BYU Preview

The resurgent BYU Cougars come to the Rose Bowl to face #13th-ranked UCLA Saturday, with a two-game winning streak over the Pac-10. The match-up is a great deal closer than most believe, with BYU having proven veterans returning from a team that went 11-2 in 2006...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA takes on BYU at the Rose Bowl Saturday at 3:30. The game will be televised by the Versus cable network nationally, with Ted Robinson, Kelly Stouffer and Lewis Johnson calling the action.

-- UCLA moved up in this week's national polls, to #13 in the AP poll and #14 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll.

-- The Bruins are 1-0 after beating Stanford in the season and Pac-10 opener last week in Palo Alto, 45-17.

-- BYU is 1-0, defeating Arizona, 20-7, in its season opener in Provo, Utah.

-- UCLA leads the all-time series with BYU, 6-1. The two teams first met in 1983 with the Cougars beating the Bruins, 37-35, in the Rose Bowl. UCLA has won six straight in the series since 1985.  UCLA has beaten the Cougars by an average margin of 15.5 points. Saturday will be the first time UCLA has played BYU in Pasadena since 1997, when the Bruins clobbered the Cougars, 68-14.

-- In that first meeting in 1983, BYU's Steve Young threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns.

-- BYU has recently done well against Pac-10 teams. The Cougars have won their last two games against Pac-10ers, last week against Arizona and then last year against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, 38-8.  Overall, BYU is 29-55-1 against the Pac-10.  Of all the teams in the Pac-10, BYU has the most wins against Arizona (9).

-- Against Arizona last week, the Cougars held the Wildcats scoreless through 59 minutes.

-- BYU went 11-2 last season, and a perfect 8-0 to win the Mountain West Conference. It was the school's best record since 2001 when they went 11-2.  The Cougars finished the 2006 season ranked in the top 20 nationally in many polls. They have the second-longest active win streak in the nation (11 games).

-- The Cougars started the season ranked in the top 25 by some pre-season magazines.

-- BYU is coached by Bronco Mendenhall, who is in his third year at the helm in Provo. In his first season (2005), he took a program that had not had a winning season in four years to 6-5 and to a bowl game. Then, last year, Mendenhall went 11-2.

-- Mendenhall was BYU's defensive coordinator when he was promoted to head coach.  He got most of his defensive coaching chops as the defensive coordinator at New Mexico, under head coach Rocky Long, who is the ex-defensive coordinator at UCLA. Long became a much-loved DC in his two seasons at UCLA under Bob Toledo for his unconventional, attacking style in 1996 and 1997.

-- There is another UCLA-BYU coaching connection. Mendenhall this season hired Mark Weber as BYU's offensive line coach. Weber served in that capacity under Toledo and under Karl Dorrell in his first year as head coach.  Since UCLA, Weber has been at Fresno State and North Carolina.

-- Of the 105 players on BYU's fall camp roster, 63 have served their LDS mission. There are currently 28 members of the BYU football program serving their two-year missions.

-- UCLA quarterback Ben Olson went to BYU out of high school, but then left after his true freshman football season and went on his LDS mission.  He's the only married player on UCLA's roster.

-- BYU always holds the distinction of having the most married players of any team in the country. This year, BYU has 27 players who are married.

-- Over the last five years, UCLA posts the 20th-best home record in the nation with a 20-5 mark at the Rose Bowl.

-- BYU, under Mendenhall, is 17-3 when leading at halftime and 16-1 when taking a lead into the fourth quarter. 

-- The weather has cooled off in Southern California this week, with a projection of 86 degrees in Pasadena on Saturday.

BYU'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

BYU had to replace four starters from a potent 2006 offense, one that led the MWC last season and ranked fourth nationally in total offense, averaging 465 yards per game.  They also led the league and were fourth in the nation in passing offense, averaging 323 yards per game.  They were fifth nationally in scoring offense (36.7 points).

The four guys they had to replace, however, were four key skill players, including the quarterback.

BYU's offense is predicated on a short, efficient passing game, which demands a smart, efficient quarterback.  Last season John Beck was named the MWC Player of the year and passed for over 3,000 yards in this offense, and now the torch is being passed to Max Hall (SO, 6-1, 200).  Hall transferred from Arizona State and sat out last season, and was named the starter in spring.  He didn't look very inexperienced last week against Arizona, completing 26 of 39 passes for 288 yards.  He's not a big kid and doesn't have a rocket for an arm, but the BYU staff likes his intelligence and savvy.

