Coach's Corner

Opening the season on the road against a ranked team is always a tall order: Opening in Provo, Utah against The BYU Cougars is even tougher because you know you've probably spotted them a touchdown before kick off. When you play a quality team like BYU it's usually best to have a warm up game against a lesser opponent. UW doesn't have that luxury, but there is still plenty to hope for here.

Remember last season when BYU opened the year with a shocking upset of No. 3 Oklahoma? Buoyed by that win, they went on to post an 11-2 season record, including a 44-20 bowl win over Oregon State. I don't care what conference they play in - BYU has always been a quality football program. Beating them at home is a monstrous challenge. But it can be done.

For Washington, this game is critical to their whole season and would set them up nicely if somehow they were to leave Provo with a win. Considering that Washington has not won a road game in two years, it makes this game even more important. The Huskies need to prove (most importantly to themselves) that they can win a game away from the friendly confines of Husky Stadium, simply because their first conference game will be against USC and it's also on the road.

Twice in recent history the Huskies have opened their seasons at BYU; 1997, under Jim Lambright, where UW won 42-20, and two years later when they lost 35-28 in Rick Neuheisel's debut as Washington's head coach. Overall, the Huskies have won four and lost three, with the most recent BYU win coming in 2008 when the Dawgs dropped a one-point heartbreaker to the then-15th ranked Cougars at Husky Stadium.

It has been an excellent rivalry, and this year is probably a toss-up considering graduation has taken its toll to the Cougars' starting lineup. Most critical for them is replacing their quarterback, their three starting linebackers, a NFL-drafted tight end and half of their linemen on both sides of the ball. Then they lost their best running back, Harvey Unga, who was kicked off the team after an honor code violation. He was a beast in the games I saw (he rushed 208 times for 1087 yards and 11 touchdowns) and he will be as hard to replace, as will Max Hall, their graduated starting quarterback.

The quarterback position obviously has significance to us because Jake Heaps, fresh out of Skyline HS in Sammamish, is right in the middle of the mix. Heaps, as all of you know, was the top-rated quarterback in the country last year and chose BYU over Washington. Like Nick Montana at Washington, Heaps entered college early and was impressive throughout the spring. Luckily for him there is no Jake Locker to battle against, so the reality is he has a far better chance of starting in the opener being a Cougar than he would if he'd come to the Huskies. Washington will probably not know who they are going to face at the quarterback position until the week before the game, but whoever it is it will still be his first college start.

This year one of BYU's best players is on defense - Andrew Rich, a 6-3, 225 pound safety. He roams the middle of the field. He had 85 tackles and four picks last year and should post even better stats this time around. He is a big hitter on the back end and should help make up for the loss of three starters at linebacker.

Of course BYU will have a number of kids returning from missions served who are now older men, so you don't really know who you will be playing against until their fall camp gets going. They currently list 39 freshmen and 27 sophomores on their team but usually have the oldest team in America largely due to their mission exception. I'm not even sure what other religions in America even have such "missions" and if any religious-based university is as affected by players serving missions as BYU, but it is obvious they benefit in the understanding of how to adapt their systems to the constant coming and going of players.

Anyone in college football will tell you you win more games with 22-year olds than you do with 18-year olds, and BYU typically has a lot of 22-year old players in their program, if not older and already married with children. They also rely much more on the junior college system and transfers than the Huskies do to replenish their roster. Their team roster shows 15 kids who are transfers from either junior college or another college. Washington has three.

The BYU-UW rivalry really got started when BYU was named national champions in 1985 over the Huskies. There was no denying they were undefeated that year and even though Washington soundly beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl while BYU defeated a 6-6 Michigan team in their bowl game, the Cougars were still named the champions.

The very next year the two teams met in Provo to settle the issue, and BYU prevailed by a convincing 31-3 score at home. It was a humiliating defeat for us that day and it really didn't matter if we got homered (which we did) - we still had our asses handed to us.

The next year in Husky Stadium it was another story. They returned the opening kickoff and their whole team started dancing and taunting us about the year before. But we held them to -45 yards rushing that day and rocked them 52-21. It wasn't that close.

Coach Don James called off the hounds that day out of respect for his good friend LaVell Edwards. The rest of us wanted to run it up, but he was adamant over the headsets, chastising Gary Pinkel when our back-up quarterback called an audible and threw a pass after Don had specifically told us no more throwing the ball. When the pass was thrown, Gary knew it was coming but he still got an earful from Don about sportsmanship just for good of it.

Under coach Lambright, we played them four times in the 90's (96, 97, 98 and 99) and won the first three, but in Coach Neuheisel's first game as the Huskies coach, the Dawgs got beaten in Provo by one touchdown. As I've said - it's a tough place to play.

We didn't know it at the time, but the 2008 game was essentially the end of Jake Locker's season that year, which, of course, also meant the beginning of the end for Tyrone Willingham. Only a controversial unsportsmanlike conduct call on Jake - for tossing the ball into the air - saved the nationally-ranked Cougars from being taken to overtime by a Washington team that didn't win another game for the rest of the season.

Washington has beaten BYU only one time in Provo out of three tries. That was in 1997 when we were able to totally attack their protection schemes and sacked their quarterback what seemed like 10 times. We also forced quick throws and hit him often.

We won, 42-20, on the road, in Provo, and it was also our first game of the season. In the interests of full disclosure, we were also considered a top-5 team in the country pre-season, but the point is - it can be done.

That day we rushed for 40 times for 289 yards and 3 TD's while holding them to 2 yards on 25 rushes. I think that is the key to beating BYU, and if Washington wins this game it will be because they ran the football and stopped the run on defense, forcing the Cougar offense to become one-dimensional. That's been the way to beat them in the past.

We have to think that one of the things working in Washington's favor is that the Huskies will have a senior at quarterback and the Cougars are likely to have a freshman. Regardless of whoever their quarterback is, he won't have Unga to hand off to, and that should be a help to UW.

The crowd is rowdy there; they have their own officials and they will favor the home team. That's just the way it is. You know it going in and you just can't let it upset you. It did in 1985. It didn't in 1997. Get a lead, run the football, and don't turn it over. That's always been a simple formula for pulling upsets on the road. That, and not getting beat in the kicking game, meaning no blocks - which the Cougars are always good at - and maybe scoring on a block or return yourself. The Huskies turned two backwards passes by the opposition last year into scores, so they've been able to convert when the odd chances are there.

Washington has an excellent opportunity here and they can't afford to think about anybody except BYU. They need to win on the road, win their season opener, and win on national television. I think it's a toss up game (probably a slight BYU favorite in Vegas) but I'm positive if Washington wins it will propel them toward a winning season and their first post-season appearance since 2002.

Winning the first game is that important.

For as long as I can remember, BYU has been one of the dominant teams in the western part of the country. They regularly fill their stadium and have turned out a number of nationally recognized quarterbacks. For decades they have also been the best team in their conference, even though years ago they left the WAC for the Mountain West.

Washington would be stealing this one if they can get lucky and get some breaks to win. Winning in the pre-league portion of your schedule is obviously critical to getting to a bowl. Win all three out-of-conference games and you are almost automatically in a bowl; win 2 of 3 and you are probably in a bowl, but only winning one or none is a giant hole for your team to dig out of, especially when your first conference game is against the USC Trojans.

Washington needs this win. Top Stories