Turnovers Aside, Offense Already Scary Good

Setting BYU's five fumbles (only one of which was recovered) and an offensive line miscue that resulted in a touchdown aside for the moment, junior quarterback Max Hall and the Cougar offense often looked scary-good and in late-season form already in their opening 41-17 win Saturday against No. 3- ranked FCS powerhouse Northern Iowa - extending the nation's longest active win streak to 11 wins.

Can you imagine how much better they're going to be next season when most of the offensive stars will be seniors?

Okay… back to reality. Let's not look too far ahead too soon.

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall found all the "teaching moments" the coaching staff needs to adequately prepare their young charges for a much stiffer test this Saturday on the road against Pac-10 foe Washington. Ball control will be the catchphrase mantra for the week.

The Utah Utes did their part Saturday for Mountain West Conference credibility when they brought Michigan's "Big House" down with a convincing 25-23 road win in Ann Arbor before a capacity crowd of more than 108,000 people – and millions more on ABC television.

One thing's for certain: You can bet the Huskies will not be as forgiving or gracious as hosts to allow BYU to leave their lakefront stadium in Seattle with another "W" if they cough up as many turnovers.

Though no one involved with Washington's football program will utter a word about it, right now the Huskies are playing to help extend the coaching tenure of their head coach Ty Willingham, a man widely respected for his Tony Dungy-like (Indianapolis Colts coach for the uninformed) qualities and characteristics.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Cougars' game Saturday was the relative ease in which Panther quarterback Pat Grace was able to consistently find and hit open receivers.

Talk about BYU's bend-but-don't break defensive structure and philosophy all you want, but the fact they face one of the country's most prolific throwing offenses every day at practice, you'd expect them – even in a primary zone alignment – to be much more impressive than they were against an overmatched opponent.

That said, Cougar fans should expect a substantial game performance improvement from the lessons learned Saturday when they suit up against the Huskies. I anticipated first-game jitters and a fumble or two, but certainly not five. I predicted a final score of 43-10 – and it would have been close were it not for the blindside hit on Hall in the end zone and recovery for, using baseball parlance, an unearned touchdown.

Actually, the game should have been a blowout based on their dominating first-half performance and a commanding halftime score of 27-3. With Mr. Murphy (of "what could go wrong will go wrong" fame) on the sidelines, the turnover bug struck in the third quarter and made the game much closer than it should have been.

Had it gone according to the first-half script, Hall and company would have continued to moved the ball at will, scored several more touchdowns, demoralized the Panthers even more with a stingier defensive effort, and the back-ups would have seen a lot of mop-up duty in the fourth quarter.

Hall completed 34-of-41 passes for two touchdowns and an impressive 198 quarterback rating and completion percentage above 80 percent. Junior tight end Dennis Pitta had a record-breaking day with 11 receptions for 213 yards and a 19.4 yards-per-catch average. Sophomore running back Harvey Unga was again impressive with 18 rushes for 64 yards and two touchdowns, coupled with six pass receptions for 47 yards and a third touchdown. It was a relatively quiet game for starting receivers Austin Collie (seven receptions for 80 yards) and Michael Reed (four receptions for 71 yards).

Meanwhile, true freshman receiver O'Neill Chambers demonstrated great promise of things to come as a kick returner with 101 yards on three returns. He made some easily correctible rookie mistakes in catching a kick on the 5-yard line and attempting a return after receiving the ball five yards deep in his end zone, but count me as one of his believers that he will return one for a touchdown.

As it was, the fair number of mistakes made will provide ample fodder for coaches to light a fire under the team's collective derrières for a productive week of learning, repetition, preparation and practice.

On the other side of the ball, it appears BYU's defense is better than most people anticipated. They only gave up 10 points and return only two listed starters from last season in Jan Jorgensen and David Nixon. However, defensive linemen Ian Dulan, Russell Tialavea and safety David Tafuna were or would have been starters last year if they were healthy. With the number of reps they received in 2007, linebacker Matt Bauman and safety Kellen Fowler would almost qualify for returning-starter status as well.

That's seven off 11 would-be/almost 2007 starters anchoring this year's Cougar defense. Not too shabby. What may be more notable are the emergence of hard-hitting linebackers Coleby Clawson, Matt Ah You and Vic So'oto and capable cornerbacks Brandon Bradley, Scott Johnson, G Pittman and Brandon Howard. Believe it or not, this year's defensive unit might be regarded as even better than last year's unit by the end of the season.

It is apparent there is a definite sense of unfulfilled purpose about this particular group of players - more evident even than in recent seasons. It's more than just the team's oft-quoted "Quest for Perfection" mantra.

Indeed, this is an again-proud Cougar program that has run the table in two consecutive MWC seasons, with back-to-back 11-2 seasons and consecutive bowl victories against Pac-10 foes, but it seems the coaches or players would not be satisfied with just doing the same a third year in a row. They expect more. The fans expect more.

Mendenhall has made no bones about his incremental program goals to not only consistently dominate the MWC, but to position themselves first to break into the BCS big-bowl picture - which will likely require an undefeated season - and then to contend again for a second national championship title for the Provo school.

What complicates matters is the Cougars face their biggest hurdles to a perfect-record 2008 season not from their next two BCS opponents in Washington and UCLA, but from MWC conference challengers Utah and Texas Christian University.

The Horned Frogs handily defeated a tough New Mexico squad 26-3 Saturday in Albuquerque, while the Utes demoralized the prideful Wolverines in Michigan. BYU plays both games on the road and both teams will be gunning for Cougar hide and blood and will gleefully strip them of any BCS-busting aspirations if they can.

The fact a representative from the Fiesta Bowl was present Saturday in Provo is not a surprise. They know BYU fans would pack the house in Arizona and the Cougars' national following and longstanding reputation as an exciting TV team would generate strong viewership ratings, which translates to more cash in their pocket.

Think of it… hometown boy Mall Hall, formerly an Arizona State Sun Devil, returns home to Arizona and emerges as the conquering local hero in the biggest game of his life…

But back to reality again. While Max may dream of such things in the deepest recesses of his sub-consciousness, his conscious mindset and that of his teammates and coaches will be totally focused on Washington and the next game and the next…

And that, folks, is the way it should be.

(P.S. That was way cool seeing legendary BYU and NCAA Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards as the first person to carry the alumni flag, a new tradition added this season by Mendenhall and company. The team selects a former Cougar to carry out the alumni flag, along with the chosen current player who runs out with the current team flag. Both flags are white with a blue "Y" logo. The team flag was signed by each member of the team, while the alumni flag was signed by former BYU players. Their signatures reflect their commitment to uphold the tradition, spirit and honor of the BYU football program and to be a flag bearer of the university.)

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