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Bowled over

BYU’s high-power offense is shut down by Louisville

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — BYU's 2001 football odyssey opened on a sweltering August afternoon in Provo with the Cougars scoring 10 touchdowns and 70 points against a Conference USA team, Tulane. It ended on a frigid afternoon Monday at the Liberty Bowl, where the once-mighty BYU offense could manage only one touchdown — by an offensive lineman — and a field goal against the C-USA champions, Louisville.

The weather conditions in those two games paralleled the stark contrast between the performance of the Y. offense in those contests: Scorching hot and ice cold.

The No. 19 Cougars lost to the No. 23 Cardinals, 28-10, before an announced crowd of 58,968. It was another disappointing conclusion to a season for BYU. It marked its third consecutive bowl loss and its second consecutive defeat of the year, after posting 12 straight wins.

Of course, the Cougars, boasting the nation's highest-scoring offense (46 points per game), were without their All-America running back, Luke Staley, and they looked almost powerless without him. BYU gained only 84 yards on the ground. The Cougars' top pass-catcher, Reno Mahe, played only one half after it became clear he could barely run on his ailing knee. He underwent surgery a couple of weeks ago.

"I thought we'd score more points," said BYU coach Gary Crowton. "When you lose your best running back and your best receiver in a game, it's going to hurt you. I still thought the other guys would do well, and at times they did. But there wasn't a consistency on offense that we've had this year."

"We knew they didn't have all their weapons here, but we felt that we had to prepare for them like they did and our defense came out and played extremely well," said Louisville coach John L. Smith, whose team finished 11-2. "It wasn't one of those high-scoring affairs that everyone thought it would be."

No, it wasn't a shootout, though the first play of the game indicated that it might be. Louisville's Zek Parker returned the opening kickoff 70 yards to set up the Cardinals' first touchdown. "When the hole opened, I just hit it," Parker said. "It started the team off right and got our confidence going."

Confidence didn't come as easily to the Cougar offense. The only time BYU managed to cross the goal line was when quarterback Brandon Doman rolled out right and threw a lateral to 6-foot-7, 301-pound offensive tackle Dustin Rykert, who rumbled into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown.

Sophomore Dewayne White, the Cardinals' star defensive end, wasn't surprised by the Cougars' trickery. "They couldn't score any other way," he said. "They had to do something extraordinary to get the ball in the end zone . . . I'll give 'em that one."

With that TD, BYU tied the score at 7-all midway through the second quarter. Later in the period, though, another trick play cost the Cougars. On fourth-and-five from its own 40-yard line, BYU tried one of its famous Ned Stearns-fake-punt-attempts. Stearns took the snap, took a couple of steps and was swarmed under for no gain.

The opportunistic Cardinals then drove 40 yards and scored on a one-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dave Ragone to tight end Chip Mattingly with 14 seconds remaining in the first half to send them into the locker room with a 14-7 lead.

"We probably gave them some momentum going into the half," Crowton of that ill-fated fake. "At that time, I felt like they wouldn't be expecting it but we didn't execute it well and they did a good job defensively. But I was hoping to get a big play in the last two minutes so that we would have momentum going into the second half. It just didn't work."

The Cougars didn't seem to be too affected on their first possession of the third quarter — a 14-play, 57-yard drive that ate up seven minutes off the clock and resulted in a 29-yard field goal by Matt Payne. But Louisville answered by scoring the next time it had the ball on a 34-yard TD pass from Ragone to receiver Deion Branch.

Doman struggled for much of the game and overthrew his receivers a number of times. The most crucial one came late in third quarter when he sailed a pass intended for Mike Rigell into the arms of Louisville safety Curry Burns. That play pretty much closed the door on the Cougars. It took the Cards just five plays to grab a 28-10 advantage on a 27-yard touchdown toss from Ragone to tight end Ronnie Ghent.

Doman, who said his injured ribs did not bother him during the game, felt he and his teammates failed to execute. "(The Cardinals) didn't do anything that was real different," said Doman, who was sacked five times for minus-34 yards. "They started out in a lot of man coverage and they weren't bringing a real tough rush. They were kind of pushing up and waiting for me to run around. I wish I could go back and play that game again because we had some other plays in mind and we simply had some miscues. The receivers and I weren't on the same page today. It was frustrating."

Mahe said most of the blame lies with the wideouts. "I think 90 percent of it wasn't (Doman's) fault," he said. "A lot of the guys slowed down when they should have gone faster. A lot of guys dropped passes and ran the wrong routes. Brandon did the same thing he did all year . . . a lot of times today we didn't come along with him."

If only Staley had come along with the Cougars to Memphis, the NFL-bound tailback certainly would have made a difference. Without him in the Liberty Bowl, BYU just didn't look like the same team it was in August.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com