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Hope Springs Eternal! BYU Football Prognostications: BYU vs. Washington State

August 2, 2012 5 comments

By Ben Lockhart

Beginning on the first day of BYU fall camp, I at least attempt to inject some reality into my fantasies about what the Cougars will accomplish this season on the football field. In August, everyone is undefeated and for each team, “this is their year.” By October (or September if you’re a Cougs fan, since coach Bronco Mendenhall’s teams are known for their poor starts to the season), we adjust our expectations significantly and by November we are realists (or in a bad year, pessimists) again. But the longest offseason in the universe makes up for that sensibility and twists us into overly hopeful, hyperbole-spewing fools again. And it happens every year. It’s one of those things you swear won’t happen to you, but it doesn’t matter what you tell yourself: It’s inevitable.

So in trying to make grounded predictions about what the 2012 Cougars are capable of — and what they’re not — I’ll be sizing up BYU’s opponents, their hopes and dreams for this season along with their worst case scenarios. It seems like a reasonable way to approach BYU’s chances. No fan base, from Boise State to New Mexico State, is making plans for a loss to BYU; they’re hitting the peak of their optimism cycle right now too. And I can guarantee even more certainly that no team has already conceded to the Cougars in their minds. Which should make each of us feel just a little ridiculous for counting up wins, as if college football, of all sports, was predictable. That’s why they play the game, as the saying goes. Looking at it from these teams’ perspective, then, should destroy the illusion that BYU is 100% in control of its wins and losses, and make for more informed conjecture. This is how I try to convince myself I can be impartial, at least.

In order of schedule, I start today with the Washington State Cougars, BYU’s obstacle in the home opener.

But more than an obstacle for our Cougars, Washington State is a football program committed to resurrecting their Cougars to the level of the (very) brief glory days of the early 2000’s.

I spent six fortunate months of my LDS mission in and around Pullman. Despite living there while I was isolated from most sporting news, I saw and heard enough to understand that such glory days (capped by a Holiday Bowl win over #5 ranked Texas in 2003) are a distant memory at best. Football had slipped from the consciousness of the student body and surrounding community. The institution is mired in a beautiful but small and largely apathetic college town, with limited local recruiting opportunities. WSU administrators may have decided they want a more recognizable profile (even among their very own students and alumni), and that football was one way to do it, because they made some of the splashiest and wholesale transformations of any college football team this offseason.

Chief among these changes is the hiring of head coach Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach who was known for record-breaking offenses and miraculous come-from-behind wins. Eventually, Leach, the winningest coach ever at Texas Tech, was let go for a controversy that had nothing to do with his success on the field. Despite an unceremonious exit from his gig there that prompted him to bring lawsuits against the school, Leach had led the Red Raiders to a decade of success and increasing prominence, and gained a reputation as one of the best offensive geniuses in college football. Leach, in fact, is a BYU alum who freely talks about pulling his offensive ideas from his time at the school, when Steve Young was terrorizing opponents.

He joins a Washington State team that struggled to 4-8 last season, but not for lack of scoring ability. The Cougars averaged nearly thirty points per contest and finished ninth in the nation in passing yards, not bad for a team that had two quarterbacks go down for the season with horrible injuries. (I feel compelled to note that they took mighty Utah to overtime while their third string quarterback lobbed passes for three quarters with a lacerated liver.)

Defense was the problem for the Cougars, and Leach won’t be able to directly fix that without a serious bang-up job by his brand new defensive staff. But he does mesh well with an offense already capable of putting up touchdowns with multiple quarterbacks, including senior Jeff Tuel, who is expected to be among the best in the Pac-12. This really could be the year Washington State returns to the postseason for the first time since 2003.

Best Case Scenario for Washington State in 2012:

The Cougars explode offensively under Leach, pulling off a handful of upsets that look less surprising by the end of the season. They catch an unpolished BYU team off guard in the first week of the season, split their contests against the unimpressive middle of the Pac-12 and take care of business with lesser opponents to finish the year an astounding 9-3, earning their first bowl invite in nearly a decade.

Worst Case Scenario:

The Cougars improve slightly under Leach, but continue to allow big scores defensively and find themselves outmatched athletically by the likes of BYU and bigger name opponents in the Pac-12. It becomes a season of shoulda coulda woulda in Pullman, and the growing pains of an all-new coaching staff are as apparent as ever. The program with new expectations stagnates in its first year before improved recruiting has set in. The team finishes 4-8, an identical record to the year before that had prompted so much change.

Likely wins: Eastern Washington, Colorado, UNLV, Oregon State
Likely losses: Oregon, Stanford, Cal
Swing games: BYU, Utah, UCLA, Arizona State, Washington
Predicted season result: 6-6

Now, what we really want to know: What does all this mean for BYU in Week 1?

BYU will be solidly favored in this game, and rightly so. Right now they’re easily the deeper football program, with a lot of bodies that are plenty capable of out hitting, out running and out blocking Washington State. But for me, this match-up smells like a trap game — because it’s in week one, not despite of it.

As I alluded to earlier, the Cougars struggle early in the season under Mendenhall (10-11 in the first three games of the season versus 56-13 the rest of the year), and you know Leach is already putting fear into the hearts of BYU fans, and probably its secondary too. Mendenhall will have absolutely zero film to analyze how Leach has adapted his pass-happy offense to Washington State personnel.

And we all know how fast and dominant the Cougar pass defense traditionally is… not. I mean, it’s passable (see what I did there), but it’s retooling and not very deep. Hadley, who admittedly is one of my favorite players on the team and played for my high school in Pleasant Grove, is a reliable, physical, no-mistakes corner back. But he doesn’t keep quarterbacks awake at night with his athleticism (zero interceptions in 2011) so much as he keeps receivers up thinking about his punishing hits. Junior Daniel Sorenson played well last year, but he will have to help break in Joe Sampson at the other safety spot. Sampson came on toward the end of last season while splitting corner back time with Hadley, but will be relatively inexperienced at his new crucial position. And to see an unproven corner back like Jordan Johnson (as talented as his teammates say he is) making the first start of his collegiate career against Mike Leach and an experienced quarterback … Well, that’s a fetching nightmare.

So it could get shocking, and quick, in week one. But will it? I am trying to subdue the naive optimist inside of myself, but I just can’t do it. The Cougars are still physically bigger, faster and stronger, and Mendenhall is preetttty ok as a defensive coordinator. He’s well used to limitations in his secondary after several years of the same problem, used to making sure they have all the help they need. Expect linebacker Kyle Van Noy– the Cougars’ best and most versatile defensive player by most measures— to be all about the pass in this game, whether it be on blitzes or dropping back in coverage. Expect offensive coordinator Brandon Doman to trust the run game (no, seriously) to keep the ball away from Washington State, and expect it to work against their porous defense. But more than anything, expect a high flying, tight opener in week one.

And when you remember that BYU is starting a fifth-year senior at quarterback and Mendenhall’s teams are 20-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less …………

Ok, it’s the first day of fall camp. It may be plausible, but I just can’t concede an opening day loss to Washington State at home. There will be plenty of time for pessimism later in my predictions… I’ll get around to it, I swear!

BYU: 34
Washington State: 31

ben.lockhart89@gmail.com | 801 462 6711

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