Now or Never Time for BYU to Show Some "True Grit"

The best news for BYU sports fans, despite the continuing slide of its football team, is that Cougar basketball is positioned and poised to recapture the magic of two decades past beginning as early as this season.

In defeat against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the football Cougars can take small comfort and solace that their play on both sides of the ball showed noticeable improvement after an embarrassing performance against Boise State nearly three weeks ago.

As they prepare for the annual rivalry game against likely MWC champion Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, BYU has little more than pride left on the line.

There comes a time when unproductive criticism of the Cougars, its coaches and its players becomes counterproductive. The season is done and we've reached that point with this team.

It's time now to focus on constructive comments, preparation and encouraging the Cougars to win Saturday's game and the long off-season bragging rights for the state of Utah. Believe me, the season will be much easier to swallow and stomach with an upset of the revitalized Utah squad led by head coach Urban Meyer, the newest "offensive genius" in these parts.

Here are some pregame suggestions to Crowton et al as they ready for Utah.

* Bench Matt Berry after the first interception Saturday that is clearly his fault or because of his lingering injury. Berry killed BYU's only hopes of winning at South Bend with terrible interceptions at the most inopportune times when there was still a sliver of offensive hope going for the Cougars. Berry is far and away BYU's best chance of winning the game, but he's also BYU's worst enemy at times. Much more is expected of him than any other Cougar quarterback. If anything, Berry needs to be like the Dallas Cowboys' Quincy Carter and NOT lose games for his team as he is still learning the system and developing his skills.

NOTE TO BERRY: Show some visible leadership on the field. Your calm, quiet demeanor on the field has no place there. Your teammates and long suffering fans need to see your fiery intensity and leadership in the game and on the field. Get mad or excited. More importantly, your competitive fire must be accompanied by wins. If your injured hand is hurting or bothering you, let your coaches know and step aside for the good of the team. Don't let your team and University suffer yet another painful and unnecessary humiliation with more interceptions or fumbles. You are killing the spirit of your defensive and offensive teammates with your inopportune INTs, even if no one is saying it. The best thing you can do is NOT be the cause and reason for BYU losing.

A less experienced but more mobile Jackson Brown is better than an injured Berry throwing momentum-killing interceptions. Bottom line: Berry should know and play better this late in his redshirt sophomore season.

* This team desperately needs more players to step to the plate and take visible charge and demonstrate uncharacteristic leadership on the field to move and motivate teammates and BYU fans to rally their team to victory. Whoever accepts this role has to be loud, visible, intense and in the face of his teammates in a positive way.

In the absence of BYU's quarterback taking up this urgently needed leadership void, let me suggest Scott Jackson, Toby Christensen or Reynaldo Brathwaite or any combination thereof. I have singled out these players because the field general's game must be as inspirational as his on-the-field motivational efforts. It's time for someone to do on offensive what Brady Poppinga consistently strives to do for the defense with his fiery competitiveness and intensity.

By the way, Saturday would be a good time for Jernaro Gilford, Mike Tanner, Colby Bockwoldt and Ifo Pili to do the same on defense. Bring your best game and your worst mean-streak attitude to the field and take it out (within the rules) on the Utah Utes. With the number of mature returned missionaries on this team, the last thing the Cougars should be lacking is on-field leadership. If the quarterback is not stepping up, someone else needs to do it.

* BYU must play to its strengths. Quarterback play is clearly NOT one of its strong points right now. The Cougars have been extremely unlucky this year with injuries to key players, especially at quarterback. There is no question BYU's main offensive strength is its running game with Brathwaite, Whalen, Tahi and Vakapuna.

Unfortunately, the Cougars offensive line's most glaring weakness this season has been its run blocking. That's remarkable given the size and talent of the Cougars line. The fact the offensive line has not shown a lot of improvement in this area after a full season of knowing this continues to stymie and frustrate most BYU fans.

