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The last NCAA football game I went to was in Fayetteville, Ark., where the Razorbacks whipped a wretched Rice team, nothing to be too proud of, considering the visitors played like meek and frightened rodents. Our nickname for them was the Fighting Mice of Rice.

Nowadays Rice can probably beat Arkansas, which is weathering the dark kind of year that, if a cosmic analogy may be used, makes a black hole look white. A Division I-AA school called The Citadel beat them the other day, and the humiliation was such that Arkansas' head coach was fired on the spot. Division I-AA, you see, is where they put the cosmetology and bar-tending schools.But I digress.

Arkansas comes to mind only because I was at an NCAA football game again the other day. This one was bereft of the kind of clutter we always had at Razorback Stadium, where fans wore plastic pig snouts or sow-head hats and the crowd seemed always caught up in the rapture of "calling the Hogs." That's what they do in Arkansas. It's considered not only OK, but perfectly normal and is even encouraged by the mob.

In Provo, the rituals are very different, as well they should be. It would be silly to "call the Cougars." What would you do? Growl? Meow? Purr? Scream like an alley cat in heat?

That's why instead they yell B! . . . Y! . . . U! back and forth at each other across the stadium and break into what appears to be the Provo National Anthem as a postscript to every home-team touchdown, you know, "Rise and shout, the Cougars are out, they're on their way to fame and glory . . . "

There's also that business with the band playing the theme from "Jaws" while the fans mimic sharks, the implication being that if the Cougar mascot isn't scary enough maybe a marine carnivore will work.

But there are subtler idiosyncrasies as well, like the fact that the press box has absolutely no caffeine. Sure, there was Classic Coke and Diet Coke but it was all decaffeinated. And there was no coffee of any kind anywhere as far as I could tell. A roomful of reporters without caffeine is like a herd of baby goats with nothing to suckle. It was painful, sad, inhumane, even if it was set up like that for sound moral reasons.

But I digress again. This is supposed to be about the thrust of the game, the mood of the crowd, the poetic moments of autumn in Utah, so to the matter at hand.

The thrust of the game: A roller coaster comes to mind. San Diego kept scoring, the Cougars kept coming back. It was a near BYU win symbolized well by the wave they kept starting in the south end-zone bleachers that would always die before it could turn the corner and head home. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Finally down. Most of it could be blamed only on Marshall Faulk, the great Aztec running back who is faster than a train and much harder to catch.

The mood of the crowd: Defiance. Whenever ESPN would cut away for a reaction to the brave BYU-rally-of-the moment, the camera panned a mass of humanity bent on throwing the gauntlet back at Sports Illustrated, whose dull-witted and mean writer is a shoo-in to win the Sports Journalism Cheap Shot of the Year Award. Viewers tuning in across the country saw coeds thrusting themselves at the camera to show off T-shirts that said, "BYU - America's Most Hated Team" and signs with slogans like "We (heart) the most hated team in America."

The poetic moments of autumn in Utah: Releasing the doves at the beginning of the game was a nice touch and the golden trees on the mountainside were almost as inspiring as the full moon coming up over the Wasatch at half-time. And of course there was that stirring roar that shook the stadium whenever John Walsh would thread the needle and find a receiver in the end zone, a moment just as weightily countered by the sound of silence following the announcer's "Touchdown San Diego."

But there was also the old man illuminated by passing headlights as he stood on the shoulder of the road out by the interstate handing leaflets to motorists caught in the post-game traffic. Football, he figured, was just a game, and his mind was on the greater good as he worked alone in the dark beside a big sign that was entirely off the subject of the night but appropriate to the season at hand, jolting drivers back into the real world before they got home.

"Bo Gritz for President," is what it said.