Cougars this weekend in Colorado Springs. The Air Force Falcons haven’t been winning with many style points this season on their way to compiling a solid 8-2 record, and yet they’re only 15 points shy of registering a perfect record.

BYU absolutely must execute better in every phase of its game than it has previously this year. As always, the Falcons are a disciplined squad. They make few mistakes and are quick to capitalize on any capitulation by their opponents.

The Falcon formula for success is perfectly designed to pierce the Cougars’ Achilles heel. They are the leading defenders against the pass in the MWC and 10th-ranked in the nation, yielding just 167 yards per game. On offense, they lead the MWC and are third-ranked in the nation, averaging 275 yards on the ground. None of the top five Falcon ballcarriers average under 4.0 yards per carry.

So, it’s no secret the Falcons aim to clamp down on the BYU passing attack and chew up huge chunks of time and turf with lengthy, methodical possessions.

Three keys to defeat Air Force

1. Zero turnovers. It’s not enough to win the turnover margin against the Falcons — the key is to commit none. Zero. The Flyboys excel in cashing their opponents’ turnovers into paydirt.

Need evidence? Earlier this season, Houston racked up 534 total yards (362 through the air) but turned the ball over twice. The Falcons converted a Houston fumble into a touchdown in the first half and then quashed a sure Houston go-ahead score in the fourth quarter when they intercepted Case Keenum inside the Air Force red zone. The Falcons won the game, 31-28.

Last week, the Falcons intercepted Colorado State’s Billy Farris twice within less than three minutes in the second half and turned each miscue into a TD to expand their close 21-17 halftime lead into an insurmountable 35-17 advantage.

In the two contests the Falcons lost this season (to Utah, 30-23, and to Navy, 33-27), they were able to convert only one of three Ute turnovers into a score, and none against the Midshipmen.

2. Limit the Falcons to 250 total yards. This sounds rather improbable, if not downright impossible, but keep in mind that Utah held AF to 191 total yards (53 rushing, 138 passing) and the Utes still had to gut out the winning touchdown at the 1:08 mark of the fourth quarter to avoid an overtime-dictated finish.

The Utes compiled 440 total yards against the Falcons and turned the ball over three times, but as pointed out above, Air Force failed to cash in on the Utah turnovers.

Behind the stellar play of freshman quarterback Tim Jefferson, AFA has added even more complexity to its multi-option attack. Last week against Colorado State, Jefferson surgically threaded six completions in eight attempts for 171 yards and two touchdowns (a whopping 21.4 yards per pass) to lead the Falcons to a solid three-touchdown margin over the Rams.

It will be very difficult for the Cougars to achieve this key. The only way to overcome the Falcons piling up the yardage will be by forcing a plus-3 turnover margin complemented with several quick-strike touchdowns.

3. Build a two-touchdown halftime lead. Remarkably, the only team Air Force has trailed heading into halftime was the MWC’s last-place San Diego State. And that didn’t last long. The Falcons quickly erased a three-point deficit in the second half and finished on top, 35-10.

Sure, the Cougars could win this game if they trail at halftime, but it would play right into the Falcons’ strength and their ability to eat up clock time. Already well ahead of Colorado State in the fourth quarter last week, the Falcons controlled the ball the remaining nine minutes and 21 seconds of the game.

In a contest where both teams might only get five or six possessions in the final two quarters, a two-TD halftime lead for the Cougars could be necessary to come out on top. Max Hall and his array of offensive weaponry (Collie, Pitta, Reed, Unga or Vakapuna) will need to put together a huge game this Saturday.

Prediction

The Air Force Academy’s only two losses this season both occurred in the friendly confines of Falcon Stadium. However, both setbacks were decided within the final five minutes of regulation playing time. This is also the final home game of the season for the Academy. Add in the revenge factor for three straight losses to the Cougars, and this nationally televised game figures to be a proverbial dogfight. I’m not convinced this BYU team is battle-hardened enough to pull off a road win against the hungry Falcons. Air Force 34, BYU 30

Report Card vs. Air Force

BYU 38, Air Force 24
Team grade: B-plus
RF365 Player of the Game: Austin Collie, BYU (seven receptions, 130 yards, two TDs)

This contest was undecided until Max Hall connected with Austin Collie on a 45-yard touchdown pass with 4:46 remaining on the clock. BYU did everything it could to make the game closer than it should have been with 64 yards in penalties and two turnovers by Hall.

