Saturday, August 29, 2009

Quest for redemption: BYU

Imagine a team that goes 32-7 over three seasons, never losing at home during that time, garnering a pair of conference championships, bowl victories, and miracle-finish wins over its cross-town rival, the nation's longest winning streak, and 42 three-star or better recruits along the way.
Those are all the ingredients for a juggernaut except one: hunger. Or call it want-to, or kick-your-can-up-one-side-of-the-field-and-down-the-other. BYU had it in '06 and '07, but lacked that final garnish in 2008. The difference? Coach Mendenhall said showed up when playing from behind, and that his staff hadn't coached the players on how to come from behind. "We were protecting last year, rather than pursuing what was next. And there's a huge difference."

Very diplomatic; and very unsatisfying. DE Jan Jorgensen is more honest: "I was a lost soul when it came to football," he says. "Our whole team was lost. . . We were a team without an identity. . . It was like that for a lot of us. I had never felt that at BYU before." The Cougars had been on the top of the mountain for two years, and the enthusiastic expectations that they would top higher mountains wore on them. "Football was not fun," he says. "We played not to lose. There was so much pressure on us last year, so much of it self-created, that football wasn't what it should be -- a fun game."
So how does this downcast crew get its mojo back? Jorgensen says fun was the missing ingredient in 2008. Max Hall echoes the sentiment, when he explains the formula: "We're loose, having fun again."
Fun is the first step. Replacing key personnel is a less sexy answer, but is just as important. And not going as well, either, because of a remarkable string of injuries in Provo this fall. Four seniors graduated on the Cougars' offensive line, and one of their replacements will miss 2009 with an injury. The only returner, LT Matt Reynolds, missed most of practice with a broken finger. He'll get one week of practice before the first snap against Oklahoma.

Cornerback is another question mark for the Cougars. Likely new starter Robbie Buckner missed most of fall camp with an injury; the other starter, Brandon Bradley, missed some of it injured.
Bright spots? There are many. Foremost, all indications point to a reinvigorated team spirit. No more pithy slogans, or blinding hype. It's a fun game, after all; remember? More specifically, DT Russell Tialeva won't leave on a mission until after the season. Vic So'oto is fitting in well as a LB-turned backup DE. The linebacking corps is deep, strong, and experienced. Max Hall is spreading the ball around better than last year. The Cougars have perhaps their best backfield this decade: Manase Tonga, pictured below, returns, joining Harvey Unga (occasionally injured this fall) and J. J. DiLuigi, all of whom have had good camps when playing. Tonga's return is particularly important given the questions at o-line; the returning runner is BYU's best backfield blocker.

McKay Jacobsen, pictured at middle, appears ready to meet the high expectations that greeted his return from a mission; Dennis Pitta, pictured at top, and Andrew George are sharp at TE.
So what's the prognosis for BYU? The Wimple is tempted to downgrade the high expectations given them after spring; instability on the o-line is not a trifling weakness. But after a loss to OU, BYU remains as good, or better, than every remaining team on its schedule. Getting Florida State, Colorado State, TCU, Air Force, and Utah at home has to be the best-breaking difficult schedule in the nation. BYU is the reasonable choice to win every one of those games-- even if only by a hair's breadth.

The biggest condition is the least predictable: injuries. If the Cougars have exhausted the injury bug, look for BYU to remind the conference why it was so feared prior to October 16, 2008.

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