Contrary to all logical reasoning and deductive thinking, my crystal ball predicts a six-point upset by the Cougars in the Coliseum on Sept. 6. The BYU defense and Matt Payne’s golden boot delivers the win in front of a stunned Trojan crowd of more than 80,000 people. Look for Bronco Mendenhall’s defense to create all kinds of havoc to a stammering and stumbling USC quarterback who doesn’t know what hit him.
Specifically, the combination of a healthy Brady Poppinga and C.J. Ah You on opposite defensive ends and the deceptive power and quickness of Manaia Brown, Daniel Marquardt and Ifo Pili up the middle will consume the Trojan’s offensive line focus – allowing the Cougar secondary and linebackers to disrupt Norm Chow’s offensive game plan enough for a Cougar victory. The Cougar upset can be attributed, in large measure, to the Trojans’ preseason preoccupation and preparation for Top 5 ranked Auburn on the road. Six days of BYU-specific preparation will NOT be enough time to counter’s Mendenhall’s game plan for USC, unleashed with a lot of new looks and wrinkles not seen in the Georgia Tech game.
2. BYU’s only blemish and lone loss of the season will be against a MWC game no one expects them to lose.
That’s right! BYU will also upset the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in a hard-fought defensive battle in South Bend, Indiana, on Nov. 15. With this network-wide NBC game, the Cougars finally earn the raves and respect of the east Coast dominated national media. Subsequently, BYU is ranked in the 2004 preseason Top 25 Associated Press poll for the first time in many years. In my heart of hearts, if BYU upsets USC, look for them to run the table this year.
3. The unbeatable combination of Chris Hale and Rod Wilkerson as long ball receivers restores recollections of BYU’s glory years and stretch the field and create more offensive running and gunning opportunities for the Cougars.
While wide receivers Toby Christensen, David Christensen, Jason Kukahiko and Breyon Jones keep defenses honest underneath; Daniel Coats will cause fits with his skill and speed at tight end. With a running back pool that is BYU’s deepest ever from top to bottom; Hale and Wilkerson have the 4.3 speed and pass-catching abilities to burn most corners they face in single coverage.
4. The hiring of Todd Bradford as wide receiver coach/co-offensive coordinator, though not immediately or visibly impactful as Bronco Mendenhall’s hiring as defensive coordinator, will prove to be every bit as effective for the offense.
You won’t see it in any wholesale offensive makeovers, but in the nuances and shifts you will see from BYU’s offense this year and in years to come. His most important contribution will be as Crowton’s unseen offensive guidance counselor. Crowton is an offensive genius who outsmarted himself several times last year. Bradford is a trusted confidante he will bounce ideas of and accept suggestions from more willingly in the heat of battle.
The fact is that Bradford has coached both offense, but primarily defense most of his coaching career. That will prove invaluable as he provides Crowton and fellow co-offensive coordinator Robbie Bosco with insights and suggestions that could turn potential losses into glorious victories. Already, the wide receivers gush about the way Bradford has taught them to understand and play better by anticipating exactly what different defenses are going to try and why.
5. Wide receiver prospect Austin Collie will sign at BYU next year.
Considered by one prominent recruiting analyst as the best LDS wide receiver recruit in 10 years, Austin Collie will continue the family tradition and sign with BYU next February. His father was a former Cougar and his brother Zach is currently a walk–on. BYU’s success on the field and the wide open offense using a myriad of receivers will prove to be the clincher.
6. Utah, not Colorado State, will be BYU’s toughest MWC foe this year.
Though unstated, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham will be the most motivated to upend their in-state archrivals to the north for different reasons: For Meyer, it’s the best way for him to immediately establish himself as a major coaching force and compete on a more level playing field for the hearts and minds of the top LDS recruits in the state. For Whittingham, it’s simply a matter of pride to show BYU made a mistake in not hiring him as its defensive coordinator. It was a no-lose situation for Crowton. BYU’s defense this year would have vastly improved with either Whittingham or Mendenhall.
7. 2003 will be the year BYU head football coach Gary Crowton begins to solidifies his reputation as an offensive mastermind.
Most analysts believe 2001 was a fluke. With all the focus and attention on Bronco Mendenhall’s new-look defense, it will be the success of the Cougars offense that will surprise and shock fans, competitors and national media. Mendenhall’s defense is one year away from being the dominant force Cougar fans hope it will be this year. That said, the BYU defense will bail out its offense in at least 2-3 wins this year. BYU will have the COMPLETE PACKAGE in 2004.
8. Despite the inexperience in offensive line starters, BYU’s young line will prove to be the unexpected X-factor in the Cougars’ upset wins on the road against USC and Notre Dame.
They’ve taken a lot of heat and Crowton and Mendenhall have deliberately thrown everything – but the proverbial kitchen sink – at them to teach correct principals and how to govern themselves through repetitious practice adversity. The key to their combined success is Scott Jackson and the incredible leader and example he is to this unit that starts two redshirt freshman and could see two other true freshman play this fall. Everyone knows about Ofa Mohetau, but one to watch is Hawaiian RJ Willing, who is a better pass blocker right now than Mohetau. If BYU did nothing but run the ball, Mohetau would definitely start much sooner this year. He’s that good as a true freshman.
9. Taufui Vakapuna will emerge as the most effective running back in BYU’s multi-dimensional offensive arsenal this year.
The reason is quite simple: Most defenses will focus on Marcus Whalen because they have to. However, Crowton’s use of Vakapuna as a blocker and pass catching fullback out of the backfield at the right moments will yield large yardage gains and force defensive shifts. The variables that Crowton, Bosco and Bradford will have at their disposal with USA Grade A athletes will catch a lot of defenses off guard. Consider this: BYU has top drawer quality athletes at running back and fullback with excellent pass catching skills; three decent tight ends (Daniel Coats is one year away from being the star he will become); exceptional corps of wide receivers to stretch the field (Rod Wilkerson and Chris Hale), run precision shorter routes (Toby Christensen), and playmakers in the middle routes who will make things happen (Jason Kukahiko and David Christensen).
10. Matt Berry is BYU’s best chance for quarterback success this year because of his game experience and off-season preparation at reading, understanding and reacting simultaneously to multiple defensive alignments the Cougars will face.
As talented as John Beck (and he looks more fluid and athletic than Berry) might be, he thinks he’s ready, but he’s not ready to put his feet to the proverbial fire with the level of top caliber competition BYU faces this year. Crowton’s predetermined situational use of Beck actually makes a lot of sense in case Berry goes down to injury. Crowton doesn’t ever want to be in the same position he was in last year in not having a back-up quarterback he does not have full confidence in. That’s why it’s important to give Beck more game-time reps. Berry would have to screw up royally in multiple games to lose his starting slot. That won’t happen.
11. You can credit strength and conditioning coach Jay Omer for at least one win per year.
The players and coaches know how lucky they are to have Omer on BYU’s coaching staff. He is the man they love to hate until they perform to their peak during games. It’s a testament to his effectiveness that defensive players would sooner run and participate in Mendenhall’s exhaustive drills than spend practices on the sidelines with Omer. The superior conditioning of BYU athletes will result in multiple turnovers that will win games this year and every year. Give Omer his due.
12. The most effective defensive lineman this year will not be Brady Poppinga, but Manaia Brown – barring injury.
I know I’ll get a fair amount of ribbing and flak with this one, but look for many news media references to “maniacal or manaiacal” defense in the next two years.
13. The return to BYU’s football glory years begins this year and all Cougar fans owe a great debt of gratitude to Lavell Edwards for establishing the great worldwide reputation and tradition at BYU that Crowton now enjoys.
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