The Cougars gave the momentum away near the end of the first half with Air Force taking the lead, 17-14. However, they owned the third quarter with three touchdowns—two of them coming within just over a minute of each other when Spencer Hadley knocked the ball loose from kick returner Reggie Rembert at the Air Force 20-yard line. BYU recovered the ball and scored three plays later on Harvey Unga’s second touchdown run of the game. The 21 third-quarter points were the most the Falcons had yielded in a quarter this year.

The win moves the Cougars to 10-1 on the season and sets up a showdown for the MWC title next week in Salt Lake City against the Utah Utes. A win would give BYU a share of the title with Utah, and possibly TCU, pending the Horned Frogs’ outcome against Air Force next weekend.

Cougar Offense grade: B

The Cougars scored more points against the Falcons than any other team has this season. Take away the penalty yards and Hall’s two turnovers, and BYU could have won in a blowout with a score in the range of 52-21. Add the three QB sacks the O-line gave up and hence, the grade of B.

Hall was 9 for 9 passing to start the game and finished 28 for 37 for 356 yards and two TDs—both to Collie, whose seven grabs rendered 130 yards, giving him his ninth straight 100-yard performance. He also picked up 23 yards on two carries.

Dennis Pitta left the game early in the fourth quarter with a leg injury, but he piled up 114 yards on nine receptions before that. Tight end Andrew George had five big grabs for 62 yards and Michael Reed added 23 yards on two catches.

Harvey Unga and Fui Vakapuna provided a solid 1-2 punch when the ground game was called on, generating 118 yards on 26 carries as a duo.

Cougar Defense grade: B-plus

Considering the importance the Air Force game carried, the defense turned in one of its finest performances of the year. Take away the short field and resulting touchdown the Falcons got on Hall’s fumble, and the defense would have held the Flyboys to their second-lowest scoreboard on the season.

BYU’s typical bend-but-don’t-break type of defense actually worked for the most part against the Falcons. The Cougars gave up 320 rushing yards, including five long gainers on the ground of 18 yards or more, but they clamped down on Tim Jefferson and the Falcons’ fledgling passing attack, giving up just 98 total yards through the air.

The Brigham Young defense held Air Force to a 35.7 percent third-down conversion rate (roughly 8 percent less than its 43.5 percent season average).

Cougar special teams grade: A

The Cougar special teams did everything necessary to help ensure a victory over the Falcons. Mitch Payne banged in a 46-yard field goal and was perfect on five extra point attempts.

C.J. Santiago’s punt average of 34.8 yards is deceiving because he had a short field on three of his four tries. On each of those three short field punts, Santiago placed the pigskin inside the Falcon 20.

Nothing special to note on the Cougar kickoff returns. Ditto on defending the Air Force returns.

Keys to Game vs. Utah Utes

Well, it’s here. Just like most of us envisioned three months ago. The BYU Cougars and the Utah Utes are heading into the final game of the regular season with the MWC title on the line and a potential BCS invitation looming on the horizon. Never before in the history of this rivalry have both teams been ranked as high as they are this season.

Recent history dictates that we can take everything we know about both teams and throw it out the window. Forget about the rankings, the stats, and the media hype. This rivalry has only had two blowouts in the past 20 years—1989 (BYU 70-31) and 2004 (Utah 52-21). All the other games have been decided by 10 points or fewer. The same goes for home-field advantage. The road team has won 12 times in the past 18 clashes.

As of Friday, the day before the game, Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged Utah as a four-point favorite.

Three keys to defeat the Utes

1. Play with intense passion. When the Cougars headed into the locker room at halftime last weekend in Colorado Springs losing 14-10 to Air Force, wide receiver Austin Collie called out his teammates for their lack of, among other things, a killer instinct. It worked and the Y scored 21 points in the third quarter to regain the lead for good.

