Archive for year 2006

UCLA’s 1976 Rose Bowl Champs Reunite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keys to BYU’s 2006 Bowl Hopes

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Avoid/Minimize injuries.

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

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

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

  1. Manage the Schedule Effectively.

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

  1. Special teams need to become a positive factor.

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

  1. Win the games you are expected to win.

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

Q&A: Marvin Philip on Cal and the Jump to the NFL

Marvin Philip was a SuperPrep rated All-County lineman at Oak Ridge High School in Cameron Park, California before heading off to play for the Cal Bears in 2000.  He started several games as a true freshman and then spent the next two years serving an LDS mission in the Midwest region. He regained the starting center position late in his sophomore season (2003) and he was All Pac-10, second team A.P. All-American, and a Rimington Award finalist his junior and senior seasons. He was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL draft by the reigning Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

CG365:  How would you compare the Steelers’ preseason training camp with what you experienced at Cal?

MP:  It’s much more competitive. Everybody in camp was an All-American or superstar of some sort in college, so the competition level is really high. We’ve got guys here that are ten years older than me (laughs) and I’m the oldest rookie here. You’re not just playing with kids—in the NFL you’re playing with grown men.

CG365:  Did you have to sing your Cal fight song in camp yet?

MP: No, they made me get up and sing, but I chose a song that everybody knew, so it became a sing-along. I sang an R&B song by a guy named Donell Jones.

CG365:  What was the title of it?

MP:  “Knocks Me Off My Feet.”

CG365:  And while you were singing it you were looking directly at that defensive lineman you’ve been going up against in camp, right?

MP:  (laughs)  Oh yeah…

CG365: So who have you connected with in camp so far, is there anyone from Cal on the team?

MP:  Yeah, Chidi Iwuoma (sixth year defensive back).  I played with him my freshman year. Back in 2000, he was a senior and I was a true freshman coming in and I had the opportunity to start, so we got to know each other back then.

CG365:  So, you guys have been able to do a little Cal bonding, huh?

MP:  Oh yeah. We talked a little bit when I came here for mini-camp, and he told me how proud he was that we were able to turn the things around at his alma mater.  Cal’s come a long way from when Chidi and I played together.

CG365:  Yes, it’s been an amazing turnaround from when you were first recruited and now Cal’s a perennial Top 20 preseason pick.

MP:  You know, that was the vision that we had, but it took a new coaching staff to bring that about, and it’s fun to see it now.

CG365:  Back to the preseason training camp for a second.  Which training table food is better, the NFL or college?

MP:  (laughs)  Hands down, the NFL.  They treat us much better here. When you’re only allowed to spend so much money on food [like in college] don’t expect it to be too good.  To be honest, I can’t complain, though.  It wasn’t bad in college.

CG365: How about the speed of the game on the playing field—do you notice a huge difference from college?

MP:  Most definitely. I met up with a former teammate of mine from Cal, J.J. Arrington, at our preseason game with the Cardinals and he told me the game is even ten times faster once it hits the regular season. I can’t even imagine that.  I’ve got to get my eyes to move fast enough so I can see all those linebackers.

CG365:  What about those defensive linemen from BYU on the roster—have they been talking any smack with you about how their alma mater should’ve won last year’s Las Vegas Bowl?

MP: Yeah, I talked to Shawn Nua and Chris Hoke about that.  You know they walk around with their BYU shirts, so I have to remind them what happened in last year’s game.

CG365:  And then they pull out their other t-shirts that read “Super Bowl Champions…”  and you’re thinking “You had to wait until you got to the Steelers before you could wear something with “Champion” on it, buddy.”

MP: (laughing) Yep, yep, exactly!

CG365: You know you left behind a pretty loaded Cal team for this year.  Is that sort of bittersweet to you? Do you wish you had another year left?

MP: Well, you know I think I paid my dues there the last two years. Last year we had a great team with a little bit of a quarterback situation. The year before we went 10-1 with the only loss coming to USC, so I played with some good teams there. I think I was ready to move on.  I think they have a chance of playing for the national championship this year. They’re stocked with talent—a lot of youth on that team. Right now, it’s just a matter of getting things to mesh so they can compete on that level.

