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Cougars’ big task: silence Syracuse

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BYU at Syracuse

6 p.m. MDT Saturday


SYRACUSE, N.Y. — It was the calm before the storm.

The BYU Cougars (2-3) spent Friday afternoon in quiet and peaceful Palmyra, located about 60 miles west of Syracuse, where they toured LDS Church historical sites. They visited Hill Cumorah, the Sacred Grove and other landmarks held dear by the LDS faithful.

Tonight, as BYU takes on Syracuse (6 p.m., ESPN2), the Cougars will have to deal with a completely different environment: the raucous Carrier Dome.

Syracuse (1-2) is the only university in the country that plays its home games in a domed, on-campus stadium. And the 49,550-seat Carrier Dome, built in 1980, has a reputation for being boisterous.

"I'm sure it's going to be real loud because the fans are right on top of us," Cougar wide receiver Jonathan Pittman said after practicing in the Carrier Dome Thursday night. "I like that though. It should be a good atmosphere."

BYU coaches have tried to prepare their players for the experience. On Wednesday in Provo, the Cougar offense went inside the Smith Fieldhouse and ran plays with a recording of crowd noise and the Syracuse fight song blaring at eardrum-melting decibels in the background.

"I can't imagine the crowd here being any louder than that was," said BYU quarterback Bret Engemann, who will be directing the team amid the anticipated bedlam. "The key is to have good lungs. You have to be able to scream. We'll use a lot of hand signals, too."

Aside from the noise levels, the Carrier Dome's artificial turf playing surface also poses a challenge for a team that has seen its share of injuries. While two linebackers have undergone season-ending knee surgeries, both quarterbacks, Engemann and Charlie Peterson, are still healing from ankle sprains. BYU coach LaVell Edwards says both QBs probably will play tonight.

Of course, Edwards is receiving a lot of attention here since this is his final season at the helm. But the man considered the father of the modern-day passing game admits things aren't going smoothly in the passing department right now. "One area we need to work on is throwing the football," Edwards said.

Last week, the Cougars relied on running the football, picking up 196 yards on the ground, highlighted by a career-high 167 yards from Luke Staley. After reinjuring his ankle in the third quarter, Engemann was replaced by Peterson, who completed 8-of-11 passes for 95 yards and, more importantly, didn't make any mistakes.

"I thought Charlie's decisions were really good," Edwards said. "Charlie was a little more decisive (than Engemann). One of the reasons we selected Bret to start in the first place was his presence in the pocket and his decision-making. He wasn't making quick decisions or throwing accurately against UNLV, and those are some of the great things he usually does."

Combined, Engemann and Peterson have thrown nine interceptions and five touchdowns. They've passed for 1,107 yards, though 338 of those yards (about 30 percent) came during Engemann's brilliant second-half performance against Virginia.

One of the problems, according to Edwards, is that the injury situation with the quarterbacks has limited the amount of time they practice during the week. "They just need more experience," Edwards said.

The Cougar offense will be facing a Syracuse defensive team that is fast and athletic, similar to previous opponents Florida State, Virginia and Mississippi State. Yet BYU might be able to rediscover its passing game against the Orangemen. The weakness of the Syracuse defense is the secondary, which has yielded several long passing plays.

"I think we're going to try to air it out," Pittman said. "They've blown a lot of coverages. I think we'll be able to get some big plays."

Come to think of it, that might be the only way to quiet down the Carrier Dome crowd.

EXTRA POINTS: Syracuse is 82-35-2 all-time at Carrier Dome and 35-13 during the coach Paul Pasqualoni era. . . . The Orangeman defense has not allowed a rushing touchdown this season. . . . BYU is being outscored 56-17 in the second quarter in 2000. . . . Tonight will be the Cougars' first-ever game in the state of New York.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com