Las Vegas Bowl Preview: BYU vs. Oregon State

Tuesday, December 22, 2009, BYU and Oregon State meet for the ninth time ever in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. The last meeting between the two schools was in 1986 when current BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall played for Oregon State. When the two schools met in 1977, the Beavers from Oregon State not only gave BYU its first loss of the season, they gave BYU’s All-American quarterback Gifford Nielsen a season ending knee injury.

This could end up being the best bowl game of the year. It features two top 20 teams, two 3,000 yard passers, two 1,000 yard rushers, one 1,000 yard receiver, and one Mackey Award finalist. Then again, it could end up being one of the worst bowl games of the year. For the second straight year, Oregon State lost a spot in the Rose Bowl by losing to Oregon; for the second straight year, BYU is in Las Vegas while another Mountain West Conference team is playing in a BCS game. Last year, neither team had an impressive bowl performance. Oregon State won 3-0 in the Sun Bowl, while BYU lost 31-21 in the Las Vegas Bowl despite being the better team.

BYU’s 2008 loss was attributed to lack of enthusiasm. After sky high expectations, and even talk by the media of BYU playing in the National Championship game, BYU lost both its first conference game and its first game to rival Utah since the 2005 season. BYU ended up playing for the fourth consecutive year in Las Vegas against Arizona—a team it had played in 2006 and 2007. This year should be different. Although BYU is still in Vegas, the Cougars have several reasons to be excited and motivated:

1. Oregon State is a fresh face. As previously mentioned, the two teams last met over 20 years ago. Last year BYU was playing Arizona for the third time in as many years, and the year before, BYU played UCLA for the second time that year and already knew they would play again the next season.

2. Who you play is more important than where you play. Oregon State provides a high quality opponent that BYU should want to play under any circumstances. The Beavers are nationally ranked, have a running back recognized as one of the best in the country, a 1,000 yard receiver, and a first team all-Pac-10 quarterback. For the second consecutive year Oregon State was one win away from playing in the Rose Bowl.

3. Last game for the seniors. QB Max Hall, TE Dennis Pitta, DE Jan Jorgensen, LB Colby Clawson, just to name a few, are all playing their last game for BYU. Regardless of the circumstances, this fact alone should motivate the seniors to play the best game of their lives. The last game stays with you for the rest of your life. No one wants to go out a loser in his last game.

4. A win could secure a top 10 finish. BYU is currently ranked number 14 in the USA Today (Coaches) poll, number 15 in the AP poll, and number 13 in the Harris poll. The bowl schedule is very favorable for BYU to move up in the rankings if the Cougars win. Oregon plays Ohio State, Iowa plays Georgia Tech, Penn State plays LSU. These are all win-win situations for BYU. If BYU wins, they should move ahead of the loser (or stay ahead of LSU depending on the poll). If Virginia Tech loses to Tennessee, then BYU would move up another spot. A Miami loss to Wisconsin would be insurance since Miami is just below BYU, except in the AP poll where Miami is above BYU (by 2 points). Depending on how all the games go, BYU may impress voters enough to jump the winners of the win-win games, because BYU is playing for …

5. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. No one thinks BYU will win. Every prediction I have seen by the “experts” predicts that Oregon State will win. From the Vegas Odds makers to the journalists who cover the sport for a living. Having suffered bad losses to Florida State and TCU, the BYU image is tarnished in the national media. Oregon State is seen as legitimate competition. A team full of speed that took Pac-10 Champion Oregon to the limit. If BYU can win this game, it should restore some of what was lost in those earlier losses. As a former football player, nothing was more motivating for me than to be the underdog fighting for respect.

6. The Mackey Award snub. Despite being named the consensus All-American tight end, Dennis Pitta did not win the Mackey Award as the nations best tight end. Pitta had almost identical stats as Mackey Award winner and Florida Gator Aaron Hernandez in receptions and yards receiving, despite Hernandez playing one extra game. Pitta, however, had almost twice as many touchdown receptions (7) as Hernandez (4), and Pitta did all this while splitting time with fellow senior tight end Andrew George, who is rated the number 16 tight end in the nation on Yahoo! Sports’ College Football Power Rankings. No other tight end caught a single pass for Florida. Add this as another RESPECT motivator.