CG365: Obviously, the first step toward the national championship is winning the Pac-10. What’s it going to take for Cal to dethrone USC?

MP:  I think it’s gonna take a lot of things. They’ve got all the talent in the world to do it, but more than anything else, it’s a matter of getting out on the practice field and finding that chemistry. They’ve got a new offensive line that hasn’t really played with each other and a young quarterback in Nate Longshore, so it’s just a matter of finding that chemistry on that level.

CG365:  So you think Cal’s chances to win the Pac-10 and compete for the national championship really hinges on developing a solid team chemistry this year?

MP: Yes, yes it does.

CG365: Well, it will be interesting to see what happens because the conference appears to be very balanced this year. Marvin, thanks for your time with us. Good luck this year with the Steelers.

MP:  Thank you.

Cougars vs. Wildcats By the Numbers

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.

Cougs Shoot Themselves in Wild West Blunder

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.

Self-Destruction

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.

Potential

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.

Wildcard

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?

AP Top 25 Weekly Recap

NO. 1 OHIO STATE BUCKEYES: Say what you want about which team had the better tune-up for the most important game of the week between the Buckeyes and the Texas Longhorns, but our money’s on OSU with the Northern Illinois game…NIU’s tiny Garrett Wolfe is the real deal, folks, averaging 9.25 yards per touch — who does he think he is, Vince Young? Okay, it’s OSU’s space but check out Wolfe’s stats against a young, but still top 20 defense (287 total yards, 172 rushing on 26 carries, a whopping 6.6 avg, plus five receptions, 115 yards for a 23.0-yard average and a TD)…Jim Tressel wouldn’t mind having another game or two under his boys’ belts before the quest to Austin, current home of the NCAA National Championship…of course, Texas’ “Road to the Rose Bowl” ran through Columbus last year, so it’s only fitting…Do you think Troy Smith & Co. have a bone to pick with the Steers this year? Smith wishes Vince Young was going to be playing. Yeah, right. One thing is for sure: No. 1 or two will be No. 1 next week. The X-factor? Can the young Buckeye defense corral Colt McCoy and shut down his go-to weapons?

NO. 2 TEXAS LONGHORNS: The Longhorns didn’t need this kind of distraction with a rematch from last year against top-ranked Ohio State looming on Saturday, but there it is…starting right cornerback Tarell Brown was arrested early Monday morning (very early) along with teammate Tyrell Gatewood and former Longhorn Aaron Harris and charged with a weapons violation for having a loaded 9 mm pistol on his lap in the backseat …Harris (the driver), Gatewood and Brown were also charged with misdemeanor pot possession…asked whether Brown might be suspended for the OSU game, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik deferred comment to head coach Mack Brown, but added coyly: “One of the things that’s awesome about being at the University of Texas is you have the opportunity to have great depth”…in other words, junior Brandon Foster (5-foot-9, 180) might be the one trying to cover Ted Ginn, Jr. on Saturday instead of Brown.

NO. 3 USC TROJANS: If there ever were any doubters out there who wondered how USC would respond to losing its entire offensive backfield and two key linemen to the NFL, Saturday night’s 50-14 pasting of Arkansas in Fayetteville ought to be strong enough proof that Pete Carroll knows what he’s doing. Air apparent (pun intended) John David Booty was a cool 24-for-36 for 260 yards and three scores. Running back by committee, aka the trio of Washington/Moody/Gable posted 165 yards rushing in 27 collective carries for a nifty 6.1-yard average and two TDs…and the gravy train just keeps on a rollin’…USC has a quiver full of talented frosh that would be starting this year in other D-1 programs. Many will be redshirted by the end of the season, unless injuries force some into the active depth chart. Such is the case with freshman Antwine Perez, who might very well find himself starting versus Nebraska in two weeks in place of free safety Josh Pinkard who tore his ACL and is out for the season. Perez will battle with another freshman, Garrett Green and senior Dallas Sartz, who is platooning at LB with Brian Cushing.

