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BYU merely proved it can beat a bad team

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THERE WAS a steady buzz of relief in the third quarter. It was as if the clouds had lifted and, after weeks of doubt, everything was all right. The fans sang "Rise and Shout!" and did the wave, both slow motion and fast forward. They started plotting their trips to the Brick Oven for pizza after the game. They even cheered the quarterback.

Once again, BYU's football team was marching down the field, going by air, as well as by land. The only suspense was whether the Cougars would hit triple digits. On the sixth game of the season, they got rolling, beating UNLV 38-14 Saturday afternoon. The plane had found smooth airspace. Coming soon to The Varsity: "How The Cougars Got Their Groove Back."Except for one thing: There's still something fishy in Denmark.

And it's not smelling too good in Provo, either.

In one sense, the Cougars are back. They did crush UNLV - though their 24-point margin was still eight points below what the oddsmakers predicted. Their receivers are making catches. For the first time in nine games, Kevin Feterik passed for over 200 yards.

But in reality, not much has changed. In beating UNLV, the Cougars proved only that they can beat one of the more abysmal teams in history; a team that has lost 11 straight games, 24 straight on the road.

A team that celebrates first downs, not victories or even touchdowns.

How bad are the Rebels? Bad enough that they got only 23 yards total offense in the first half, 98 for the game. Bad enough that if you don't catch yourself, you'll start mixing acronyms and confuse UNLV with UTEP - which is a sad situation indeed. Beating the Rebels ranks up there with that 1926 win over Western State on the list of significant BYU victories.

The Cougars proved only that they can let a truly dreadful team hang around for more than half the game and live to tell.

So is everything really fine with the Cougs?

"Everything's already been fine," insisted backup quarterback Drew Miller, who left the game after being sacked in the second quarter. "We've had no doubts about what we can do. We just haven't been doing it. Now we should be able to show that we have confidence in what we can do."

While the final score was convincing, the method wasn't. The Cougars won the game, but only on tape delay. Though there was never serious doubt they would win, there remains considerable doubt as to who else they could have beaten. They came close to ending the half tied with the worst football team this side of Estonia.

"We're getting better in many areas. We started looking like BYU again, catching the ball," said coach LaVell Edwards.

Given the Cougars' loss to previously winless Fresno State, and their clumsy offensive play in other games, they figured it was time to loosen up. They did so by running a series of reverses. Feterik, who has spent most of this season playing - and looking - like he was headed for the guillotine, was completing his passes. BYU jumped to a 14-0 lead.

In the second quarter, though, the Cougars lapsed into a peculiar brand of madness. First, the Rebels blocked a punt that set them up at the BYU 6, from where they went in for a touchdown. A minute later Miller dropped back for a pass and was sacked. The ball squirted into the hands of guard Matt Johnson, who apparently thought the play had been whistled dead. He stood for several seconds, not moving, until UNLV's Justin Conway barged in, slapped away the ball, scooped it up and ran into the end zone.

All the while, BYU's players busied themselves by working on their Mt. Rushmore impersonations.

"That was a kind of bizarre couple of minutes in the second quarter," said Edwards.

But after a field goal to end the half, the Cougars were back and rolling, racking up three more touchdowns before the game ended.

Mistakes aside, the Cougars spent the post-game period proclaiming themselves whole. And by the book, the numbers would agree. But for all their insistence, it was clear they were still far away from their hopes. They struggled for half a game against a team they should have put away in the first quarter. "Next week at Hawaii is going to be a very tough game for us and we need to be ready," said Edwards.

Indeed, if their performance on Saturday is any indication, not only do they need to be ready, they need to be worried.