Whatever it takes, the Cougars need to play with fire in their bellies on Saturday–the kind that keeps them fighting until the final tick of the game clock is expired. With their perfect season on the line, you can bet the Utes will play with a maniacal attitude and fight to the finish.

2. Rule the day with the big play. In a game as closely matched as this one appears to be, the outcome will likely come down to which team makes more big plays than the other.

The psychological element of the big play is huge, especially in a rivalry game where the home crowd can be whipped into a furious frenzy or muffled in groans. Every time the Cougars can manage to pull off a long gainer for a score, force a turnover, or stuff a key third-down conversion attempt, they’ll seize the momentum and drive a very sharp and real point of doubt into the heart of the home team and its fans.

3. Mitigate the Brian Johnson factor. He’s cool and calm under pressure, the most visible leader of his team, and a senior playing his last game in front of the hometown crowd. He has a never-say-die attitude and he knows how to win.

So, how do you keep Johnson from beating you? Good question. Nobody’s been able to figure that one out this year.

The key is to bottle up the passing lanes and smother his receivers. Easier said than done because he’s got a bevy of talented receivers beginning with Brent Casteel, Freddie Brown and Bradon Godfrey.

But Johnson has been one-dimensional ever since his massive knee injury. He’s not going to beat you tucking the rock and taking it vertical. He did that once this year, but the stats reveal his vulnerability. He’s been sacked 22 times and is averaging 1.3 yards per carry, the lowest on the Utah squad.

If the Cougars hope to defeat the Utes, they’ll need to hold Johnson to fewer than 200 yards passing and less than a 60 percent completion rate. In the closest games that Utah has played this year, Air Force held him to 243 yards, New Mexico kept him at 195, TCU limited his yardage to 230, and Oregon State capped him at 201 yards on a 56.7 completion rate.

Prediction

I’m really torn on this one. I didn’t think Brigham Young would be able to take the Falcons at home last weekend, but it proved me wrong. I see the Cougars playing with a fierce passion that will make their fans proud, and they should play the Utes as tough as any of the four opponents that took them to the wire this season. Still, I don’t believe they can contain Johnson and his receivers, nor can they keep them from making one more big play that decides the game. It looks like this is the year of the Utes: Utah 34, BYU 28

Report Card vs. Utah

Utah 48, BYU 24
BYU team grade: C-plus

You would think that with a score of 48-24 in favor of the Utes, BYU’s team grade would be worse, but were it not for Max Hall’s fumble and five interceptions Saturday, the Cougars very likely would have won.

Four of Hall’s six turnovers were converted into easy touchdowns—three of them coming in the fourth quarter when the score had been as close as 27-24 with Brigham Young driving when Hall fumbled. The Utes scored off that and then on the next two drives Hall threw ill-advised passes that turned into 14 more quick points.

The six turnovers by Hall set a BYU record for giveaways by an individual player in a single game.

Despite the six turnovers, the Cougars compiled more total yardage (418 to 416) and rushed for more yards than any other team has on the Utes this season with 214 (120 over the Utah average of 94 per game).

BYU also did not allow any sacks in the game, the first time this season the Utes had been shut out from sacking an opponent.

Cougar offense grade: C-minus

Again, take away just half of Hall’s six turnovers, and BYU’s offense played well enough to beat Utah.

• Solid pass protection provided by the offensive line—no sacks
• Rushing game totaled 214 yards. Could have had far more than that but just when the Cougars would move the ball on the ground with ease, Hall would turn it over.
• Harvey Unga and Fui Vakapuna both averaged over 7.7 yards per carry. Why BYU abandoned the running game when it was working so well is a mystery. Unga finished with 116 yards and two TDs on 15 carries (7.7 yards per try) and Vakapuna had 36 yards on four rushes (9.0-yard average).
• Austin Collie extended his streak of 100-yard receiving games to 10 with 104 yards on 10 catches. He also added 14 yards on two rushing attempts.

Hall also had six passes batted down by the Utah defensive front. He finished with his worst stats of the year (21 of 41 for 204 yards, five picks, zero passing TDs, one rushing TD).

