AFA Game Looms Large in Salvaging 2003 Season

It may sound a little melodramatic, but today's game against Air Force is one that BYU head coach <b>Gary Crowton</b> and the Cougars cannot afford to lose if they want to maintain confidence in the football program this year.

This is a defining game for Crowton – and the natives are restless. A win today and this game will vault BYU to the forefront of the all-important Mountain West Conference title race.

All the skepticism and hard scrutiny surrounding the program is focused squarely on BYU's sluggish offense. Game one against Georgia Tech saw a brilliant, yet unexciting ball-control offense engineered by quarterback Matt Berry consistently hitting underneath receivers for time-consuming drives.

Crowton called a well-conceived game plan, taking what the Yellow Jacket defense gave him. They wore down a highly-touted Georgia Tech defense and everything looked promising.

Game two against USC saw one of the most horrendous starts one could imagine as USC quickly took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. The Cougars did not panic and Crowton and Mendenhall called a brilliant game that could have easily won them the game were it not for more untimely turnovers that cost another 14 points in the fourth quarter. The offense was impressive in moving the ball against the Trojans, considered one of the top defenses in the country., like most other Cougar fans, felt that game was the beginning of a great ending to a bright season full of optimism and hope.

Next up was New Mexico, home of Mendenhall's wildly successful 3-3-5 defense. Things start out great as BYU and its offense as they go out to a quick 10-0 lead with Berry completing 12 of 16 passes. Then Berry broke a bone in his throwing hand. Without backup John Beck, who did not travel because of a concussion, third stringer Todd Mortensen assumed the reigns and played mistake-free football and held on to win ugly by a score of 10-7.

Against Stanford many people, including Crowton, felt the offense was ready to break out. Sure, they were entering the game with a true freshman quarterback with little actual game experience, but one who did not lack for confidence.

Beck's debut outing was a mixed plate. He did OK, but his inexperience and rookie mistakes in the final series – 1st and Goal from Stanford's nine yard line – left the Cougars short, allowing the Cardinal to escape Provo with an 18-14 win. Inexplicably, BYU's running game was totally missing in action and the Cougars ended the game with -5 yards in rushing total. Fans and news media were in an uproar and fingers were collectively pointed at Crowton and his co-offensive coordinators Robbie Bosco and Todd Bradford. Crowton was widely second-guessed for an unimaginative and ineffective offensive game plan.

That brings us to today's critical game against Air Force. No one wants excuses and BYU's offense must step up and perform – despite the significant injuries they have suffered. Beck is starting the second game of his young career and he must perform well enough to win the game and not commit momentum-killing turnovers.

Crowton promised the offense would be more balanced today. However, running backs Marcus Whalen and Reynaldo Brathwaite remain gimpy, but probable. Starting fullback Taufui Vakapuna will not play because of injury. The running offense will have to rely on freshman Thomas Stancil and sophomore Naufahu Tahi to carry the load.

Furthermore, some media reports indicated Crowton will start Quinn Christensen at left tackle – replacing embattled freshman Eddie Keele, opening the way for true freshman Ofa Mohetau to start his first game at left guard.

Mohetau, the most coveted offensive guard recruit in the country last season, has demonstrated his excellent physical attributes and skills.

Crowton has harped all week long on the need for the inside F receiver to step up and make plays. This is difficult to do when the top receivers on the two-deep at this position, David Christensen and Jason Kukahiko, are both hobbling from injuries. Both are listed as probable for today, but someone definitely needs to step up at this position.

The passing game aside, BYU must effectively run the football to be successful against Air Force. This may free up freshman tight end sensation Daniel Coats to make some sparkling plays that will move the chains and possibly put points on the scoreboard. Time of possession is very important for the Cougars to pull out a victory against the Falcons.

Defense? Cougar fans have come to love and embrace Mendenhall's exciting and unprecedented defensive prowess in Cougarland. They will throw some interesting wrinkles at Air Force that could prove very effective.

Our guess is BYU will win this game 27-13 simply because they have to. Even the most sympathetic fan can barely give the offense a pass in light of their upsetting loss to Stanford. This is an important game for Crowton's brief tenure and he knows it.

Practice has never been more intense and the team more focused than they are right now. If this team is to become the sleeping giant Crowton and many believe others believe it can be, it begins today against Air Force. No more excuses.

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