BYU had a stellar 2006 season. They finished with 11 victories, won the Mountain West Conference, and laid a beating on the Oregon Ducks in the Las Vegas Bowl. They ultimately finished the season ranked 15th in the AP poll, harking back images of those high-flying Brigham Young squads of the 80's and 90's. The bad news for the Cougars, and good news for us Bruins, is that a lot of the players that made last season so successful have graduated and moved on.
The BYU coaches have to replace most of their big names and almost the entire offense this season. They have some talented players in the wings, but they're going to have to gain some experience before they're truly ready to compete with top-25 programs. The Bruins couldn't have asked for a better time to take on this team, as we get them in the second week of the season here at the Rose Bowl.
The Cougars have so many holes to fill on offense, I hardly know where to begin. They lose their star quarterback, their leading rusher, their 3 leading receivers, the starting right tackle and their starting tight end. In fact, BYU returns only one player at a skill position, Matt Allen (WR), who started in 2006. It would be hard to replace two or three key players, but they will have to replace pretty much every offensive weapon they had in their arsenal.
The biggest loss for the cougars is all conference quarterback John Beck who was picked in the second round of the NFL draft. He threw an astonishing 32 touchdown passes and racked up almost 3,900 yards last season. He finished his career as the 2nd most prolific passer in BYU history, which says a lot considering how many great quarterbacks have come out of Provo. It will be extremely difficult for his successor, Max Hall, to come even close to those numbers.
Hall is a transfer from ASU and his story is very similar to that of Ben Olson. Big talent, spent one year at Arizona State, went on a Mormon mission, and now he is back in Provo and tagged as the starter. He hasn't played a down in 3 years, so you know the rust is going to take some time to shake off. Expect Walker to send a lot of delayed blitzes and different packages to try and confuse and shake the inexperienced quarterback.
The other big name the Cougars need to replace is running back Curtis Brown who set the mark as BYU's all time leading rusher. An excellent rusher, Brown lead the team on the ground and put together a 1000 yard season. He was almost a bigger threat receiving the ball as he racked up 500+ yards in receptions to complement the rushing yards. Taking his place is junior Fui Vakapuna who had 92 carriers last year for 445 yards. He's been dinged by injuries and spent the better part of last season with a bum ankle. We'll see how much that will slow him down against UCLA. He is a big bruiser coming in at 234 lbs and has decent hands. This is his first year starting at tailback and he'll be facing one of the best run defense in the nation with the Bruins. If Hall struggles, I don't think the Cougars will find much help in this department.
The receiving corp losses a big target in tight end Jonny Harline who packed his bags for the NFL this spring. They also have to replace the top wide receiver from last season, McKay Jacobson ,who is off on a mission this year. The good news for the Cougars is they get back a talented receiver in Austin Collie. He was the MWC Freshman of the Year back in 2004 before he departed on his mission. He'll have to shake off some rust and get back into football condition this summer and fall. The Bruin's experienced and talented secondary should be all this group of receivers can handle. UCLA has arguably the best foursome of any team on BYU's schedule.
The one squad that isn't feeling the pinch from graduation and mission work is the offensive line. They get back four players from a unit that propelled BYU to the 4th best offense in the nation. Sete Aulai, a 6'0" 290lb senior, will anchor the line at center. He is an all-conference player and a leader on the team. The other big uglies are pretty darn big. They're all around 320lbs each and they look to be one of the best group of lineman in the MWC. UCLA gives up a lot of size to these guys, so the speed of the defensive ends will be crucial if we're going to pressure Hall. We'll also need to use a rotation of players to keep quick, fresh bodies on the field. That will prevent our guys from being worn down by this mammoth offensive line.