NO. 4 AUBURN TIGERS: New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp used only two linebackers — mostly Will Herring and Karibi Dede — and five defensive backs in a 40-14 victory over Washington State on Saturday, which put a lot of pressure on a rebuilt defensive line…it responded, setting a tone by sacking highly touted Cougar QB Alex Brink on three of the first four plays…meanwhile, corners David Irons and Jonathan Wilhoit took away star WR Jason Hill as an option, and Brink finished 11-of-24 for 76 yards. On the road this week at Mississippi State…it’s always a pleasure to pay a visit to Starkville when the Bulldogs are rebuilding — conversely, it’s a very dangerous place to play when MSU’s weapons are loaded.

NO. 5 NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH: After Georgia Tech’s upset win on the road at Miami last November, Charlie Weis knew this season opener in the Yellow Jackets’ hive was not going to be pretty. Sure enough, the Jackets stung N.D. early and effectively…somehow, Weis came up with an antidote at halftime and the Irish managed to sneak out of Atlanta with the W. Brady Quinn’s quest for Heisman glory was tarnished in the fray (23-of-38, 246 yards, no TDs or INTs, but an anemic 6.5 yards per attempt). He can thank his defense for locking down Calvin Johnson and Reggie Ball in the second half…Major kudos to Tech for holding N.D. to 14 points when the trio of Darius Walker, Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight combined for over 275 total yards. Weis blamed the close call on mental mistakes and aims to have those lapses cleaned up in time for No. 19 Penn State in the home opener this weekend.

NO. 6 WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS: Sophomore QB Pat White threw more (10-of-14 for a career-high 160 yards) and ran less than usual in a season-opening 42-10 rout of Marshall, but that wasn’t necessarily part of a new Mountaineer gameplan…according to head coach Rich Rodriguez, White suffered muscle cramps in the second half…last season, freshman WR Maxwell Anderson — then a senior at Morgantown High School — was parking cars in the WVU Stadium on game days…Saturday, he caught his first pass, a five-yard gain…”We’d like to have gotten Steve Slaton more yards,” said WVU’s All-America center, Dan Mozes, afterward…Slaton only got 203. Talk about taking a breather. That’s what it’ll be when Eastern Washington comes to town this week. And West Virginia fans thought Marshall was a cakewalk…

NO. 7 FLORIDA GATORS: All through spring and preseason practice, Florida coach Urban Meyer grumbled about his running backs…”Maybe we’ll have to play without one,” he joked at one point … or maybe he wasn’t kidding — the Gators’ leading rusher in an opening 34-7 victory over Southern Mississippi was freshman wide receiver Percy Harvin, who carried four times on end-arounds and reverses and gained a team-high 58 yards. The Gators will face a determined but outmanned Central Florida squad in the Swamp this week, which should help them iron out the offensive wrinkles before visiting Tennessee the following Saturday.

NO. 8 LSU TIGERS: The crowd noise peaked at two places during LSU’s 45-3 rout of neighborhood rival Louisiana Lafayette — when QB JaMarcus Russell hit freshman wideout Brandon LaFell with a 58-yard bomb in the first quarter, and when RB Alley Broussard — coming off a knee injury that sidelined him in 2005 — gained 19 yards on his first carry…”I was just excited being back,” Broussard told reporters on Monday. “Just reborn, baby! I mean, it was like I drank about 20 Red Bulls”…and Broussard ran like a red bull, gaining 46 yards in eight carries…he remains third on the depth chart at tailback, however, behind Justin Vincent and converted fullback Jacob Hester … meanwhile, freshman phenom Keiland Williams was inserted in the fourth quarter and gained 13 yards on two carries. LSU’s offense faces a much more difficult task this week versus Arizona. The Wildcats’ defense stuffed a much ballyhooed BYU running game and “held” Heisman candidate John Beck to 286 yards and one TD on 28-for-37 passing, although another TD toss was called back by a highly questionable flag.