Don't get me wrong, the offensive line has improved its pass blocking, but lapses by individual OL players in critical downs continue to plague the Cougars. Give Brathwaite credit for making most of his more spectacular gains on his own when he cuts against the grain because the holes just aren't there. Marcus Whalen is an excellent running back that needs the gaps there to be effective. Unfortunately, he does not possess the speed or shiftiness that Brathwaite uses to his great advantage. Meanwhile, Naufahi Tahi has emerged as the premier fullback over early starter Taufui Vakapuna, who has been sidelined by injury.

* Coach Crowton must end his second consecutive losing season Saturday on a high note of hope and optimism in his coaching and program-building abilities – even if the Cougars lose against the Utes. Simply put, BYU must not be embarrassed by the Utes on their home field and in front of its fans. Crowton's job is not on the line this season no matter what happens, but fans and major boosters of the program are looking for any reason to be more hopeful now for BYU's immediate future.

Defensively, this Cougar team has a clear and unmistakable identity: Bronco Mendenhall. Offensively, Crowton needs to do the same. Is it Robbie Bosco's offense to call for the foreseeable future? If not and for his long term job security, Crowton needs to assume the reins or hire someone next season as offensive coordinator that will make the same offensive-changing impact Mendenhall has made on defense.

Sadly, BYU's wilting offense has made Mendenhall's remarkable turnaround as defensive coordinator much less impactful than it really is. The Cougars defense, despite all its injuries (no excuses), has stopped every team they have played in critical downs, only to be disappointed time and again by an unproductive offensive and near-record level turnover ratios at BYU. If the Cougars offense had played nearly as well as its defense all season (CSU is the lone exception), BYU's defensive stats would have been in the top 5-10 nationally instead of only top 20.

Essentially, Crowton's future as BYU's head coach is predicated on decisions he makes in terms of evaluating his offensive coaching staff during the off-season and maximizing the talents of his players. What has been more distressing than anything else is a team playing worse now in some critical areas than it did against Georgia Tech or USC at the beginning of the season. That is a direct reflection on coaching. This is amplified when you consider other teams are undergoing similar trials with injuries, but are still able to persist and succeed in spite of it. The proverbial buck begins and ends at Gary Crowton's desk and he knows it.

* Accountability in actions, not just words: Crowton has publicly stepped to the plate to indicate players will be held more accountable for their mistakes in games than anytime before. This must continue. As much as his style is to publicly support his coaches, players and football program in the face of continuing decline, Crowton remains the offensive face of this team and come next year, he must demand the same level of practice effort and intensity from his offensive players as Mendenhall gets from his defensive charges.

It has not been an uncommon sight all season to see offensive players stand and watch Mendenhall put his defensive players through consistently tough, exhausting drills while their offensive drills are much less strenuous and taxing by comparison. That needs to end with this season. We need offensive linemen weighing in the low rather than the mid-300-pound-level come next year. We need offensive coaches putting their young charges through more vigorous paces with much higher demands and expectations next season.

* What makes BYU's performance Saturday even more important is the key LDS recruits observing quietly from afar in the wings. The foremost question in their undecided minds is whether BYU is a losing program about to turn the corner and begin to regain its longtime status and tradition as a premier football program? If their answer is "No," they may choose to showcase their considerable talents elsewhere.

That said, BYU will have yet another stellar recruiting class headlined by junior college stars that will fill immediate needs the next two years. With LOI day less than three months away, the main challenge for BYU recruiters is convincing these budding stars to sign with the Cougars over other schools vying aggressively for their talents, especially intrastate rival Utah.

* A stellar and sensational offensive effort by the Cougars on Saturday against archrival Utah may signify to BYU fans what they will see next season. Are they going to be hitters or quitters? Cougar pride is on line like never before.

The offense has one last chance this season to prove they can win an important game in the face of continuing pressure and adversity. They must play this game as if it is for all the marbles – and prove the ultimate spoilers for a Utah team looking for its first outright conference championship since 1957.

The one thing the Cougars absolutely must NOT do is embarrass themselves and the great institution they represent in the most important college football game in Utah this year.

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