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Archive for August, 2008

Cougar Football 2007 Look-back

Last summer, BYU Cougar Fan sent an early list of Christmas wishes to Santa regarding the 2007 football season. Of his 10 wishes, nearly every one was granted. Before we post Cougar Fan’s 2008 wish list later this week, let’s take a look back at last year’s letter and find out how his stocking got stuffed with some pretty amazing results …

Summer 2007

Dear Santa,

I realize my wishes are being sent rather early this year, but because college football’s regular season will be over before Christmas, it’s pretty important to get them in your mailbox this summer.

As much as I’d like to make it easy on you with a simple wish for another conference title and bowl game victory for the Cougars this year, I know the team has to achieve those goals on its own.

So here’s my list — 10 wishes that I hope you’ll consider on behalf of every fan of the blue and white.

Sincerely,

BYU Cougar Fan

Note: Cougar Fan didn’t include a conference championship and bowl game victory in his list of 10 wishes below, but he did mention them and the results are noteworthy: A second straight undefeated conference season, second straight MWC championship and a second straight Las Vegas Bowl victory over a Pac-10 foe. After a season like that, what else really matters?

Cougar Fan’s 10 wishes for 2007:

1. That Max Hall follows in John Beck’s footsteps as ably as he did at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz. And if not Mad Max, then how about Brenden Gaskins to the rescue?

Wish granted: Hall passed for 3,848 yards and 26 TDs en route to first-team All-MWC honors.

2. That Mark Weber follows up on Jeff Grimes’ great offensive line coaching and leads the O-line to an even higher level of execution and excellence.

Wish granted: The O-line yielded only 20 sacks on 503 pass attempts in 13 games (1.54 sacks per contest), good enough for 34th best in the nation. The running game averaged 144.4 yards per matchup. Is there room for improvement, though? You bet. NCAA D-1 leader Tennessee surrendered a meager four sacks on 519 pass attempts in 2007.

3. That Fui Vakapuna’s ankle is fully healed. Ditto for J.J. DiLuigi’s foot, Manase Tonga’s shoulder, Ben Criddle’s toe, Brandon Bradley’s knee, Tom Sorensen’s knee, and David Nixon’s ab.

Wish granted: Vakapuna, Tonga, Criddle and Nixon all healed enough to make huge contributions in ’07. DiLuigi redshirted, while Bradley and Sorensen both played in seven games.

4. That Austin Collie regains his freshman year form and Michael Reed continues to develop into a big-play receiver, giving the Cougars a super-duper dual wideout threat.

Wish granted: Collie was first team All-MWC with 56 receptions, 946 yards and seven TDs. Reed had a solid line of 41 grabs, 449 yards and four TDs to help keep opposing defenses on their toes.

5. That this season’s batch of Cougar tight ends (So’oto, George, Pitta, and Mahina) delivers a performance equal to that of Harline and Coats last year.

Wish granted: Pitta was first team All-MWC with 59 catches, 813 yards and five TDs. George had 17 grabs for 200 yards, and So’oto amassed 12 receptions for 124 yards. Mahina began serving a LDS mission in ’07.

6. That the entire defensive unit is as hardnosed and stingy on points allowed as last year.

Wish granted: The defense slipped just a bit, giving up 18.5 points per game — up from the 2006 mark of 14.7. Opponents’ rushing yards per game was reduced to 97.5 from 114.1 in 2006. Overall, BYU’s defense was ranked 13th in the nation.

7. That a newcomer to the program, whether a freshman or transfer, surprises the heck out of everyone with a performance like McKay Jacobson or Ian Dulan turned in last year (or Collie in ’04).

Wish granted: Redshirt freshman running back Harvey Unga earned freshman All-American and All-MWC first-team honors with 1,227 yards rushing and 13 TDs. True freshman defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna played a huge role and blocked a would-be winning field goal by UCLA in the 2007 Las Vegas Bowl to preserve a Cougar victory.

8. That, like this year’s theme, the team truly “raises the bar” and take the program to the next level. To begin with, that would mean a payback over Arizona, an upset over UCLA, and certainly another spanking on the Utes.