NO. 9 FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES: Either the Florida State running game isn’t even close to what it was talked up to be, or the University of Miami has one tough defense…although sophomore Seminole QB Drew Weatherford played well, throwing for 175 yards and hitting key third-down passes of 28 and 34 yards in the third quarter drive that ended in the team’s only touchdown in a 13-10 victory Monday night. Bobby Bowden’s vaunted tailback duo of Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith combined for just two yards on 15 carries…fortunately, placekicker Gary Cismeris slayed the ghost of bad kickers past (Wide Right I, II and III and all that) by drilling a 33-yard field goal to win it. After surviving the Hurricanes Monday night, entertaining Troy State will be a welcome reprieve.

NO. 10 MICHIGAN WOLVERINES: The Wolverines moved up four notches in the AP Poll with a rather unimpressive win at home over Vanderbilt. With Jay Cutler behind center, Vandy could have really made a game of it. Instead, ho-hum…Mike Hart appears to have his wheels back (146 yards, 31 rushes) and Chad Henne continues to produce unimpressive numbers (11-of-23, 136 yards, two TDs, one of which TE Tyler Ecker made a very nice grab). Michigan fans expect far more from the junior QB who is now in his third year of starting for the Maize and Blue. Look for the MAC’s Central Michigan Chippewas to provide better opposition this week if backup QB Dan LeFevour plays. He shredded Boston College’s secondary for 221 yards passing and 72 yards rushing after the Chips’ starting QB was knocked out of the game on the second play.

NO. 11 TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS: “This was the South against the Pacific Coast,” proclaimed Tennessee QB Erik Ainge after throwing for 291 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Volunteers over No. 9 Cal in Knoxville…. funny thing, though — both Ainge and starting Tennessee RB Arian Foster are from, well, the West Coast — Ainge from Hillsboro, Ore., and Foster from San Diego…meanwhile, one wonders how Oklahoma let UT WR Robert Meacham escape Tulsa…Meacham had five catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns against a Bear secondary obviously missing injured cornerback Tim Mixon. The Vols’ reward was a huge 12-spot leap in the AP poll and a break on the schedule with the undersized and rebuilding Falcons of the Air Force Academy coming to Old Rocky Top.

NO. 12 GEORGIA BULLDOGS: The Bulldogs rolled over Western Kentucky, 48-12, but at least the writers covering the game had a juicy quarterback controversy to ask head coach Mark Richt about…senior Joe Tereshinski was 7-for-17 for 90 yards and one touchdown, not exactly numbers calculated to make fans between the hedges forget about D.J. Shockley in his short stint; meanwhile, hotshot freshman Matthew Stafford was 3-of-5 for 40 yards and a touchdown. The Dawgs will face one of the toughest tests of any school in Week 2 when they travel to face Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks on Saturday night. Could a mild upset be brewing down there in South Carolina?

NO. 13 LOUISVILLE CARDINALS: Even with star RB Michael Bush sidelined for the season with a broken right leg, don’t toss the Louisville Cardinals onto the scrap heap just yet…the good news that came out of a 59-28 romp over instate rival Kentucky was that QB Brian Brohm showed no ill effects from last year’s knee injury, even when he was hit hard by Kentucky’s Myron Pryor on one play…”I felt comfortable, and I didn’t even think about it,” Brohm said after throwing for 234 yards and a touchdown…he may have to throw even more with Bush out, but George Stripling, Kolby Smith and Anthony Allen appear capable of replacing Bush to some degree by committee. The Cardinals will have a stat-padding romp in Philly this weekend in the battle of birds when they invade the Temple Owls’ territory.

NO. 14 IOWA HAWKEYES: When you look at Iowa’s schedule, you see a nice build-up in the first four games leading to the home clash vs. Big Ten nemesis and current #1 Ohio State. Division 1-AA Montana was a nice little appetizer before hitting the road this week vs. a Syracuse program struggling to rebuild to competitive status in a reasonable time frame (perhaps the next three years). Syracuse will provide a step up in resistance, but not much of a test here, unless Iowa gets too heady. The next pair of games against in-state rival Iowa State and a questionable Illinois team will provide another step up in competition, with Iowa State at home and the Illini on the road. The Hawkeyes should be 4-0 at that point before hosting the Buckeyes. Yes, we’re getting ahead of ourselves and the Iowa schedule—and to be sure, the Hawkeyes can’t afford to look beyond any game…but it’s there, and it’s worth pointing out the set-up taking place in Iowa City for the arrival of Ohio State. Sometimes schedules can be your friend. We think Iowa’s schedule this year can be very friendly to the program if Kirk Ferentz plays his cards right. There isn’t a better way to christen the newly remodeled Kinnick Stadium than by winning the Big Ten title.

