Flashback: Reunion with Old Friends and New Foes

<i>(<b>EDITOR'S NOTE:</b> This article was published in <b>TOTAL BLUE SPORTS</b> magazine in <b>August, 2003</b>, but is still relevant as BYU prepares for No. 1 ranked USC on Saturday.)</i> <P> As little as 19 months ago, the prospect of playing vaunted USC was not as daunting as it seems now for many Cougar fans. BYU had just concluded a 12-2 injury-plagued season and USC was reeling from an ugly Las Vegas Bowl loss (10-6) to Utah, a MWC team that had not even won its conference.

As much as it was a high point for Utah, it was an embarrassing low point for USC's storied and tradition-rich program. The sons of Troy scored a meager six points against the Utes and struggled at the line of scrimmage all game.

My, how times have changed.

In the most intriguing of BYU's early match-ups this fall, the Cougars travel to Los Angeles on September 6 to face USC. Its recent moribund program has restored itself from the depths of relative mediocrity to national prominence again. USC finished last season at 11-2, added another Heisman to its already-impressive trophy case and seemingly landed every recruit they wanted. In football plain speak, they're downright scary.

Indeed, if BYU upsets USC, you could just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon the ensuing hype that will flow out of the Wasatch front.

Forget the match-ups and mismatches for now. The real pre-game story is the tale of two familiar names and faces BYU fans have undoubtedly toasted and roasted during game-day performances in years past.

The last time Cougar fans saw Norm Chow and Steve Sarkisian in all their collective glory were as vital contributors to the Cougars' last great 14-1 team of 1996, adding an exclamation mark to the season with a 19-15 upset of Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl.

Chow was BYU's offensive coordinator and Sarkisian was his starting quarterback. Notably, that 1996 team scored more points than any other BYU team (590-277) since 1981, a feat exceeded only by head coach Gary Crowton's first season (618-333) with the Cougars.

Where they once stood on the Cougar sidelines, they now stand on the opposing sideline as USC's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach respectively – ready and anxious to bring football battle to their former band of brothers.

Much talk and idle speculation swirls endlessly as game day approaches. Most prognosticators give BYU little hope and USC all the hype.

Outwardly, expect Chow and Sarkisian to remain respectful and humble — in victory or defeat. Inwardly, they will feel immense fulfillment if USC is successful and bitter disappointment if they are not.

While there isn't a lot of "bad blood" in this match up, there is a lot of pride on the line. Losing to the school who, in the end, didn't want you can't sit well with anyone, even someone as amicable as Chow. Perhaps if LaVell Edwards were still the coach it would be different, but a new kid on the block calls the plays now.

How the players match up with the considerable talents of USC's personnel is, of course, critical to the outcome of the game. Assuming BYU doesn't have the talent to match USC, this game will belong to the coaches. This is one game where Gary Crowton has to make some brilliant and timely calls. His intelligence has to account for some touchdowns.

People of Chow's personality type are remarkably easy to get along with. However, even the best of people can wear out their welcome, as Chow openly admitted in one media interview. After 27 years at BYU, he merely stated he "stayed too long." His success since leaving BYU may prove he was right.

Sarkisian will play a smaller role in this reunion than Chow, but don't expect his heart to be in it any less. Sarkisian, at 28, is still young in his coaching career and is aided significantly as his name becomes more intertwined with Pete Carroll and Norm Chow, the later having mentored Sarkisian since he first arrived at BYU in January 1995.

Thanks to John Walsh's early NFL draft entry, Sarkisian decided to transfer to BYU from El Camino Community College in Torrance, California, where he and Walsh grew up. Had Walsh stayed for his senior year at BYU, who knows where Sarkisian would have played football?

From their backgrounds and upbringings — not to mention the passion and intelligence they share in football, it's easy to see why Sarkisian and Chow connected. They complement each other well. They are dissimilar in temperament, even more so when their minds are on football.

Chow approaches the game intellectually. Emotions are reserved for outbursts at a team members success or to bend the ear of the ref if need be.

Sarkisian is more brash and emotional, yet in a positive manner. He's a great communicator. Where Chow might be described as "cool and collected," Sarkisian is just "collected." Even if Chow is comparatively dispassionate, you can't deny his influence on players.

Philip Rivers (1st round San Diego Chargers pick in 2004 draft), who under Chow's tutelage, has never matched his productivity since his year under Chow, even though North Carolina State still calls the plays installed by the former BYU guru. That alone confirms it's not just the playbook.

USC fans, however, need to know that '03 will not be '02. During Chow's first five games at USC, the team lost four times, averaging only 17 points per game. Eventually, the wrinkles were ironed out. USC averaged 33 points during its next six games with a record of 5-1 before losing to Utah and against Utah defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, whom many believe had Chow's number.

While Chow's record coaching upperclassmen is stellar, his record with younger QBs isn't quite as grand. Chow, however, has never had the wealth of talent at his disposal to help him bring a young player up to speed.

The running back, Hershel Dennis, is untested, but highly touted and the offensive line is crushing, if not dominant. Add to that a defense that should have little problem producing three-and-outs and you've got an ideal situation for breaking in a quarterback. The question for USC is "are we enough of a complete team to win with a quarterback who makes mistakes?" The answer, quite simply, is "Yes."

This is where hiring Bronco Mendenhall as defensive coordinator becomes critical for BYU. USC's inexperience at QB is why the Cougar defense has a chance of holding off the Trojans and keeping the team in the game. Mendenhall's basic 3-3-5 scheme is now famous among Cougar fans for confusing inexperienced quarterbacks. If Mendenhall can create the same frustration he forced on Matt Berry last year (as New Mexico's defensive guru) with better players at his disposal, the game could shape into a real defensive struggle.

Whether BYU's offense can carry their share of the load is the burning question. If they succeed, a lot of it will depend on the coaching of Gary Crowton. USC is under a similar burden. USC has to depend on Chow to adjust to Mendenhall's scheme while staying within the capabilities of his young QB.

If USC wins, it really will be Norm Chow's victory over BYU.

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