Cougar defense grade: B

The defense was sliced and diced by Brian Johnson in the first quarter as Utah raced to a 17-3 lead on Johnson’s 254 passing yards—most of it on quick throws. The Cougars were only down 20-17 with a minute left in the first half when Hall threw his first pick and Utah converted it into a quick touchdown to make the halftime score 27-17.

The Cougar defense made good adjustments at the intermission and clamped down on Johnson, holding him to 46 yards passing in the second half.

The defense also limited Utah to just 110 yards rushing (64 yards below the Utes’ per-game average).

The most telling stat on how Hall’s turnovers affected the outcome of this game: Utah scored on five of its six possessions in the first half—one of those coming off a Hall interception right before the halftime whistle. The Cougar defense stopped Utah’s offense three drives in a row to begin the second half before Hall was picked off on three straight possessions, which handed the ball over to the Utes on BYU’s 31-, 4- and 29 yard-lines in those three turnarounds.

Cougar special teams grade: B

The Cougar special teams performed well enough to contribute to a win.

Collie set up BYU’s first three points with a 70-yard kickoff return in the first quarter. He had a 33.5-yard average per return (134 yards on four tries). O’Neill Chambers added 91 yards on four returns (22.8).

C.J. Santiago logged a 54.5 per-punt average on two boots, and Mitch Payne nailed all three extra point attempts and a 40-yard field goal.

The Cougars provided solid coverage on the Utah kickoff and punt return attempts.

Keys to Las Vegas Bowl vs. Arizona Wildcats

What’s at stake for both teams…

Arizona: 8-5 final record instead of 7-6; Pac-10 pride; capping off Mike Stoops’ most successful season in Tucson; first bowl game victory in 10 years; launching point for 2009.

BYU: Third consecutive 11-2 final record; third consecutive bowl game victory; top 15 season-ending ranking; catapult to high preseason ranking in 2009; and, enhancing Mountain West Conference status with another win over Pac-10 foe.

Historical context of an original WAC rivalry

For those who can only remember the most recent two games played between the Wildcats and Cougars that resulted in a split decision (Arizona won 16-13 in Tucson in 2006; BYU won 20-7 in Provo in 2007), there’s a lot more gridiron history between these schools than you might think.

The rivalry that used to exist between the two programs began in 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 1-A scheduling standards, with Arizona rolling off three consecutive wins (1962-64) followed by BYU’s own three-game victory 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 over a 10-year span.

BYU’s two greatest all-time coaches both managed .500 win-loss records against Arizona. Tommy Hudspeth was 4-4 and his squads rolled off three straight conquests over the ‘Cats. Lavell Edwards’ boys went 3-3 against Arizona, clearly turning the corner on the rivalry with two 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 feathered regularly by a lowly WAC school they had once seemed to dominate?

The 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 18.6-16.8 scoring average over BYU in 13 previous contests. Under the stoic, pass-happy Master, the Cougs sported a 21.8-20.6 scoring advantage, thanks to the increase in offensive output during the last six games of the rivalry.

So, that’s the table Edwards & Co. set for the renewal of the rivalry given to Bronco Mendenhall 29 years later. With the two-game split the past two years, and no other contests scheduled in the future, the Las Vegas Bowl matchup will be the 22nd game in the rivalry, where the series now stands at 9-11-1 for the Blue and White — or 11-9-1 for the Blue and Red, however you prefer.

Even though Saturday’s contest is the rubber match between Stoops’ Wildcats and Mendenhall’s Cougars in the present day, it’s most important as an indicator of where each program is heading in the coming year.

Keys to the game – BYU

Brigham Young doesn’t require a rocket-science strategy to defeat Arizona. 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 game plan and help to mask some of the Y’s weaknesses in the defensive secondary.

The Y offensive line has to give Harvey Unga (4.8 yards per carry and 10 TDs in ’08) and bruiser Fui Vakapuna some consistent shafts of daylight to roll up the yardage on the ground and wear down Arizona’s front seven. The rushing attack has to be successful in order to open up some deep space for wide receivers Austin Collie and Michael Reed to maneuver.

