I walked out of LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday momentarily stunned into silence like tens of thousands others. Yet I was more optimistic than ever that the gridiron Cougars may have regained an offensive stride and attitude sorely missed in recent years.
Unlike my earlier critique of his performance in the season-opener, John Beck was all nails Saturday in probably his best outing as a BYU quarterback yet against Texas Christian University. He demonstrated excellent poise under pressure, stepping up into the pocket gaining valuable extra seconds as he sought out open receivers. If he continues to improve at this level, he may yet count himself among the quarterback greats of decades past by the time he is done in Provo.
The Cougars blew an 18-point fourth quarter lead and allowed the Horned Frogs to upset them in a dramatic, thrilling and nail-biting finish 51-50.
Despite the fact the Cougar defensive line starters – Manaia Brown, Daniel Marquardt and Vince Feula – did not allow a touchdown in the first half, I was disappointed that aside from Marquardt who was easily the best of the three Saturday, the others were too easily contained most of the game. I expect more from them.
As they prepare for San Diego State on the road this Saturday, there is some question whether all three Cougar defensive line starters may be sidelined for the game: Brown suffered a severe concussion and will be likely held out of practice most of the week; Marquardt was x-rayed to determine whether he has one or more broken ribs; and Feula was also x-rayed for a possible fractured ankle.
In this unorthodox 3-3-5 defensive scheme, the defensive line must be more disruptive in applying more pressure on the quarterback and taking up multiple blockers to allow attacking linebackers and secondary players to be more effective in their blitzes. Perhaps BYU's defensive brain trust need to adjust during games with defensive alignments like four or five-man fronts when the backups are virtually ineffective in stopping the run or pressuring the quarterback in the backfield. The Cougars may want to revisit their 3-3-5 defensive alignment and highlight their current strength in their front-six or seven.
Clearly, the lack of quality depth in some key positions on the defensive line and secondary was exposed – and recruiting losses of Haloti Ngata and Brian Soi immediately came to mind. Memo to the country's top defensive line recruits willing to observe BYU's stringent Honor Code… You have a great opportunity to start next year at BYU either as JC transfers or as heralded incoming true freshmen.
Having said all that, let me clarify I have long been a fan of Mendenhall's new defensive mindset and intensity.
But enough of the constructive critique: There is a whole lot more to be optimistic about as the Cougars' revamped offense under coordinator Robert Anae demonstrated traces of BYU's glory years with Beck looking at multiple receivers open for passes.
Junior tight end Johnny Harline is a definite keeper and a budding superstar with sure hands and excellent post-catch running abilities. During one play on Saturday, he literally carried a tackler more than 10 yards before he was finally downed. Speaking of tight ends, I have also been mightily impressed with Daniel Coats' development as a superior tight end blocker. I clearly recall one instance against Boston College where he knocked a surprised Mathias Kiwanuka on his backside.
Todd Watkins again showed why he will be one of most coveted wide receivers come draft day next spring – despite two easy drops in critical situations. I suspect Watkins will be harder on himself than anyone and expect more consistency in his game. More importantly, I was delighted BYU coaches incorporated and showcased his game-breaking abilities more than they did against Boston College.
Finally, but not least, Curtis Brown continues to impress with his after-contact abilities to generate 5-10 yards extra while securing the pigskin. Both he and fullback Naufahu Tahi are dangerous as pass-catching and running threats. Moreover, it is great to see that Anae has adapted the predominantly pass-oriented Texas Tech offense (originally conceived at BYU under LaVell Edwards) to focus on the unique strengths of Brown and Tahi. Beck and Brown's improvised pass, catch and run play at the end of regulation play saved the day in achieving field goal range for McLaughlin with less than five seconds to go.
On the downside, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that BYU blew the lead and game that should not have come down to a missed PAT in overtime. On the upside, the Cougars' first team defense and rediscovered offense is good enough for them to beat all remaining MWC opponents – assuming the defensive starters return from injury sooner than later.
You might note I did not include the Oct. 22 South Bend matchup against a resurging Notre Dame team under offensive mastermind Charlie Weiss. Mendenhall will have to count on a few fortunate bounces, an unusually generous officiating crew and secretly steal some of the "luck of the Irish" to pull out a major upset on the road.
But hey, this is college football and that's why we still play the game…