Monday, December 31, 2007

Fourth Time Not a Charm

Preceding the basketball game at Boise State, I had competing thoughts regarding the contest. The first was concern that BYU could well lose again in Idaho; they had not seemed completely in synch since losing in the final minutes to North Carolina.

The second thought was that my first impression was folly: the Cougars were certainly more than capable of beating the Broncos. Given their hard-earned national ranking, surely they would step up and come together again as a very good team should; this would be a statement game about the quality of BYU basketball away from their comfortable Marriott Center (or Energy Solutions Arena).

But this game turned out only to be the next in what is becoming a dishearteningly familiar pattern. What do last year's conference championship loss against UNLV, the NCAA Tournament loss to Xavier, this year's loss in Salt Lake City to Michigan State, and Saturday night's loss at Boise State have in common? In all four games, BYU held sizable leads at the break--the smallest being six points against Xavier; the others, at least ten.

The results of competition are based on a combination of what players do and what coaches do. Superior players will produce superior outcomes for a given coaching staff. Quantifying that argument is as easy as comparing the margin of victory of last year's football team to this year's squad. At the same time, it is also clear that a superior coach will produce better outcomes with a given set of players. I know I wasn't the only fan that wondered how the football team could continue to lose eminently winnable games in the last three years under Gary Crowton.

I was happy to hear Dave Rose, when he was promoted, say that he would not be the one to tell his team they couldn't beat a particular opponent. And, I still feel that some of what I wrote about him previously remains true. Nevertheless, the four distinctly similar losses from two clubs with different identities indicate that the fault may not lie with the players.

The negatives I see toward the end of games include a prolonged reliance on 3-point shots when they stop falling, not getting a second player in the post to take pressure off Trent Plaisted, and neglecting to send players driving to the basket to either create sinkable foul shots--Plaisted is a horrific liability when he goes to the line--or dish back out to players who might now be more open.

Dave Rose is a very good coach in preparing for the start of a game, but he is not showing the ability to match adjustments made by opposing coaches after halftime. His in-game strategy requires considerable development if Cougar basketball is to reach its potential.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Must-Read Post

I don't anticipate doing this very often, but I saw a post today that I feel everyone should read. "Cruiser" of Cougar Legion detailed the fireside given at the Red Rock Stake Center the night before the Las Vegas Bowl. A very short excerpt follows:

When Coach Mendenhall finally spoke, he did so in a rather straight-forward, almost severe voice. Soon enough, it became clear why.

If you haven't seen this yet, you owe it to yourself to visit this link: A Holy Night at Red Rock.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thoughts on the Las Vegas Bowl

I don't feel too badly about my prediction for how UCLA's offense would fare, other than Kai Forbath is even better than I thought. I was indeed aware that he was a fine kicker, but he was frankly nothing short of spectacular in this game--the last (blocked) kick notwithstanding. That block was all about the determination of the Cougar defense to preserve the win.

UCLA did not score a touchdown that they earned. When BYU got the ball with a few seconds on the clock before halftime, I said, "They'll take a knee and head into the locker room." Why one would EVER consider running a play when the possibility of scoring before the half is infinitesimal defies comprehension. What a different game it might have been without that gift to the Bruins.

BYU got to 17 points faster than I expected. I then anticipated that they would end up with 30 or more points because I believed the offense would get better as the game went on. Who knew that they would go scoreless in the second half--or that they would win the game while doing so?

I was very disappointed in the offensive output. I also based my prediction for a strong running game on the view that the offensive line had measurably improved since the previous meeting with UCLA. Yet this game was frankly won instead primarily because Max Hall had improved in the interim. I was amazed to see UCLA's defensive front consistently wreak havoc with the Cougar offense. I thought that the offensive line would at least hold its own against them, but that was not to be. Likely correlated with that was Robert Anae's seeming lack of confidence in utilizing the running game as an integral component of the game plan. The offense's one-dimensionality played right into the hands of UCLA. It was also readily apparent what kind of play was coming when Hall called audibles; a tightening of the gaps between lineman meant a run was coming, and a widening of gaps indicated a pass. More needs to be done to keep an opposing defensive coach, especially one as good as DeWayne Walker, guessing.