Things look a lot better on the other side of the ball for BYU fans. The cougars return 7 players with some really athletic and talented guys in the mix. The Cougars moved to a 3-4 last season after using a less orthodox 3-3-5 back in 2005. The 3-4 works if you have good linebackers and BYU has some very good ones. Against that defensive configuration, running the ball can be easier; however, blitzing linebackers can come from all directions and that can cause a lot of confusion for the quarterback. Ben got thrown-off last season when the Bruins played the Rice Owls because they used a defensive scheme with a lot of DBs and LBs. The Bruin O-line will need to be well prepared and make sure they don't miss their blocking assignments.
Up front the Cougars have a lot of young faces. All three lineman are sophomores but Russell Tialavea and Jan Jorgensen were starters last season. Jorgensen is the biggest threat here as he was a Freshman all American and recorded five sacks last season. Containing him will be a priority for Bob Connelly and the revamped Bruin line. The Bruins are also going to need to establish a running game as there is a natural advantage at the line of scrimmage with only 3 down lineman. This threesome isn't huge, so our guys should be able to move them around.
Really, the biggest obstacles in the BYU front seven is the line backers. Two senior linebackers, Bryan Kehl and Kelly Poppinga, are fast and strong. Poppinga is pretty beefy tipping the scales at close to 240lbs. He is also switching from outside to inside to give some experience and size in the middle and he should make that transition fairly easily. Junior David Nixon is also a returning starter and he was a big contributer all over the field last year recording 37 solo tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. The big loss was star linebacker, and defensive leader, Cameron Jensen who graduated last year.
The Cougar secondary is chocked full of experienced Seniors but this was a unit that struggled at times last season. They return a good free safety in hard hitting Quinn Gooch. The corners are not a strong spot and I think UCLA can take advantage in this area. Former walk-on Ben Criddle started last year as a junior, but he stands at 5'11" and a mismatch exists there with 6'5" receivers like Joe Cowan, Ketchum, and Johnson. He is also coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for the Las Vegas Bowl. Kyle Buchanan will likely be the other corner and he will be taking on the starting role for the first time this year. He is an impressive athlete but he also has seen a lot of injuries in his tenure at Provo. Expect Jay Norvell to call in some deep passes to try and stretch and test this secondary.
Like the offense, the special teams unit will see a lot of new faces. They lose their starting kicker and punter and red-shirt freshman Mitch Payne will be taking on both of those duties this year. If their offense can't get the ball into the end zone then a lot of pressure will come down on Payne's shoulders. The other big loss is punt returner Nathan Meikle who helped rank the Cougars second in the MWC in return yards. That was a big boost to their offense and they will have a hard time replacing that kind of productivity.
BYU looks like a solid team and they have some young, talented players taking over the reigns this season. I'm sure most Bruin fans will write them off as just another team from a non-BCS conference, but I think the Cougars could make some noise this year. They have excellent coaches, an awesome offensive line, and a tradition of winning.
All that being said, I can't see too many scenarios where BYU can beat the Bruins. They just have too many players to replace on offense and special teams and they lost a couple key defensive players as well. If this game was being played at LaVell Edwards Stadium in November it might be a totally different outcome. However, it is being played in September at the Rose Bowl, a place where the Bruins have gone 12-1 over the last two seasons. Considering that UCLA has a large number of returning starters and a formidable defense, I think that's a pretty good recipe for a Bruin victory.
CalPoly's prediction: UCLA victory. Record: 2-0 (1-0)
Recruiting rankings for the last 4 years (Scout.com is the first number, Rivals.com is the second):
2007: #42, #56, 27 commits
2006: #46, #67, 25 commits
2005: #53, #63, 18 commits
2004: #55, #79, 28 commits
2006 statistical rankings (National ranking is the first number, WMC rank is the second):
Total Offense : 4, 1.
Scoring Offense: 5, 1.
Rushing Offense: 53, 3.
Passing Offense: 4, 1.
Total Defense : 38, 3.
Scoring Defense: 10, 2.
Rushing Defense: 31, 4.
Passing Defense: 65, 5.
September 8, 3:30 pm Pacific Time. Televised by Versus (aka The Outdoor Network).
(photo credit: Ghetty Images)