BYU's Harvey Unga.


The Cougars also had to replace another huge skill guy from a year ago, running back Curtis Brown, the all-time career rushing leader at BYU.  There was a bit of a battle for the tailback spot, but it appears that redshirt freshman Harvey Unga (FR, 6-1, 221) won the spot last week when he totaled 194 all-purpose yards, leading the team in both rushing (67 yards) and receiving (127 yards) against Arizona, and being named MWC offensive player of the week.  Unga, who missed the majority of last season with an injury, isn't a game breaker but is a battering ram type of guy who is tough to bring down when you give him space in the flat.

The guy behind him is Fui Vakapuna ( (JR, 6-1, 234), who is a BYU fan favorite because of his fullback-like running style. 

Returning to the backfield this week is Manase Tonga (JR, 6-0, 234) at essentially BYU's fullback position. Tonga was arrested at a traffic stop in July and was suspended for the first game of the season.

These three are getting hyped as the Tongan Trio.

The Cougars also are benefitting from another player returning to the roster, wide receiver, Austin Collie (SO, 6-2, 212), who returned from his LDS mission. Collie, in 2004, was named to a freshman All-American team, leading BYU in receptions that year (58).  In his first game in just about three years last week, Collie had four catches.  Along with Collie, BYU returns two other receivers with a good amount of experience, Matt Allen (SR, 6-0, 177) and Michael Reed (JR, 6-1, 202), but neither are scary big-play threats.

Tight end is another position where the Cougars are trying to replace a starter from a year ago, and also with another player returning from his mission, Dennis Pitta (SO, 6-5, 230), who, like Collie, had a good true freshman season in 2004 and is expected to be an impact player. Hall showed that he'll find him last week with Pitta collecting four catches. There is also Vic So'oto (SO, 6-3, 233), who is coming off some injuries. So'oto was well recruited out of high school (UCLA had interest) and is considered a potential weapon.

The glue holding together BYU as it tries to plug in so many new skill guys is an experienced, talented offensive line that many feel could be among the best in BYU's history.  Center Sete Aulai (SR, 6-1, 297) is a senior captain and considered one of the best OLs in the Mountain West Conference. Three other OLs return as starters along with Aulai, including two huge guards, Ray Feinga (JR, 6-5, 322) and Travis Bright (JR, 6-5, 320).  BYU's offensive line averages 6-5 and 318 pounds, while UCLA's defensive line averages 6-3 (if you go by their listed height) and 272 pounds.

Last week, UCLA's d-line played well against Stanford, holding the line of scrimmage for most of the game. Korey Bosworth, the back-up defensive end, had four tackles, two of them sacks.  Bruce Davis, the pre-season hyped All-American, didn't have a standout day, and was neutralized by Allen Smith, Stanford's good offensive tackle.  It will be interesting this week to see how Davis bounces back, especially since he'll be facing off against the type of guys he usually does well against - huge ones. BYU's two starting tackles are Dallas Reynolds (JR, 6-5, 328), who is thought to be very good, and new starter David Oswald (JR, 6-8, 325).

Reggie Carter.


UCLA's leading tackler last week was weakside linebacker Reggie Carter, who recorded 10 stops on the day. Carter was very active, and it's even more impressive since Carter is the one who comes out in UCLA's nickel and dime packages.

UCLA's secondary had 331 yards put on them last week by Stanford. People cited that Stanford threw the ball 59 times; BYU threw the ball less last week, 39 times, but that's still a good amount. BYU throws quite a bit more than it runs, so this will be a second week in a row where there's quite a bit of pressure on UCLA's secondary.  It makes it even more worrisome that UCLA starting cornerback Rodney Van has a high ankle sprain and hasn't practiced yet this week. He did some light drills Wednesday in practice and Karl Dorrell said whether he plays will be a game-time decision. Backing him up is true sophomore Alterraun Verner, who had a semi-tough game last week against Stanford. This week in practice the UCLA secondary - and the defense in general - has been challenging itself not to rely on its pre-season hype and step up against BYU.

Advantage: Slightly to UCLA.  Both units are coming off games that you can't take that much from. But you could say that UCLA's defense under-achieved against Stanford, and that BYU's offense over-achieved against Arizona, having to replace so many key skill guys.  Perhaps the best thing that could have prepared UCLA for BYU is looking average against Stanford.