7. A loss would blemish what has been a record setting season. The BYU team and players have set several records this year. Harvey Unga set the school career rushing record. Pitta set the school career receptions record. Hall set the school record for most career wins by a quarterback, as well as numerous MWC records. These only scratch the surface of what this team has accomplished. Although a loss on Tuesday won’t take any of these records away, it will take away some of the luster. It is better to be remembered as the team that set a ton of records and won 11 games for the third time in four years than to be the team that set all those records, but lost its bowl game.

Notwithstanding all these positives, BYU has some things working against them, including:

1. Jaquizz Rodgers. He is quick, he is elusive, and he is electrifying. He is also a scoring machine. Rodgers is unlike any back that BYU faced this year. Will he find room to run like Florida State did, or will he be contained the way BYU contained Oklahoma’s two outstanding backs in the season opener?

2. Overall team speed. Rodgers is not the only fast player on the Oregon State roster. Oregon State has great team speed. So did Florida State and TCU. Speed doesn’t always spell disaster, though. Oklahoma’s team speed was far superior to BYU, but the Cougars came away with the win.

3. Oregon State wins bowl games. The Beavers are 5-0 in bowl games under Mike Riley. This is the one statistic that scares me the most. Bowl games are tricky with the motivation and time off factors, so when I see a coach that has found a way to have sustained success in bowls, that speaks volumes to me. Riley has figured out how to keep his team motivated and to keep the rust off of his players. We have all seen great teams lose to very inferior competition in bowl games. With BYU and Oregon State so evenly matched statistically, Riley’s bowl preparation could be the difference maker.

Here’s what else I will be watching:
  1. Is Sean Canfield legit? His numbers are impressive (70% completion percentage, 21 to 6 touchdown to interception ration), but are they a by product of Canfield’s abilities or Jaquizz Rodgers’ abilities? Rodgers has been the central focus of opposing defenses all year. I wonder how many other quarterbacks could put up similar numbers against defenses so preoccupied with the running back. An excellent run game is the best way to take pressure off of a quarterback. Canfield has also benefited from being relatively unknown this year. Now the cat is out of the bag. BYU knows he is the first team all-Pac-10 quarterback. The Cougar defense knows about his completion percentage, his TD to interception ratio, his 3,103 passing yards. With the extended time to prepare, BYU had the luxury of preparing for Rodgers, and preparing pass rush schemes for Canfield.
  2. Will a big game from Jaquizz Rodgers doom BYU? Even if Rodgers runs for over 200 yards it is not a given that BYU loses. Back in the early 90s Marshall Faulk had huge games against BYU, but San Diego State (SDSU) only beat BYU once in Faulk’s three years. Even when Faulk rushed for 299 yards in SDSU’s lone win, the game was close (45-38) and BYU had a chance to win. Just this year we saw Ryan Mathews, Fresno State, run for 234 yards in a loss to Boise State and Dion Lewis, Pitt, run for 194 yards in a loss to Cincinnati. Then again, we saw Toby Gerhart, Stanford, run for 234 yards in a 51-42 upset of Oregon and Mark Ingram run for 246 yards in a 20-6 win over South Carolina.
  3. Will Max Hall keep his emotions in check? Hall is one of the best quarterbacks in BYU history. One of his biggest strengths is that he plays with so much emotion. Sometimes, though, his emotions get the best of him and he makes poor decisions. He has shown some improvement this year. BYU will need the more mature Max in this game. As we saw in the Utah game, if he can avoid the costly mistake, then he does not have to play great for BYU to win.
  4. Will BYU match its most successful four year run? BYU won 43 games from 1978 to 1981 and again from 1982 to 1985. This year’s team already set a record by winning double digit games for the fourth consecutive year, but BYU is still one win away from matching this total win mark over four years. BYU won 9, 11, 12, and 11 games, respectively, from 1978 to 1981 and 8, 11, 13, and 11 games, respectively, from 1982 to 1985. BYU won 11 games in 2006, 11 games in 2007, 10 games in 2008, and 10 games thus far in 2009.
  5. Which BYU defense will show up? The BYU defense played great against Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming this year. They came out flat and were embarrassed against Florida State and TCU. The secondary has improved during the year, most notably Brian Logan, and the front seven has several play makers. Even with all of the offensive firepower that Oregon State brings to the table, it is not unreasonable to say that this defensive unit has what it takes to keep the Beavers in check.
Time: 5 p.m. (PST)
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