Was 2002 really the worst BYU season in memory?

Is there a BYU football season you can't seem to shake from your memory? A season so appallingly bad, it got inside your head and nearly drove you off the bandwagon?

The 1997 and 2002 football seasons were "it" for me. Fall '97 was my last semester at the Y and the team's performance that year made it a memorably bad year.

At least I could go to Utah Jazz games for free that semester, but the football team was a huge disappointment. Two weeks after leaving Provo for the last time, I moved to Virginia. I haven't been able to attend a BYU home game since. Unable to exorcise those demons in religious LaVell Edwards Stadium, the pain of 1997 still lingers. Boohoo for me.

The 2002 football season was as dismally memorable -- at least for now. It's the most recent football season and it's all I have to get me through until August.

Last year's 5-7 record left many saying: "This is easily the worst team BYU has had since LaVell became coach." But was it really?

I decided to try to compare the two teams. I wanted to know if 2002 had supplanted 1997, which I considered BYU's worst football team in my lifetime. The 1993 team was a distant third.

Talk about two seasons that are eerily similar. 1997 was a nightmare, but 2002 made it seem like a recurring nightmare. There were promising wins to start the season, mid-season embarrassments, followed by a brief resurgence. Finally, we choked on our last two games, eliminating the Cougars from bowl game consideration. There were quarterback problems, secondary problems, strong linebackers and plenty of inexperience.

Here is a position by position comparison:


EDGE: 1997. In 1997, it was bad at times, but it wasn't as bad as 2002. 1997 featured senior Paul Shoemaker, sophomore Kevin Feterik and Freshman Drew Miller vs. junior Brett Engemann, freshman Lance Pendelton and freshman Matt Berry.

Of that group, I'll take Feterik as my starter. Feterik actually did well and would have beat UTEP for us had he not been injured. Beating UTEP would have secured a bowl berth for us. Feterik only played in 8 of 11 games, but completed 60 percent of his passes, averaging 220 yards a game. His efficiency rating was 144. One problem for each of those quarterbacks is they could not be counted on much for leadership. Feterik, as a sophomore, probably came closest to filling that role, but his personality was pretty stiff. Berry was too in awe of his situation to let his leadership abilities come out. Once the game starts making more sense to him, I believe he'll grow into that role.


EDGE: Even. Brian McKenzie as a senior versus Marcus Whalen as a sophomore is an even match. Had Ronney Jenkins remained eligible, the edge would have gone to 1997. Norm Chow apparently thought so highly of McKenzie, he ran him 18 straight times against Utah. Either that or he was trying to get McKenzie a 1,000 yard season. McKenzie finished with 1,004. After 18 straight against Utah, McKenzie was getting his yards one inch at a time. After a couple of more years, Whalen should end up having had a better BYU career than McKenzie or Jenkins.


EDGE: 2002. For Reno Mahe, 52 catches was a sub-par year. For Ben Cahoon, 57 catches was a break-out year. Both players faced the same problem. They were the only threat opposing secondaries had to take seriously. Cahoon had better hands and became famous for his circus grabs. Mahe was much more dangerous after the catch. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose Mahe, but I would be tempted to play Cahoon.


EDGE: 1997. Had Ben Archibald stayed healthy, this would have been close. However, he didn't and this isn't a hard decision to make. Right tackle remained a question mark for 2002 all season, while 1997 filled the position nicely with Eric Bateman. 1997 also featured John Tait and Jason Anderson. 2002's best player, Dustin Rykert, was also its least popular and was sometimes considered by fans an embarrassment.


EDGE: 2002. Two players at this position are vying to make NFL team rosters. 1997 was forced to move stud fullback Dustin Johnson out of his position as well as the oversized John Moala. Johnson was a good weapon for the Cougars, catching 33 passes playing a new position. It was a patchwork operation, but it worked out fairly well. Spencer Nead and Gabe Reid were more talented and they were natural tight ends. Nead was one of the team's bright spots.


EDGE: 2002. How can I choose the better of these two extreme offensive juggernauts? 2002 failed to score more than three points against UNLV, but 1997 failed to score more than three points against UTEP. It's like picking the best Olsen Twin. Which one irritates you the least? Ashley or Mary Kate? Since I brought it up, I'll take 2002.


EDGE: 2002. Daniel Marquardt piqued a lot of interest as a freshman. Scott Young earned a permanent spot on the All-Internet Hype Team and Ifo Pili was a non-factor. Ryan Gunderson earned respect for his effort, but not his ability. Like Marquardt, Issiah Magalei was young, but productive for the Cougars in 1997, bringing in 45 tackles. Since no player from 1997 impacted a game like Marquardt did against San Diego State, I'll give the edge to 2002. Marquardt showed he's capable of becoming a one-man gang. Darren Yancey also started for the 1997 team, but his best years were still ahead of him.