It will be interesting to see if Hall can do it again this week, his first start on the road against the #13th-ranked team in the country and a very good defense.  He does have a great advantage in that offensive line, who gave him huge amounts of time last week against Arizona. UCLA, you can bet, will be coming at him with many different types of blitz packages. It's a good match-up to exploit a zone blitz, against a team with more possession-type of receivers where you can risk sending your DBs on blitzes.  Hall isn't particularly mobile, but he is smart. And that offensive line will grind it out on the ground with its bullish running backs, trying to give Hall some shorter second downs.  First down in this match-up will be key. If UCLA can be aggressive on first down and make Hall have to operate out of second-and-longs, BYU's throw-under passing game will have to get first downs with yards after the catch.

It will also be interesting to see if Davis will be more effective this week - if last week was an aberration or not.  He'll have to prove that he can get it done without Justin Hickman on the other side, when everyone now knows who he is.

But UCLA is the more proven unit with experience, so it gets the slight edge.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. BYU'S DEFENSE

BYU defensive unit in 2006 ranked fourth in the nation in defense and 10th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 14 points a game, which is the lowest for a Cougar defense in 12 years. 

While UCLA's defense has gotten a lot of hype, BYU's defense probably hasn't gotten enough.

It was going to return seven starters from last year's unit, until two returning starters suffered season-ending injuries in fall camp.

Probably the toughest break the BYU team has had to face was the season-ending ACL injury to starting nose tackle, Russell Tialavea, before the season.  In a 3-4-4, the nose tackle is, of course, key, and Tialavea was a returning starter.

Having to step in is true freshman Eathyn Manumaleuna (FR, 6-2, 280). Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall was scrambling in fall camp to find Tialavea's replacement, and he opted for Manumaleuna, but he'll shuttle in Rick Wolfley (R-FR, 6-3, 326) and Mosese Foketi (JR, 6-0, 270).  With how solid the BYU defense is, this could be it's weakest link.

On the outside are Ian Dulan (SO, 6-1, 270) and Jan Jorgensen (SO, 6-3, 260), who are considered solid returning starters.
Linebacker Bryan Kehl.


The strength of BYU's defense is its four-man linebacking crew, led by strongside linebacker Bryan Kehl (SR, 6-3, 231).  Kehl is active and flies around aggressively. He was also Ben Olson's roommate their freshman year at BYU.

David Nixon (JR, 6-3, 223) is the other guy on the outside and he could be just as good as Kehl. Kelly Poppinga (SR, 6-2, 240) has experience on the outside but will now be the anchor inside, along with experienced Markell Staffieri (SR, 6-3, 232). 

The BYU linebackers pride themselves on creating turnovers, and they'll be looking to pop a ball loose throughout the game.

In the back, BYU has talent in Quinn Gooch (SR, 6-0, 196), considered one of the best free safeties in the MWC.  Last year's secondary was a strength because Ben Criddle (SR, 6-0, 185) emerged as a very strong boundary corner.

But the other season-ending injury to the team has left BYU's secondary not as strong as it was projected coming into the season. Dustin Gabriel, the returning starter at strong safety, had surgery on both feet in late August.  Also, in August, David Tafuna, who was expected to be the first back-up at safety, suffered a season-ending injury himself. Stepping into this enormous void is Corby Hodgkiss (SR, 5-11, 206), who has experience but isn't considered at the same talent level. 

BYU is also breaking in a new starting cornerback, Kayle Buchanan (SR, 6-1, 201).

So, you would think the BYU defense, with some key injuries, might be vulnerable. If they are, they didn't show it much last week against Arizona. While the Wildcats' offense wasn't very impressive, BYU's defense didn't look like it was missing a beat from last season. It held Arizona to 255 total yards and just 32 on the ground, and a mere 11 first downs.

It has to be said that Arizona's offense is feeble, so it wasn't really a formidable test for BYU's defense.

UCLA's offense will try to put together two good weeks in a row after looking very efficient against Stanford.  Ben Olson will look to settle in even more in the friendlier confines of the Rose Bowl, and perhaps show more poise and accuracy.  Key to that is providing Olson time to throw, and UCLA's offensive line was very good at that a week ago, and last year. Last week, BYU's defense didn't get a great deal of pressure on Arizona's quarterback.