The last thing I did not foresee was BYU being able to block a kick with a game on the line. Coach Mendenhall, however, said he could see that in his players' eyes. That, it goes without saying, is a good thing. Cougar football is in very good shape indeed when its players believe they will find a way to win. The value of such a belief cannot be underestimated with regard to the success of the program going forward.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Las Vegas Bowl Predictions

On the surface, this year's bowl game is easier to predict than was last year's. Last year, there were real questions as to whether BYU would win the game, due to the potential for Oregon to score a lot of points despite having struggled the last half of the year. This year, the initial reaction of many to the re-match with UCLA was one nearing disdain because of the Bruins' plethora of injuries and extreme underperformance at times during the season, coupled with the firing of head coach Karl Dorrell.

There are, however, still some variables to consider. The first is that BYU lost to UCLA earlier in the season, and the Cougars have never beaten the Bruins since their first meeting with future Hall of Famer Steve Young leading the way; despite the different directions the respective seasons have taken, there has to be at least a small amount of psychological uncertainty regarding playing UCLA again. Also, DeWayne Walker showed last year the ability to put together a defensive scheme capable of beating USC. Ben Olson, who will start against BYU, undoubtedly has an unspoken desire to not lose to the Cougars and thus perhaps be regarded inferior to Max Hall, who is frankly at BYU only because Olson left. Finally, this game will be viewed as Coach Walker's audition for a head coaching position, whether at UCLA or elsewhere. He surely recognizes that his ability to motivate his squad to perform under adverse circumstances will be closely correlated to the quality of job offers he receives going forward.

It is with this backdrop that I see BYU sputtering somewhat to begin the game. I can even see a scoreless first quarter unfolding. I do see the Cougars beginning to warm up after that, though, finding a rhythm, and starting to put points on the board. Meanwhile, the relatively-unsung BYU defense also continues to seek to prove itself. I expect them to hound Ben Olson, perhaps even knocking the injury-prone quarterback from the game as it becomes apparent the Bruins cannot effectively run the ball on their opponent and Olson is asked to do more.

In the second half, as the Cougars build their lead, I anticipate them running more effectively, and relying increasingly on that ground game to control the clock and methodically put points on the board. I look for at least 80 yards and 120 yards on the ground from Taufui Vakapuna and Harvey Unga, respectively, with a very real possibility for both to go over 100, depending on how much Vakapuna is used--and how often passes are thrown to both instead of being handed the ball. I believe Fui is back and hungry to show that he is a punishing runner along with his partner-in-crime Unga.

On the other side of the ball, I think the UCLA offense is in for a long night. I can see Mendenhall's charges holding them without a touchdown, regardless of who gets the most time at quarterback.

In the end, it may not be a very exciting game, with regard to the score. My heart says BYU 34, UCLA 3, but my mind takes one touchdown off that score: BYU 27, UCLA 3. Perhaps they will be in position to score again late in the game, but Brendan Gaskins takes a knee on consecutive posessions to run out the clock.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Anxious About Michigan State

I recently wrote a post asserting that the BYU basketball team may be good enough by the end of the year to make it to the Final Four. They beat the #6 team in the country, and played even with the #1 team until the very end. I also, however, stated that I anticipated some bumpiness along the way.

BYU takes on Michigan State in less than two hours today. I wish this game were a little later in the season. The Cougars have not played particularly well in wins over Portland or Weber State. I am concerned that perhaps they have not come back to the confident level of play they displayed against Louisville and North Carolina.

This team is still forging its identity. I was very pleasantly surprised to see how well they competed with the two high-ranking teams a couple of weeks ago. I felt they were farther along than one could reasonably expect.

Do I think BYU is capable of beating the Spartans? Yes, certainly. But I will not be surprised if they come up a little short today. I hope I am wrong, and that Dave Rose is an even better coach than I have already seen.