EDGE: 2002. This is somewhat of a close call. I'll go with 2002 and Brady Poppinga, who helped Cougar fans forget about the loss of C.J. Ah You. 1997's Byron Frisch was a great player, but Poppinga might find himself on the all-time Cougar team by the time he's done.


EDGE: 1997. Brad Martin, Spencer Reid and Rob Morris could all make plays and did. You can say the same for Colby Bockwoldt, Mike Tanner, Bill Wright and Paul Walkenhorst. Both corps was manned with outstanding personnel. If I had to choose between the two, I would probably go with 1997. Martin is one of my favorite all-time Cougars.


EDGE: 2002. Brandon Heaney set a new standard for toughness. He's so tough, it overshadows his ability, which is excellent. It was a very weak spot in 1997. Kevin Dyson toyed with BYU's best corner, Ben Cook, all day in head-to-head competition. The entire team recorded four interceptions for the season.

Perhaps 1997 would have been a lot better were it not for the tragic death of gifted JC transfer Terrence Harvey five days before the Utah State game. Omarr Morgan, practically a legend for his heroics during the 1996 season, was a shell of his former self after sitting out the first three games for an honor-code violation. He was still the quote machine though. Reporters couldn't get enough of him, but that's about all there is to remember about him from that year.


EDGE: 2002. Chris Ellison, who would have been quite good for the Cougars in 1997, tore his ACL in the first game against Washington. Even with a healthy Ellison, 1997 can't compare to 2002, mostly because of Aaron Francisco. After Ellison and Francisco, the other safeties are forgettable.


EDGE: 2002. The complete lapse against Air Force was embarrassing, but this team showed well in some games. 2002 had a lot of players you could get behind and cheer for. And a lot of the points scored against them were the result of turnovers. 1997's defense held a lot of teams down, but it was usually doormat type teams having particularly bad years like Hawaii and Texas Christian. The 1997 quarterbacks didn't leave them in the lurch as often as 2002's quarterbacks did.


EDGE: 2002. Despite tortilla throwing and accusations of "ridiculousness", 2002 fans at least made noise -- even if it was a lot of booing. 1997 fans made Cougar Stadium mausoleum-esque at times. Of course the talent-level, style of play and competition share the blame. What really tears it for me were the fans in 1997 fans who tried to tear down the goal posts against UTAH STATE, costing the university $10,000 in repairs. BYU should have captured them, took their names and banned them from the stadium for life. Who knows what those same fans would have done had the 2002 team's nail-biter over Utah State had been fought at LES.


EDGE: 2002. It is not difficult to understand why LaVell Edwards wanted to leave the WAC. He always maintained he missed playing the old conference teams. Replacing games with Colorado State and Air Force so you can play SMU and Tulsa wouldn't sit well with a venerable head coach. Although, I'm not sure losing to Air Force and CSU by a combined score of 89-19 (2002) is more entertaining than beating Tulsa and SMU by a combined score of 68-55 (1997).


EDGE: 1997. So many gifted seniors departed from the 1996 team, but 1997 was blessed with some players I will respect the rest of my life. Though the team got cocky after beating Arizona State in Tempe, they showed up to play a lot more often than 2002's team. 2002 had some inspiring players like Brady Poppinga and Aaron Francisco. Heaney's ability to play with pain is now, deservedly, legendary. However, too many of 2002's games were over by the second quarter or lost in the fourth.


EDGE: 1997. I'm going by the recruiting class that followed the season as classes are supposedly a bi-product of your on-field success. Our 2003 class drew in all kinds of excitement, but look at some of the players who signed in 1998. Jernaro Gilford, Reno Mahe, Brady Poppinga and Dustin Rykert. That's star players at four positions. Not too bad. It is representative of a more balanced class than we saw in '03. However, I have nothing against our '03 class. We're all anxious for Ofa Mohetau, R.J. Willing, Jason Speredon and Dallas Reynolds (and Jake Kuresa) to block for Ben Olson.


EDGE: 2002. These seasons were so bad, they would not even be considered good if you were a fan of New Mexico, Utah or San Diego State. Maybe UNLV and Wyoming would get excited about them, but that's it. 1997's schedule was easier, so they finished with a better record.

Both teams seemed capable of losing to just about anybody and proved it -- UTEP (1997) and Nevada (2002). What? So which team was better or worse? If 2002 lined up against 1997, I think they would win. I think Berry could have passed against them and if Berry had a good game, they win.

In short, I don't think 2002 was our worst season in 30 years. I think the 1997 team was. So things aren't as bad right now as they seem for BYU. They've been worse.


The bright side amid all this gloom is BYU has rebounded nicely from down seasons. If history is any indication, 2003 should be a special year at the Y. Following the sub par years of 1993, 1995 and 2000, BYU went a combined 36-6 in 1994, 1996 and 2001. In 1998, we won our division and nearly won the WAC championship game. The talent in our lineup is obvious. We're going to win a lot of games this fall.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: TotalBlueSports.com columnist Jon Bagley is a former sports editor for The Daily Universe.)

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