Will Kahlil Bell answer his near-200-yard performance from last week with another one? Will Chris Markey step up and take back the #1 running back spot on the team? For UCLA, it's all good; Bell's performance has to be just about the biggest motivating factor for Markey.  There is also Christian Ramirez, the converted safety, who looked good in mop-up duty last week, that Bruin fans would like to see more of.  Returning to the backfield will be Chane Moline, who sat out last week with a fractured wrist, which will help to give UCLA more bodies in its backfield, and taht could come in very handy on a warm day in Pasadena against a defense with linebackers that stuff running lanes very well.
Joe Cowan.


You can easily foresee it being like a spin of the wheel every week in terms of which UCLA wide receiver will get the spotlight.  While last week Brandon Breazell and Joe Cowan were the highlights, Marcus Everett, who is generally considered the best all-around receiver on the team, is bound to have his day, as is tight end Logan Paulsen. The return of Cowan after the knee injury kept him out last season does boost UCLA's receivers in terms of their experience.

The key, again, is UCLA's offensive line. If they perform close to what they did last week every week, the UCLA offense will tend to be good. 

Advantage: Even.  The BYU defense, even though it's hurt by injuries, has some experienced guys that know their way around a field.  They're proven, and you have to give them some credit, especially against a UCLA offense that is still unproven.

After showing the world a few wrinkles last week, UCLA football fans are pretty excited anticipating what Offensive Coordinator Jay Norvell might unveil this week. It's a great position to be in, taking over an offense that didn't show very much for years, which then keeps opposing defensive coordinators guessing. They know Norvell is going to do more, but they don't know exactly what.  Expect to see some more wrinkles - different formations and plays, and small variations on the old ones.

BYU's defensive team speed isn't particularly great. If there's one thing that can counter this UCLA offense it would be defensive team speed, but it could be the BYU's defense biggest weakness. Their linebackers and defensive backs rely far more on smarts.

UCLA will undoubtedly try to smash-mouth BYU to a degree, trying to take advantage of a true freshman nose tackle in a 3-4 alignment. And with UCLA's offensive strength being its three interior linemen, and a running back that runs like a pinball, it makes a ton of sense.   But you can bet UCLA will counter off that with a great deal of play action to try to freeze those active linebackers and find the open receiver on short routes.  UCLA did well in throwing underneath last week and allowing its receivers to create yardage, and they will undoubtedly attempt to do it again, at least until someone stops it. A word of caution, though: Just because UCLA did it against Stanford doesn't mean throwing short to try to get your receivers to make plays is really UCLA's strength.  It doesn't have many guys who can naturally create yardage after the catch and it now will be scouted out after Stanford. You can bet BYU will be all over that slip screen.  One of the keys to UCLA's offensive success last week was throwing over the top to stretch the field and it has to continue to do that.

In special teams, three of the four kickers among the two teams are new.  UCLA's field goal kicker, Kai Forbath, missed two field goals last week in his college debut, even though one of them looked good.  BYU lost both its field goal kicker and punter from a year ago and are crossing their fingers that new field goal kicker Mitch Payne can be effective. He missed his one attempt last week. Punting wasn't much better for the Cougars, with new punter, C.J. Santiago, averaging 38 yards a punt. 

The one guy on BYU that actually has some good speed is kick-off and punt returner Bryce Mahuika (JR, 5-9, 185).

Prediction

This should be a much closer game than most people are anticipating. It seems many UCLA fans don't consider BYU that formidable of an opponent because the program had been down for a number of years before last season. Well, wake up, people, because the Cougars under Mendenhall are putting together a program that could harken back to their glory years.  BYU is far more able to plug in guys and not have a big drop-off from year to year because of how much older its roster is than a typical college team.

This is easily one of the games we thought before the season should be on the list of Games-That-Could-Go-Either-Way. And nothing happened last week in the first week of the season to dispel that.
UCLA does have the home-field advantage, and that could prove to be the deciding edge. 

Also, the fact that BYU's defense is a bit weakened by injuries is significant. Taking two projected starters out of the equation has to impact the unit, and it could be enough to give UCLA's developing offense some opportunity.  It benefits UCLA that its passing game, which is still getting comfortable, will go up against a secondary with two new starters, and you can bet that UCLA will try to pick on Hodgkiss and Buchanan.

This game is close, and it could very well come down to turnovers, with two defenses being the kind that really make an effort to create turnovers.

The best unit in the game is UCLA's offense line, and it will probably control the game, establish a running game, get Ben Olson some time, and help to keep UCLA's defense off the field. 

But it won't be by much.

UCLA 27
BYU 21


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