Poppinga on the O-Line When it Counted Most

<B>BRADY POPPINGA</B>

LAS VEGAS – It was a winning highlight you never saw on TV. With 29 seconds left in the game and BYU down by seven points, quarterback <b>Matt Berry</b> called a timeout to confer with Cougar coaches. Defensive end <b>Brady Poppinga</b> ran to his offensive linemen, wide receivers and tight end standing on the one yard line as an impromptu cheerleader to encourage and exhort his offensive teammates to suck it up one more time and score the game-tying touchdown and PAT.

The offensive line came through on a quarterback keeper by Berry to tie the game in the closing seconds of regulation play.

In overtime, Berry threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to receiver Toby Christensen and the BYU defense kept UNLV out of the end zone for the 27-20 overtime win. Overall, Berry threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns on 31-of-44 completions. Christensen, meanwhile, caught a game-high 10 passes for 81 yards, including two touchdowns.

What made the victory even sweeter was the fact the Cougars overcame five turnovers – three fumbles and two Berry interceptions – to steal the road win from the Running Rebels. Matt Payne, who was nails all night, successfully converted on two field goals and all three PATs.

More importantly, it was the confidence booster the offense, team and Cougar fans badly needed. The team always believed they could do it, but they needed to actually win a close one to restore some of the missing inner confidence in their collectively fragile psyche.

That they did it in such an impressive fashion on the road, in overtime on a widely-viewed ABC-TV network game made it more notable in terms of national credibility for the struggling Cougar program. The last time they were on national TV, Colorado State embarrassed the Cougars at Provo in a 58-13 walloping.

One interested spectator, Jim Edwards, the son of legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards, noted afterward with a broad smile. "We needed this one and they came through." Edwards, now a Las Vegas attorney, was a former Cougar wide receiver.

"I know people say it's an excuse, but this offensive line and the quarterbacks are young and inexperienced. They're going to be a lot better in the future," Edwards added.

The much-maligned Cougar offensive line came through in critical third down situations, helping Berry execute on 8-of-15 third down situations – their best outing of the season in this statistical category.

As much as it was a confidence booster for the Cougars, it was a confidence killer for the hapless Running Rebels, which suffered its third consecutive MWC loss.

The Cougar defense was again impressive in preventing UNLV from scoring points from any of the five BYU turnovers. Particularly impressive on defense were Colby Bockwoldt, Brady Poppinga and Jernaro Gilford.

During an early-season TotalBlueSports.com interview, BYU head coach Gary Crowton emphatically stressed, "I want to finish strong."

Tonight was a very good beginning to a tough final season schedule that includes an ESPN game next Thursday against WAC offensive powerhouse Boise State; a road game against Notre Dame and a final home game against arch-rival Utah.

Some of the unsettling questions and concerns about the gut-check character and ability of BYU's offensive players to get the job done in critical situations were muted somewhat. It all came down to one word: EXECUTION.

As sweet as victory always is, the Cougars continued to struggle offensively tonight, spotting UNLV a 13-0 lead before they came back to tie the game seconds before half-time.

BYU must continue to raise their level of play to match their abilities. Potentially, this Cougar team is a future offensive powerhouse that will likely find their groove next year, but they don't have to wait until then to show the right stuff.

With today's Utah upset by New Mexico in Salt Lake City, the Cougars still have an outside chance to contend for the MWC title. Minimally, BYU needs two more wins in the next three games to be bowl eligible.

Fans of the Cougar nation aren't too picky right now; they'll settle for either.

They'll settle for wide receivers and tight ends that consistently hang on to catchable balls, but effectively excecute blocks for their teammates.

They'll settle for an experienced-yet-young offensive line that consistently covers its quarterback, forms a solid wall of protection and clear running gaps in important downs. Save the formidable for next year; solid is sufficient for now.

They'll settle for a quarterback that won't fumble or throw interceptions in critical game situations that result in immediate touchdowns.

Tonight the Cougars deserved to win – and they did.

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