Max Hall must play mistake-free and use the short passing game with tight ends Dennis Pitta and Andrew George to keep Wildcat linebackers from crowding the box. Special teams need to convert every field goal opportunity and create either turnovers or huge field position shifts with their kicking and coverage game.

The Cougars will win if they can generate 400 total yards in offense and end up equal or better in the turnover category.

Keys to the game – Arizona

In the past two contests against BYU with Willie Tuitama at quarterback, the Cougars were effective in mitigating the Wildcat passing game with intense pressure on the pocket. Arizona can expect more of the same this time around. The Cougars are willing to roll the dice and see if the ‘Cats can beat them with their running game.

Unfortunately, they can. Nic Grigsby (1,066 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 12 TDs) and Keola Antolin (4.5 ypc and 10 TDs) are one of the most dangerous rushing tandems BYU will face this year. Both backs hit the line of scrimmage quickly and can dart out of danger and turn on burst-away speed. Antolin’s signature game this season came in a win over Cal when he rushed for 149 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries. He’s just a freshman who will be playing in front of his hometown crowd in Las Vegas.

The key indicator that Arizona’s offense is more balanced and can get the job done when its two backs are clicking is Tuitama’s per-game passing yards average. His average dropped 77 yards per game from 307 in 2007 to 230 this season.

Tuitama is a seasoned field general who has learned to take what the defense will give him. And, he has two excellent targets with massive sophomore tight end Rob Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 260), who has 43 receptions and 10 TDs this year, and fleet senior wide receiver Mike Thomas (70 grabs, four TDs). The AZ offense needs to maintain a balanced offense and control the ball and the clock in order to beat the Cougars.

Defensively, the Wildcats’ mission looks simple on paper but good luck delivering it on the field. Only TCU and Utah, the second- and 12th-ranked defenses in the nation, have been able to thwart Max Hall and BYU’s passing attack and limit the Cougar ground game at the same time.

However, it’s worth noting that Brigham Young O-coordinator Robert Anae abandoned his rushing attack far too soon in both of the Cougar losses. Against TCU, Unga only carried the ball four times in the second half, yet still managed 53 yards on a 3.8 per-carry average. BYU rolled up 214 rushing yards against Utah, but only attempted running the ball 10 times in the second half as Hall was forced into five turnovers while attempting to air it out.

Still, if the Wildcats take away BYU’s air attack — limiting Hall to fewer than 225 passing yards — and force the Cougars to beat them on the ground they can win this one.

Prediction

Both teams are pretty evenly matched, so expect an intangible or two to play a factor in the result. BYU only defeated two teams with winning records during the season and one of them was Division 1-AA #4 ranked Northern Iowa. Arizona beat just one winning team on its schedule (Cal, 42-27).

Both teams sport veteran offensive units that can score on any defense. Conversely, both defenses have been inconsistent. The Wildcats gave up 36 points in a road loss to New Mexico while the Cougars held the Lobos to three points at home. Arizona’s best defensive effort came in a 17-10 home loss to USC, and BYU’s came in a 59-0 blowout of UCLA in the friendly confines of Lavell Edwards Stadium. And yet, UNLV put up 35 points on the Cougars, followed by 42 points racked up by Colorado State in the second half of the season.

Look for this to be a close game that comes down to the difference of a field goal. Because Arizona is 2-4 on the road and playing in its first bowl game since 1998, I’ll give the edge to the Cougars, who are 4-2 on the road, but more importantly, playing in the Las Vegas Bowl for the fourth year in a row. BYU’s familiarity with the venue and the nuances of preparing for a postseason bowl game give it the slight edge in this contest. BYU 27, Arizona 24

Las Vegas Bowl Report Card vs. Arizona

Arizona 31, BYU 21
BYU Team Grade: C

Max Hall was unable to shake the turnover bug he caught against Utah in the last game of the regular season, and gave the ball away three times to Arizona in a 31-21 loss at the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday. Three missed field goals and 76 yards in penalties were also key in the Cougars’ self-destruction effort.

Hall ended the season with nine turnovers in BYU’s final two games.

Losing 10-7 at the half, the Cougars recovered a fumble by Wildcat QB Willie Tuitama on the first play of the third quarter and scored a few plays later to take the lead at 14-10.
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