NO. 15 OKLAHOMA SOONERS: Expect an awful lot of Adrian Peterson this season for the Oklahoma Sooners, at least until new quarterback Paul Thompson starts feeling more comfortable…Thompson struggled at times in a surprisingly close 24-17 victory over UAB on Saturday, but Peterson churned out 139 yards in 24 carries, Thompson calling his number 11 straight times at one point…”We just kept feeding him the rock,” Thompson said. The Sooners dropped 5 spots in the AP Poll after their lackluster outing and must now prepare for an improved Washington Huskies unit coming to town which should prove a much more difficult match-up than UAB was supposed to be.

NO. 16 VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES: The Hokies’ emphasis on “Beamerball” (ferocious special teams play) had drifted a bit in recent years, but a renewed commitment to blocking kicks was rewarded with a stuffed field goal and punt in a 38-0 whitewash of Northeastern on Saturday, the 109th and 110th blocks under Frank Beamer…Sean Glennon also did a workmanlike job replacing the ousted Marcus Vick at QB, finishing 15 of 18 for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Virginia Tech heads south to Chapel Hill for a date with the Tar Heels this week. Don’t expect a North Carolina upset this year.

NO. 17 MIAMI HURRICANES: The theory was, run away from All-Conference DE Baraka Atkins of Miami at all cost…the Florida State Seminoles tried that and found 6-8, 265-pound sophomore Calas Campbell waiting for them… Atkins made three tackles in the Canes’ 13-10 loss to FSU, Campbell had five…at South High School in Denver two years ago, Campbell played both ways in football [Coker’s on the hot seat] led all Colorado high school basketball players in rebounding (16 a game) [Coker’s on the hot seat] and threw the shot and discus and triple-jumped on the track team. Did we mention that Larry Coker is on the hot seat in Miami? He’ll easily survive this week’s game vs. Division 1-AA Florida A&M, but look out for the Louisville road trip on Sept 16. If Miami starts the season 1-2, it could take a miracle to save his job come December.

NO. 18 CLEMSON TIGERS: The Tigers had three of the best linebackers in the ACC prior to the season… then Tremaine Billie broke his ankle, and, in Saturday’s opener against Florida Atlantic, All-America candidate Anthony Waters tore his left ACL and will be lost for the season…Waters’ replacement was redshirt freshman Clavell Conner, best known in high school in Richmond, VA as a running back (1,301 yards, 8.2 per carry)…new Clemson QB Will Proctor had his problems early, colliding with James Davis and fumbling on a routine handoff in his first series, getting two passes batted down at the line of scrimmage in his second …the senior finished with 166 passing yards and three TD passes, however. Tough test on the road this week at Boston College will provide a much better idea of where this Clemson squad is headed this year.

NO. 19 PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS: What will Joe Paterno see from the Georgia Tech tapes that he can exploit in South Bend? State had a nice preface to the Fighting Irish air game by facing Akron’s Luke Getsy…The Nittany Lions effectively shut him down (22-42, 160 yards, 2 INTS, 1 TD) but they’ll have to ratchet up their pass rush and receiver coverage a couple notches this week. This could be the last time Paterno ever steps foot on the Notre Dame gridiron as a head coach. Next year’s game is at PSU and there’s no indication of resuming the series on either teams’ future schedules thru 2013.

NO. 20 OREGON DUCKS: Nobody really likes to open the season with a conference game, but the Ducks don’t mind as long as they get a weak Stanford team at home on their schedule from now on…48-10, yawn–Next! This week will be the real test to see where Oregon should really be ranked when they face Fresno State on the road. Are they a fringe Top 25 squad, or should they be set in the mid-teens where Oklahoma is currently positioned? FSU isn’t as strong as they were last year, but never underestimate the Bulldogs when they are protecting their own doghouse. The game is just as important to Fresno State, which is anxious to knock on the BCS door this year with the expanded qualifier parameters. The Ducks hope RB Jonathan Stewart recovers from a sprained ankle in time for the game, but maintain faith that OC Gary Crowton can patchwork any of their talent into a formidable attack on a moment’s notice.

