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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Las Vegas Bowl Recap: BYU 44, Oregon State 20

I don’t think you could have scripted a better MAACO Bowl Las Vegas for BYU. The defense shut down a prolific offense, forced turnovers, and even produced a touchdown. The offense was efficient, it continued to convert a high percentage of third downs, and it produced a lot of points. Throw in poor playing conditions (high winds and cold temperatures), and this became an instant BYU bowl classic. And don’t forget catching a few breaks, such as Oregon State holding on a punt that BYU fumbled, Oregon State holding on a third down to keep BYU’s first scoring drive alive, and Oregon State catching BYU unprepared for a fake punt only to have the Oregon State receiver stumble over his own feet when he had plenty of room to run for the first down.

The wind will get a lot of attention for impacting this game, but the real story is how BYU was savvy enough to adjust to the wind and mentally tough enough to stay on top of its game regardless of the conditions. Max Hall’s first pass was the only one impacted by the wind, while Sean Canfield completed less than 50% of his passes last night after completing 70% season long. BYU averaged 27 yards per punt into the wind, while Oregon State averaged 6 yards per punt into the wind.

The other story of this game was how BYU took Oregon State out of the game. Oregon State did show up. The Beavers came to play. They did not have a bowl hangover that we see sometimes. The defense was disrupting the BYU backfield and the offense put points on the board early. Then, BYU put together a 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive into the driving wind to tie the game. On Oregon State’s ensuing possession, BYU jumped on an errant lateral from Canfield to Jaquizz Rodgers and ran it back for a touchdown. After that, the route was on. Momentum was on BYU’s side and the Cougars ran with it. BYU scored on its next two possessions and led 23-7 at halftime. A touchdown on the first possession of the second half put the game out of reach. While the BYU offense was piling on the points, the defense was throttling Oregon State’s high powered offense. Jaquizz Rodgers was contained, James Rodgers did not catch a pass in the first half, and Canfield could not find any rhythm or any receivers open down field.

As for what I was watching, here is what I saw:
  1. Is Sean Canfield legit? No, I cannot say he is. It appears his 70% completion percentage, 21 to 6 touchdown to interception ratio, and 3,000 yards passing had to do more with dinking and dunking to playmakers to get them the ball in space and let them make a play than Canfield being a real pro prospect. When your leading receiver only averaged 11.4 yards per catch for the season you are not throwing the ball downfield. I still think that defenses keying on Jaquizz Rodgers helped inflate Canfield’s numbers.
  2. Will a big game from Jaquizz Rodgers doom BYU? Rodgers ran for 63 yards on 18 carries and had 4 receptions for 13 yards. Obviously, he did not have a big game. Even if he did have a big game, I don’t think BYU would have been doomed. The way the offense was able to put up points I think would have still had a good chance to win.
  3. Will Max Hall keep his emotions in check? Hall ended his career in fashion. He was the game’s Most Valuable Player, and he threw three touchdown passes. Hall’s completion percentage does not do justice to his accuracy even in the wind. I lost track of how many passes were dropped. I think it was five. Nevertheless, he completed 63 percent of his throws. He never appeared to be flustered or to be forcing a throw to make a play.
  4. Will BYU match its most successful four year run? BYU won its 43rd game since the start of 2006. This stretch matches the school’s win total from 1978 to 1981, from 1981 to 1984, and from 1982 to 1985. ESPN was keen enough to point out that with this win BYU had won just as many games as Ohio State since the 2006 season began and trailed only Boise State, Florida, and Texas in total wins from 2006 to 2009.
  5. Which BYU defense will show up? The BYU defense played up to its potential. The defense held Oregon State to 7 points in the first quarter despite the Beavers starting its first two drives in BYU territory and never having less than 60 yards to drive for a touchdown. The defense returned a fumble for a touchdown to open the flood gates; it returned an interception 56 yards to diffuse a late rally. Oregon State averaged only 4.12 yards per play. Except for the pass interference penalty on 4th and goal, and the long touchdown pass in garbage time, I can’t find anything to complain about. The defense played a complete game.
Other things that I saw:
  • Field position was overwhelmingly in Oregon State’s favor to start the game. BYU did a great job of overcoming that obstacle. During my playing career I had one game with similar weather conditions and we were always trying to dig ourselves out of a hole, and it cost us the game. It is hard to overstate what BYU accomplished by coming out of the first quarter with a lead when the field position was the way it was.
  • BYU did well to adjust to Oregon State’s team speed. For the first couple of series you could see that on both sides of the ball BYU was not used to this much speed. The coaches and players did a great job of regrouping and adjusting. After that BYU was able to pull away by executing the game play they had prepared.
  • I said it before, but have to emphasize that BYU did not blow out Oregon State because Oregon State was having one of those infamous bowl letdowns. The Beavers came ready to play. You have to give BYU credit for outplaying a good team. Yeah, some bounces went BYU’s way, and BYU certainly capitalized on them. However, that is part of the game, and teams need to have enough character to not give up when those things happened. Maybe Oregon State quit early, but if they did, it wasn’t after the fumble return for a touchdown or the two 6-yard punts; it would have been after BYU built a 23-point lead in the third quarter. Even then, the Beavers started staging a comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.
  • The BYU seniors came up big in their final game. Max Hall has already been noted. Denis Pitta had 5 receptions for 45 yards and 1 touchdown. Matt Bauman returned the Jaquizz Rodgers fumble for a touchdown. Scott Johnson intercepted a pass deep in BYU territory and returned it 56 yards. Coleby Clawson, Shawn Doman, Jan Jorgensen, and Brett Denney were key cogs up front for the stellar defense. Andrew George made four grabs for 46 yards.
  • Manase Tonga, another senior, played a great game that went under the radar. He scored on a 15-yard touchdown reception and an 18-yard touchdown run. What I find interesting is that he probably would not have been on the team this year if he wasn’t forced to redshirt last year due to academic difficulties. How might have this game been different without him?
  • I don’t see how voters could deny BYU a top 10 ranking in the final polls. For all the hype surrounding Oregon State, for all the doubts about BYU, the overall dominant performance by BYU should silence critics and atone for the ugliness of the earlier losses. BYU beat Oregon State much more convincingly than both Oregon and Cincinnati; both are ranked in the top 10. BYU’s body of work this year merits this lofty of a ranking, especially if Florida State beats West Virginia on New Year’s Day (the Seminoles are traditionally very good in bowls).
  • BYU continued to set records. With the team’s third win in this bowl, BYU has now won more Las Vegas bowls than any other program. BYU scored the most points ever by an Oregon State opponent in a bowl game.
Next: Season over. I will post a recap of the 2009 season shortly after the final polls are released in early January 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

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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