Aside from winning its first game, BYU took another major step last Saturday night against Hawaii. After going ahead in the fourth quarter 13-12, the Cougars proceeded to keep the Rainbows out of scoring range the rest of the game, accomplishing something something they did only occasionally last year: they stopped someone.
BYU's opening-night tendency toward good defense was met with sighs of relief among the Cougar coaches. A commonly held football belief is that offenses come around slower than defenses. Hence, if a defense starts slowly - as BYU's did last year - you've got problems. But one game into the season, the Cougars have no such concerns."Last year it seemed like we couldn't stop anyone," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards.
Last season, of course, was one of the more dreadful in recent BYU history. That ringing sound on Saturday afternoons wasn't cash registers going off at the concessions stands, it was the scoreboard overheating. The Cougars finished 104th out of 106 teams nationally in total defense. They allowed 37 points a game.
The constant stampede of offense against the Cougars began to take its toll. Players were bickering like schoolchildren: It's your fault. Nu-uh, it's yours. No way, it was yours. Well, if you hadn't been in my way it wouldn't have happened. Liar, liar pants on fire."
And so forth.
"We'd be getting on each other," said Cougar defensive end Travis Hall. "We'd be saying, 'Come on, this is ridiculous' to make the guys get going. There was a lot of that stuff going on."
In a program where Jason Buck and Shawn Knight once stood like a brick wall, where Kyle Morrell was airborne before the snap was made, where one year (1988) four teams scored seven or fewer points against the Cougars, it wasn't a comfortable position to be playing defense in 1993.
As if their stats weren't condemning enough, the BYU team room is filled with photos of past Cougar All-WAC and All-America defensive players. Facing pictures of former Cougar greats, though, was nothing compared to facing real-life people. Players walked around campus with their ears itching, wondering if someone was talking about them. They looked furtively about, hoping not to be recognized. They avoided reading the papers and watching the news.
"It was like everyone was watching you," said safety Cory Cook. "It was the paranoia effect. But this year we've got just the opposite going."
Indeed, after one game the Cougars are already feeling better about themselves. They're starting to look people in the eyes once again when they walk across the quad. They're ordering their lunches with clear, direct voices rather than mumbling something incomprehensible. They're telling their girlfriends they have a football game on Saturday, rather than saying they can't go out because they have to stay home to wash their hair.
In this year's first game the Cougars held their opponent to just 254 total yards and 12 points. "That was very much a relief," continued Edwards.
Last year the Cougars held only two opponents - Air Force and UTEP - to under 22 points, and eight opponents scored 30 or more.
Against Hawaii, the insecure, nail-biting Cougars were nowhere to be seen. Mike Ulufale acted like the Hawaii backfield was his living room. Greg Pitts and Stan Raass were closing down the middle like the Highway Dept. closing down I-15 for repairs.
"To me, it was such a good start, it was a sign of things to come," said Cook. "Last year things were all topsy-turvy."
So for at least one week the Cougars could rest, knowing their defense was back. They weren't covering their heads and looking for shelter when the other team had the ball. Their battle cry was no longer "Re-treat!" "I was not surprised, rather I was pleased with the way our defense played. Our defense just played well," said Edwards.
At least well enough the players didn't have to wear bags on their heads when they went to class.