Wish granted: The bar was raised with another 11-2 season, a second straight undefeated conference run and second consecutive MWC title; moreover, BYU earned a final AP ranking of 14th and the No. 15 spot in the coaches’ poll. The Cougars defeated Arizona, split with UCLA, and beat Utah for the second straight season.

9. That the Class of 2008 recruits live up to their word and sign their LOIs in February.

Wish granted: Well, signing is one thing, but qualifying is another. Running back recruit Seta Pohahau and wide receiver Atem Bol were both non-qualifiers and headed off to the junior college ranks. There’s never a guarantee BYU will see those athletes return to the program, depending on academic progress, risk of injury, or transferring to another school. However, several solid walk-ons, including JUCO All-America safety Andrew Rich, of Snow College, helped bolster the overall 2008 recruiting class.

10. And last but not least, that CSTV/Comcast execs get their act together and sign a contract with DISH and/or DirecTV to carry The Mtn in time for the start of the 2007 football season!

Wish NOT granted: 2007 was another painful year for Cougar Fans living outside of The Mtn channel’s tiny footprint, thanks to ineptitude galore on behalf of MWC leadership, Comcast and CSTV. Fortunately, these monkeys finally got their act together and hooked up with DirecTV during the winter.

Fourth and inches …

Looking back at my preseason picks for the BCS championship last year, I had LSU and USC playing for the title. Ohio State wasn’t even in my top five. You won’t find any preseason ranking that doesn’t include all three of these programs in the top five this season, and most of the experts’ lists show Georgia and USC headed for Miami and the national title game. I have to agree. If the Buckeyes had USC at home this year, I’d give Ohio State the nod for making it to the title game a third year in a row. But I just can’t see USC losing at home this season, even though Stanford pulled off the miracle last year.

The best college football columnists… if you sleep, eat and breathe college football, then you’ll want to make sure to read these six college football experts every week. Each of them offer fairly unbiased perspectives and consistently valuable insights about the sport.

Stewart Mandel, SI.com
Pete Fiutak, College Football News/Fox
Olin Buchanan, Rivals.com
Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com
Dennis Dodd, CBS Sportsline
Matt Hayes, The Sporting News

Best bet for a dramatic turnaround in 2008: Notre Dame will rebound from a deplorable 3-9 mark in 2007 and post an 8-4 record this season.

Student-athlete with the most pressure on his back this season who can actually handle it? Florida’s Tim Tebow.

Everybody’s favorite BCS buster: Well, except for Kirk Herbstreit, who loves to diss BYU every chance he gets, it’s Bronco Mendenhall’s Cougars from the Mountain West Conference.

Most anticipated national television debut: The Mountain West Conference’s three year-old The Mtn channel kicks off its first year with national distribution featuring Division 1-AA heavyweight Northern Iowa at Division 1-A BYU, which is in the top 20.

And NO, I’m still not using that idiotic classification the NCAA introduced last year for referring to the two top divisions of college football. Join me in the backlash.

Quick Snap … presented by the 84th Annual East-West Shrine Game, Jan. 17, 2009, in Houston, on ESPN2:

What college football programs have received the NCAA’s “death penalty” since 1965?

Be quick and be correct. Send your answer to quicksnap@realfootball365.com. The first email received with the correct answer wins you a limited edition two-card set of 2008 Rose Bowl Game trading cards featuring Illinois and USC. The winner will be announced in next week’s Fourth and inches…

Top games this weekend, and why:
Hawaii at Florida. See a June Jones-less Hawaii get mangled by another SEC team.
Utah at Michigan. Michigan loses a second straight home opener.
USC at Virginia. These two teams have never played each other and Al Groh is still on the hot seat. The Trojans will light the fire that consumes him in 2008.
Appalachian State at LSU. Just to make sure you don’t miss it if “it” happens again.
Alabama at Clemson. Easily the best game in the country this weekend.
TCU at New Mexico. A fierce Mountain West Conference matchup between two solid teams; the loser’s conference championship hopes will be severely thrashed right out of the box in the new season.
Florida Atlantic at Texas. See if Schnellenberger’s troops can back up his bold claims on the road in Austin.
Washington at Oregon. Crucial Pac-10 contest that neither can afford to lose; will Locker’s hamstring hold up in real game action?
Illinois at Missouri. Both teams figure to be top challengers for their respective conference crowns this year. No love lost in this rivalry.
Michigan State at California. Classic Big Ten/Pac-10 matchup is a rare meeting between these schools. Cal QB Riley needs the win to hang on to the starting role over former starter Longshore.
Tennessee at UCLA. Rare Pac-10/Big Ten clash. A Bruin win would be shocking this year — even in the friendly homefield confines of Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Stadium.
Fresno State at Rutgers. Bulldogs have sights set on a BCS bowl and can’t afford to stumble even once.

