PROVO — What a difference a year, and a strong finish, makes.

In 2000, BYU posted a 6-6 record and failed to qualify for a bowl game, but retired coach LaVell Edwards and the Cougars are — to borrow a familiar Edwards phrase — obviously pleased. And why not? BYU finished the season with two memorable victories, including the finale at Utah, as Edwards closed out his brilliant career.

"There's a much different feeling now than there was at the end of last season," Edwards said this week.

In 1999, BYU won eight games, claimed a piece of the conference championship and earned a trip to a bowl game. But because the Cougars wound up with three straight losses, there was frustration and bitterness.

Despite the many setbacks and disappointments suffered in 2000, it's likely that what people will remember most about Edwards' final team are those wins over New Mexico and Utah. "It was a storybook ending," said athletic director Val Hale. "LaVell's got a pretty big smile on his face these days. It's as though a big load has been lifted from his shoulders."

Of course, going into the season, Edwards knew his last one would be tough. The Cougars opened on the road in Jacksonville, Fla., for the Pigskin Classic against No. 2 Florida State, a team that likely will be playing for the national championship in January. Though BYU lost, it was encouraged by the fact that it held its own against the Seminoles in the second half.

Then came that improbable comeback at Virginia. Trailing 21-0 at halftime, the previously lifeless BYU offense, behind the arm of Bret Engemann, rallied to win, 38-35, in overtime. The sophomore quarterback passed for 447 yards (318 in the second half) and a pair of touchdowns.

But the game that many BYU players and coaches believe was the turning point of the season came the following week at Air Force. Way back in February, when the conference schedule was released, Edwards said that playing the Falcons on the road in the conference opener after back-to-back games on the East Coast would be trouble. He was right.

In the first half, the BYU offense more or less picked up where it left off at Virginia, scoring 20 first-half points. But toward the end of the second quarter, Engemann injured his ankle. Engemann remained in the game but was never the same. He managed to complete only 7 of 20 attempts for 54 yards in the second half. The Cougars turned the ball over on their final three possessions and lost the game, 31-23.

To make matters worse, ESPN had decided to televise BYU's game with Mississippi State on Thursday night, just five days after the Air Force game. The Bulldogs capitalized on turnovers by quarterback Charlie Peterson, who made his first career start, by scoring three defensive touchdowns. The Cougars trailed 31-7 at halftime before losing, 44-28.

BYU struggled to eke out a 10-7 home win against UNLV, then got throttled 42-14 at Syracuse (during which Engemann suffered a season-ending shoulder injury). After downing Utah State, the Cougars received a much-needed bye week, only to lose their homecoming game to San Diego State. Owen Pochman missed three fourth-quarter field goals before making a 50-yarder with 46 seconds remaining to put BYU ahead, 15-13. But Pochman's counterpart, Aztec kicker Nate Tandberg, drilled a 36-yarder with one second left to lift SDSU to a 16-15 win.

But perhaps the lowest point of the season came a couple of weeks later at Colorado State. The Rams jumped to a 38-0 halftime lead on national television and embarrassed the Cougars. BYU was in serious jeopardy of sending Edwards into retirement with his first losing season since 1973.

Somehow, during the bye week that followed, the Cougars regrouped and refocused. It also helped that they decided to start their third different quarterback of the season, junior Brandon Doman. Just before kickoff against New Mexico, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed the team and told them — in what has to be considered the quote of the year — "Don't muff it." Then he announced the renaming of Cougar Stadium to LaVell Edwards Stadium in Edwards' final home game. BYU won, 37-13, as Doman passed for 349 yards and rushed for 51 in his first career start.

In Edwards' final game, Doman came through again, marching the Cougars 80 yards in the final minute to lift BYU to a 34-27 victory over the Utes. It marked the first time all year the Cougars put together back-to-back victories.

So what was the difference those last two weeks of the season?

"You put different people in different leadership positions and good things happen," said senior defensive lineman Hans Olsen. "You put a high-caliber player in a high-caliber position, they can do a lot of good things. A team will go as far as a quarterback will take it. We needed a change. Doman was what we needed."

So, the next BYU head coach will start spring drills with, fittingly, a quarterback controversy on his hands. Just like last spring, the Cougars will have Engemann, Peterson and Doman. And they will likely add another QB to the mix, perhaps Ricks College's Marc Dunn, the nation's top-rated junior college passer.

"Whoever comes in is going to have a lot of fun again picking the new quarterback," Edwards said with a smile. "Brandon is a great leader. He figures out a way to get it done. It's not always picture perfect, but he'll run, he'll scramble, he'll throw on the run. He'll make plays."

BYU will have to replace wide receivers Margin Hooks (who finished No. 2 all-time in school history in receiving yardage), Jonathan Pittman (one of the heroes against Utah) and Ben Horton. They'll have to find a new fullback to step in for Kalani Sitake. The Cougars return their starting offensive line as well as running backs Luke Staley and Brian McDonald.

Defensively, defensive linemen Olsen, Chris Hoke and Setema Gali will be gone. But Ryan Denney, who had a solid year, will return. BYU will have linebackers Justin Ena and Isaac Kelley back, as well as true freshman starter Paul Walkenhorst, that is, if he doesn't decide to leave on a mission.

The defensive secondary will be the biggest off-season concern. Safeties Jared Lee and Tyson Smith will graduate. At cornerback, the Cougars will have Danny Phillips and Derrus Wilson, who both had a rough time in their first season of Division I football. BYU coaches are searching for more junior college corners. They are also eagerly expecting the return of Jernaro Gilford, who had been expected to be a starter until he was suspended for the season last summer.

While Aaron Edmunds, who led the conference in punting, will be back, the Cougars will have to fill the void of Pochman, a four-year starter and holder of many BYU kicking and scoring records.

But planning for the 2001 season will be left to the new coach. As for Edwards, and the seniors who will be leaving the program with him, there is a sense of satisfaction — at least with the way things ended.


E-MAIL: jeffc@desnews.com