The BYU Cougars left Wednesday afternoon for their annual football game against Hawaii, which, depending on your thinking, could mean bad news for either team.
If ever there was someone BYU shouldn't meet in the first game of the year it's Hawaii. This is the team that views BYU as a cross between a grubworm and a bad case of hives, that beat BYU three of the past five years. This is the place where a sports columnist used to exhort the public to get out and beat the dreaded Blue Plague.However, this may not be a great year for Hawaii to be hosting BYU in the season-opener, either. The Cougars are restless. They're coming off their worst season in 20 years. They finished 6-6 and tied for the WAC title, which by BYU standards qualifies as an official off year.
"Incredible," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards, "that you can go 6-6 and win the championship. It just doesn't work that way. Except it did."
Indeed, the Cougars have taken on a different look than they have had for many seasons: hungry. That's them working out in the off-season in small groups. That's the Cougars poring over last year's game films like teen-agers at an all-night video party.
If the Cougars are getting serious and wearing game faces everywhere they go, you'll have to pardon them. They've got a problem to resolve. That's them walking around campus with their heads down in deep thought like a group of 270-pound philosophy majors. If you see someone suddenly burst into tears as he passes the football stadium, it isn't a jilted lover; it's a senior on the football team, remembering what happened last season.
This year in Hawaii you won't see any Cougars surfing the North Shore. There won't be anyone in the ABC stores picking up snorkeling gear on the way to Hanauma Bay. The ride on the catamaran is definitely out. The Polynesian Cultural Center may as well be in Tonga.
This is a year for business.
If the Cougars can take consolation, it is that they could well have more determination than they've had in two decades. They're setting their jaws and snapping on their chin straps. They're battening down the hatches, hunkering down in their foxholes. This year they say they're going to war.
The Cougars' predicament is, at least in part, something of their own making. After winning five straight WAC championships, it got to be as monotonous as television game shows. It was no longer a debate whether the Cougars would go to a bowl game, it was just a matter of which. It wasn't whether the Cougars would win the WAC, it was whether they'd lose any games.
As Edwards has said, "We built a monster and now we've got to feed it."
Which is why last year caught them off guard. BYU went 0-for-October, losing to UCLA, Notre Dame, Fresno State and Utah State. "We started losing and things started to fall apart," said Edwards.
Shortly after losing a close decision to Ohio State in the Holiday Bowl, though, the Cougars started to get back their attitude. They gathered in small clusters on campus, commiserating with one another and sharing the experience like a therapy group.
"They were saying, `Hey, we're not going to let this happen again,' " added Edwards.
Edwards got an indication his players were planning on a better year when some started working out together during the off-season. Rather than showing up on the first day of camp looking like they had spent the summer going steady with Dolly Madison, many arrived looking like a page out of a NordicTrack catalogue.
By the end of two-a-days, the Cougars had established the attitude that they weren't going to repeat last year's muddy effort. "Last year," said senior defensive end Travis Hall, "when the offense is putting up 56 points and we're losing, it's out of control. It was embarrassing. Straight up embarrassing."
So if you see anyone walking around with his brow furrowed, looking like he's figuring the square root of 3 in his head, pay no attention. He's from BYU. It isn't that he's all that mad. It's just that he's all business.