Upset Specials: Illinois Fighting Illini over Missouri Tigers; Alabama Crimson Tide over Clemson Tigers; and New Mexico Lobos over TCU Horned Frogs. Each of these clashes should come down to the wire. I was 21-23 last year in the Upset Special category, so flip a coin and see if I’m right.

Keys to Game vs. Northern Iowa Panthers

Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah, will be a pressure cooker on Saturday afternoon as one of the most eagerly anticipated college football seasons at BYU gets under way with the Cougars entertaining the Division 1-AA powerhouse Northern Iowa Panthers.

Make no bones about it — all of the pressure is on the 15th-/16th-ranked Cougars. The Panthers are pressure-free as the visiting team, lower-division underdog, while BYU is considered the best bet this year among non-BCS programs to qualify for a BCS bowl game in January 2009.

On the heels of back-to-back 11-2 seasons, two straight MWC championships, consecutive Las Vegas Bowl victories over Pac-10 foes, and the highest preseason ranking since 1984, BYU players and fans have been looking forward to the kickoff of the 2008 season since last December.

During the offseason, BYU fan boards were filled with complaints about having to play a Division 1-AA team, after Nevada of the Western Athletic Conference canceled its scheduled visit to Provo.

However, as a longtime elite program in the 1-AA division, Northern Iowa hardly represents a patsy game for the Cougars. Last year, the Panthers were ranked No. 1 for the final six weeks of the regular season, but lost a heartbreaker to Delaware at home in the divisional quarterfinals to finish 12-1.

NIU returns 13 starters, including its two top playmakers, preseason first-team All-America running back Corey Lewis (1,513 yards rushing, 16 TDs and 642 more yards on 54 receptions) and senior wide receiver Johnny Gray (70 receptions, 910 yards, five TDs, plus 129 yards an four scores on 14 carries, and another score off a punt return).

Three keys to winning the catfight

Control both sides of the line of scrimmage. Northern Iowa returns only one starter on its offensive line, while BYU brings back just four starters on defense. But the Cougars’ defensive strength is their front line. Jan Jorgensen, Russell Tialavea and Ian Dulan have a deep and capable supporting cast that includes Brett Denny, Bernard Afutiti and Mosese Foketi. Regardless of who is on the field at any given time, the Cougar D-line must constantly pressure Panther QB Pat Grace and plug the vertical gaps RB Corey Lewis will be trying to penetrate.

The Panther offense relies on getting Lewis and Gray as many open-field touches as possible. If the D-line can limit those touches and bottle up Grace and Lewis in the backfield, it will give the Cougars’ youthful back eight enough time to fill the running lanes and lock down Johnny Gray on his routes.

Veteran offensive line coach Mark Weber says this year’s interior line has the potential to be the best unit he has ever guided. If these guys can live up to such lofty expectations, Max Hall will have plenty of time to find Austin Collie, Michael Reed and Dennis Pitta and pick apart the Panther defense through the air. That will, in turn, create a field day for Harvey Unga and the running corps.

Northern Iowa’s only hope to limit the Cougar attack is by getting immense pressure on Hall for all four quarters. It’s really difficult to imagine that happening in this game.

Rapid assault with a shock-and-awe campaign. The Cougars need to put the game away as quickly as possibly. Easier said than done, because the Panthers are a well-coached, patient squad. But if you look at what happened to what was at the time fifth-ranked Michigan last year against Appalachian State (you knew this comparison was bound to pop up), the Wolverines raced off to a quick 14-7 lead in the first quarter and then got complacent in their Big House.

