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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Flashback: The beginning of something beautiful

It is still early January. The new hope from the new year has many of us optimistic that this is the beginning of something beautiful. Forty years ago, the Brigham Young Cougars football program had that same feeling, and they were right. The year 1973 was the beginning of something beautiful.

Forty years ago marks the beginning of BYU's famed passing attack. Head coach LaVell Edwards said he wanted to throw the ball when he was hired in 1972, but the team didn't have the right personnel in place that first season to air it out. In 1973, it was a different story.

Eight quarterbacks showed up to compete for the starting job in the spring. Dave Terry was the starter on opening day, but he wasn't the answer. BYU lost to Colorado State 21-13. Randy Litchfield got the starting nod week 2 against Oregon State. That game turned out better. The Cougars won 37-14.

Lost in the final score of the Oregon State game was a play that helped change the course of BYU football, forever. Leading comfortably 30-14, third string quarterback Gary Sheide was given a chance to play, well hand the ball off. At least that is what the coaches wanted. Sheide had other plans. He faked the hand off and threw a bomb to Sam Lobue for a 68-yard touchdown.

That play got the coach's attention, but didn't change the depth chart.

At Utah State, BYU stumbled to a 13-7 loss on a very windy day. Litchfield and Terry both got a shot to lead the team to victory, but were unsuccessful. With 1:08 left in the game, the Cougars coaches decided to let Sheide give it a try. Going against the wind, Sheide moved BYU 75 yards as he completed six of 10 passes for 57 yards. BYU came up five yards short of the end zone, and the win, but Sheide had done enough to win the starting job.

It was the beginning of something beautiful.

Sheide's first start came in Provo against the Iowa State Cyclones. Sheide whipped through the Iowa State defense like a cyclone. He completed 29 of 41 passes (70.7%) for 439 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also threw four interceptions, which prevented BYU from scoring more points. BYU lost 26-24 when a last second field goal attempt missed.

Nevermind that BYU came up short on the scoreboard, the Cougars had found their trigger man. Although he had missed most of the first thee games, Sheide finished the season with a school record 2,350 yards passing. His 22 touchdown passes were also a school record, as well as his 60.2 completion percentage.

Jay Miller was Sheide's favorite target against the Cyclones. He caught 12 passes in that game. A few weeks later against New Mexico, Miller caught 22 of Sheide's 32 completions, which was a new NCAA record for most passes caught in a single game. His 263 receiving yards against the Lobos was a school record, and the highest single game total in the NCAA for all of 1973.

Miller would finish the season with a school record 100 receptions for a school record 1,181 yards and 8 touchdowns.

That New Mexico game kick-started a 4-1 finish to the season, which included a 46-22 whipping of Utah. To put an exclamation point on it all, BYU beat UTEP 63-0 in the season finale.

While the accomplishments of the Cougars passing game in 1973 were great, in their own right, they were nothing compared to what was to come. Sheide's arm would take BYU to the top of the WAC the next year, to its first national ranking, and to its first bowl game. All three achievements would become run-of-the-mill results in Provo over the next decade.

BYU may have finished 1973 with a losing record (5-6), but it was the last losing record BYU would see for almost 30 years. BYU didn't just start winning more than it lost, the Cougars became the winningest team in America. From 1976-1986, no team had a higher winning percentage than BYU.

From this point on, the number of BYU players who moved on to the NFL and had successful careers there would skyrocket. It became normal to see BYU Alumni participate in the Super Bowl.

BYU would haul in several the national awards over the next several years. Sammy Baugh, Davey O'Brien, Outland, Boddy Dodd awards, and even the Heisman. In 1984, BYU won the ultimate prize--a national championship.

All of these accolades and accomplishments were predicated on what happened with the passing game forty years ago. Yes, it was the beginning of something beautiful in 1973.

The Editor appreciates all feedback. He can be reached via email at bluecougarfootball@gmail.com

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