BYU to Bowl-Bash Bruins in Las Vegas

It's prediction time for Saturday night's Las Vegas Bowl matchup between BYU and UCLA, two tradition-laden and very talented football teams seemingly headed in opposite directions right now – at least until the Bruins find the head coach they believe will resurrect their flagging football fortunes.

Calling a Cougar win is the wimp's way west and practically everyone and their backyard dog has already jumped on that bandwagon.

Most gridiron media pundits, especially those with feet and eyes on the ground, will simply suffice with a game-ending adumbration in their respective "news-holes" (no offense and no kidding; that's what daily newspapers I wrote for call the editorial space not allocated to advertising).

Not I. Being the foolhardy, reckless and intrepid chap that I am, I'll go where no level-headed prognosticator fears to tread. This is the mother of all…Okay, enough already. My opinions are worth the few grains of salt they are predicated on, but they at least provide extra-large portions of steak to go with the sizzle. So take it for it's worth…

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his coaching staff know the Bruins will be fully motivated and prepared to play their best game for popular interim head coach Dwayne Walker, a former Cougar defensive coach, to improve his chances of earning the nod as the school's new top coach.

But as athletic and talented as the Bruins are, the difference in the Cougars' favor will be a higher level of offensive execution, a dominating defense and mental toughness and tenacity on both sides of the ball. It is important for BYU to score on one of their first two possessions to gain offensive momentum early in the game.

In short, BYU will defeat UCLA by at least two touchdowns in a 2007 rematch that won't be as close as the final score might indicate. If Bruin QB Ben Olson is as injured as advertised, expect an even larger margin of victory.

The Cougar D will dominate and junior linebacker David Nixon will be hailed as the defensive star of the game, setting up a stellar senior season that will rank among the best in his position. You read it here first. Though overshadowed by teammate Brian Kehl most of this season, Nixon has played as valuable and dominating a role in the other outside linebacker slot.

That's not to say that super-sophomore defensive end Jan Jorgensen or senior linebackers Kehl and Kelly Poppinga won't be their usual effective selves, but you know the Bruin defensive brain trust – interim head coach Dwayne Walker – will definitely and specifically game plan for Jorgensen and Kehl.

BYU's offensive line is ready and raring to go for this primetime rematch, eager to finally spotlight on national TV that they are, indeed, one of the most dominating and punishing lines in the country.

Expect the Cougar frontline to provide sufficient time and cover for Max Hall to do some damage downfield with a now-seasoned stable of receivers in Michael Reed, Matt Allen and Austin Collie. Add to that mix BYU's super sophomore tight ends Dennis Pitta, Vic So'oto or Andrew George and an excellent pass-catching running back corps.

Hall is a more confident and seasoned quarterback now than when these two teams met earlier and his improved decision-making will be in full effect Saturday. After a memorable 4th-and-18 play that led to another last-minute BYU comeback against Utah in their final regular season game, expect Hall and Collie to seek out and find each other early in an attempt to stretch the Bruins' pass defense – all the while setting up the Cougars potent running attack.

Hall's mandate is simply not to lose his focus or the game by his actions and to trust in the proven abilities of his Cougar offensive line. Perhaps the best is yet to come next year and beyond from this somewhat unheralded offensive line unit, which loses only one starter in center Sete Aulai after Saturday's game. Indeed, the Cougars have a freshman-in-waiting in Matt Reynolds – widely acknowledged as the best of the Reynolds' boys – redshirting this year, who would be starting on many major Bowl Subdivision (formerly Div. I) teams this season.

You have to also tip your cap to redshirt freshman Harvey Unga (13 touchdowns on 1,211 net rushing yards in 227 attempts for a 5.3 yards-per-carry average and 100.9 yards rushing per game) for his marvelous feats on the field. He readily acknowledges a good part of his success is attributable to his effective front line and the holes they generate, which are occasionally wide enough to run Unga and fellow running backs Manase Tonga and Fui Vakapuna (the Tongan trio) through together side-by-side at the line of scrimmage. Don't believe it? Rewatch some of the games on tape.

Speaking of Unga, that kid is something "special." I predicted Unga would be spectacular before the season started and he has been everything I expected – and more. What separates Unga from his running back counterparts is his ability to not only bowl over defenders with his linebacker-like strength and physical build, but his innate vision, his tackle-evading, side-stepping jukes, and especially the way he smoothly slides off would-be tacklers as he repeatedly turns the corner for frequent first downs.

BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae inexplicably limited Unga to only five rushes in the September early-season encounter with UCLA. You can confidently bet in any Las Vegas casino that definitely won't happen again on Saturday and Unga will continue to move the chains for the Cougars on the ground and in the air.

To the consternation of opposing coaches, Unga's extraordinary pass-catching abilities in critical clutch situations this season as a freshman (41 receptions for 629 yards for a 15.3 yards-per-catch average – the second-highest among all Cougar receivers – and four touchdowns) will have Mountain West defensive and head coaches lamenting the fact they have to game plan for him for another three years – not to forget Cougar sophomore's Hall, Pitta, George, So'oto and Collie.

More than the bottom line and final score on Saturday, BYU must decisively show and prove it belongs in the upper echelon of gridiron powerhouses with a convincing win and a well-executed game plan.

At stake is a coveted top-20 preseason national ranking that would put the Cougars in an excellent position to nab a BCS bowl bid next season if they three-peat as MWC champions and beat their Pac-10 opponents in Washington and UCLA.

The final score: Mmmm, let's say BYU 34, UCLA 17.

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