Before Michigan knew it, the team was down 28-17 at the half and had to play catchup the rest of the contest. The longer you allow an underdog to hang with you, the more confidence they gain, and the more problems they begin to create in foiling your game plan. Ultimately, Appalachian State prevailed 34-32 in the biggest shocker of the decade, and the Wolverines never recovered from the shame of that upset.

Ideally, BYU needs to rack up an insurmountable lead at least midway through the third quarter, so starters can be rested and the reserve troops can gain much-needed game-time experience.

Respect your opponent. One of the Cougars’ biggest obstacles they will face this week and for much of the season is overconfidence. Every team on their schedule, including Northern Iowa, is capable of defeating BYU should the Cougars regard them too lightly.

If Bronco Mendenhall and his staff can succeed in keeping the troops focused on executing their individual assignments, and keep each game at hand in perspective, this could be a very magical season for the program and Cougar fans everywhere.

Report Card vs. Northern Iowa

In a word, the BYU Cougars’ 41-17 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday was sloppy. Thanks to five fumbles, BYU squandered a 27-3 halftime advantage and led only 27-17 at the close of the third quarter. The visiting Panthers had wrestled control of the game’s momentum, putting the stadium’s blue-clad fans on the edge of their seats.

Fortunately for the Cougars, the Max Hall-to-Dennis Pitta connection revived in the fourth quarter and yielded several big plays to set up the game’s final two scores.

What does Saturday’s uneven performance against UNI tell us about next week’s road game against the Washington Huskies?

Look-back – Offense

1. Hall is stronger and has more zip on his ball this year. It took him and Austin Collie nearly three quarters to start clicking, but that’s understandable when you consider Collie sat out most of the fall camp healing a hairline leg fracture. Look for Collie to make more of an impact next week in Seattle.
2. Pitta is the Brooks Robinson of college football tight ends; in other words, he’s a vacuum cleaner who catches everything thrown his way. Look for foes to key on him more this year — increasing opportunities for his fellow receivers.
3. The Cougars will not be able to afford turning the ball over four times against Washington, UCLA or any top-tier MWC teams this year. Backup running backs Wayne Latu and JJ DiLuigi coughed up the ball three times on five rushing attempts. Harvey Unga was absolutely punishing every time he touched the ball, and the Cougs will need him and Fui Vakapuna both healthy next week against the Huskies if they want to return to Provo, Utah, with a win.
4. The offensive line gave up only one sack, but it cost seven points and a temporary momentum shift when Hall, after being taken down, fumbled the ball away in the end zone near the close of the third quarter. The O-line’s potential was evident, but the unit was inconsistent against the Panthers. The group will need to turn it up a notch against Washington next week. As the O-line goes, so goes the Hall-led passing game.

Grade: A-minus

Look-back – Defense

1. Kudos to the defense for holding Corey Lewis to 42 yards rushing on 18 attempts. However, the unit also gave up 81 yards on 11 carries to QB Pat Grace. Although both players were largely contained, Grace’s ability to slice upfield on the read option should concern the coaching staff about containing Husky QB Jake Locker next week.
2. Matt Ah You and Coleby Clawson had strong showings and David Nixon was, well, David Nixon. These guys and fellow linebackers So’oto, Bauman and Doman need to crank up their play next week if the Cougars hope to stop Locker.
3. The D-line racked up four sacks and the bulk of the credit for stopping Lewis goes to these front-liners. They delivered the goods as advertised and made the young Cougar secondary look much better than it really is right now.
4. That said, the secondary did manage to shut down the Panthers’ leading receiver, Johnny Gray — who didn’t catch any passes. The defense only yielded 10 of UNI’s 17 points, so all things considered, look for the ‘D’ to build on this experience and turn it up on the road next week.

Grade: B

Look-back – Special teams

1. The punting game looks solid. CJ Santiago had a 42-yard average on three punts; two of his attempts landed inside the enemy 20.
2. True freshman O’Neil Chambers didn’t disappoint, almost breaking off two kickoff returns. He totaled 99 return yards on three attempts, including a 50-yarder.
3. Mitch Payne was 5-of-6 on extra points. True freshman Justin Sorensen handled the kickoff duties and only allowed one return on seven boots.

Grade: B-plus