NO. 21 NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS: Last season, under pass-oriented Bill Callahan, the Cornhuskers finished 105th national in rushing offense–unheard of for a school that has produced Mike Rozier, Ahman Green and Eric Crouch over the years…Callahan promised a more balanced offense in 2006, however, and the Huskers delivered in their 49-10 domination of Louisiana Tech, rushing for 252 yards…three of Callahan’s four I backs–Cody Glenn, Marlon Lucky and Brandon Jackson–scored touchdowns. Nebraska fans should feel cheated for the home game they get this week vs. Division 1-AA Nicholls State. Then again, with USC and the L.A. Coliseum on the horizon Sept. 16, Husker Nation might be very grateful for the calm before the storm.

NO. 22 CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS: As mighty of an ascent Tennessee made up the Top 25 ladder this week with its surprisingly easy 35-18 thumping of Cal (plus 12 spots), the Bears hit the mat even harder, almost falling out of the poll completely (minus 13 spots). With all the talent that Jeff Tedford has at his fingertips in Berkeley, it’s pretty difficult to imagine this team ending near the bottom of the polls at season’s end. But it has happened before, and Cal needs to suck it up and begin to salvage its season this week against a battle-hardened veteran Golden Gopher squad that is licking their little buckies at the idea of catching the Bears in punch-drunk mode. Too bad Minnesota doesn’t have the passing attack to balance out its running game. The Gophers will need it versus Cal unless the Bears’ QB woes continue into Week 2.

NO. 23 TCU HORNED FROGS: We won’t know if TCU is the real deal this year until it faces Texas Tech in two weeks. Playing on the road at Baylor for the season opener, the Horned Frogs displayed flashes of firepower, after shooting blanks the entire first half. QB Jeff Ballard was knocked out and replaced by freshman Marcus Jackson, who filled in with a capable performance (11-of-13, 148 yards, two TDS). Credit former Southwest Conference rival Baylor for keeping the contest in suspense by executing a solid gameplan in the first half. The Bears just didn’t have the horses to keep up with TCU in the final two frames. UC-Davis is next up at home in Fort Worth. Expect UC-D to get thumped mightily.

NO. 24 TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS: Texas Tech has had a number of great quarterbacks over the past few years — or, if you prefer the “it’s the system, not the personnel” theory, some quarterbacks with great numbers, but Graham Harrell trumped all of them with his opening performance in a 35-3 victory over SMU on Saturday…the sophomore from Ennis, Texas, where he broke the state high school record with 67 career touchdown passes, threw for 362 yards and five TDs against the Mustangs…by comparison, Cody Hodges (2005) had four TD passes in his debut; Sonny Cumbie (2004) tossed four, B.J. Symons (2003) connected for three and Kliff Kingsbury (2002) had two…”He reminds me of Tom Brady, he’s so calm,” said Red Raider receiver Robert Johnson of Harrell, who now takes aim at Symons’ NCAA record of 5,833 passing yards in a season. Next up for TT will be a very tough road game at UTEP. Look for Harrell and Jordan Palmer (Carson’s kid bro) to light up the night skies of El Paso this Saturday night.

NO. 25 ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS: Now that Dirk Koetter is one game removed from the Sam Keller debacle, in which the Sun Devils dodged an instate upset at the hands of Division 1-AA Northern Arizona, he says, “we have no one to blame but ourselves.” Will the post-Keller funk continue against Nevada this week? Stay tuned. ASU has the Wolfpack at home and a road game at pitiful Colorado next week to ready itself for one of its biggest conference games of the season in Berkeley versus Cal on Sept. 22. Any hopes Koetter & Crew have of stealing the Pac-10 crown this year will be determined with that opening conference game…until then, the menu calls for Wolf and Buffalo and the Sun Devils’ need to lick their plates clean before the Bear is served.