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BYU football season: one down

A game full of thrills and miscues

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PROVO — As openers go, the BYU-Syracuse game Thursday night was typical. Both teams combined for a bundle of turnovers, penalties, kicking-game miscues and first-game jitters. Yeah, it got ugly at times.

Fortunately for the Cougars, great plays exceeded bad ones. As far as they were concerned, the final result was beautiful — a closer-than-it-looks 42-21 victory over the Orangemen before a sellout crowd of 65,612 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

"We're happy we won," said coach Gary Crowton. "A lot of things went well, but we have a lot to work on." Indeed.

It's still very early in the 2002 campaign, but the Cougars answered a number of lingering questions Thursday.

*Can this offense score early and often? Yes. Few people predicted BYU would hang 42 points on a highly regarded Syracuse defense. The Cougars weren't surprised by their performance. "Coach Crowton's got an incredible offense," said wide receiver Toby Christensen, who caught a team-high six passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. "You're never shocked when you score a lot of points."

"They were confused all night," running back Marcus Whalen said of the Syracuse defense.

*Is there life after Brandon Doman and Luke Staley? Yes. Quarterback Bret Engemann completed 35 of 54 attempts for 386 yards with one interception and three touchdowns. He even rushed for another TD. Whalen rumbled 140 yards on 19 attempts (including runs of 58 yards and 36 yards, respectively) and scored a touchdown.

"I thought (BYU's) offense was hitting on all eight cylinders," said Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni.

The Cougars scored touchdowns on their first two possessions — one on a 15-play drive, the other on a 13-play drive. They rolled up 615 yards of total offense. Five scoring drives covered at least 71 yards, including a school-record 99-yard march (in nine plays) in the second quarter that lifted BYU to a 21-7 advantage.

It appeared the Cougars were poised to crush the Orangemen at that point. But turnovers kept Syracuse within striking distance. "We should have put the game away in the second quarter," Engemann said. "We let them stay in it."

*Is the defense markedly improved? Yes. The Cougars, playing without starting left cornerback Jernaro Gilford, sacked Syracuse quarterback R.J. Anderson three times, broke up six of his passes and intercepted him twice.

All three Orangemen scores came after BYU turnovers, which had given the Syracuse offense favorable field position. "If it hadn't been for our turnovers," said tight end Spencer Nead, "I don't know if they would have scored on us."

In the second quarter, BYU held Syracuse twice on the one-yard line, though, somewhere, Orangeman tight end Lenny Cusumano is probably kicking himself for dropping a pass when he was all alone in the end zone. Cougar linebacker Colby Bockwoldt deserves credit for leaping up in front of him and waving at the ball, which might have distracted Cusumano.

*Has BYU put the "special" back in their special teams? Hardly. Aside from a 70-yard punt, Matt Payne experienced a rough outing. The 6-foot-4, 241-pound sophomore punter/placekicker missed field goals from 42 and 49 yards and was off-target on three extra-point attempts.

In the first quarter, BYU's Reno Mahe fumbled a punt that set up Syracuse's first score on the next play — a 17-yard touchdown on a reverse by wide receiver Jamel Riddle.

*Can BYU potentially be as good as last year? Or better? The jury is still out. But Nead says there were moments Thursday night when the offense felt like it was 2001 all over again. "There was that same feeling, only with different people," Nead said.

Still, BYU almost gave the game away. The Cougars and Orangemen were tied, 21-all, in the third quarter when Engemann completed a pass to Rod Wilkerson, who subsequently lost the ball. It appeared Syracuse had recovered, but the officials ruled that a Cougar and an Orangeman both had control — a "simultaneous possession of a fumble" call that went BYU's way. On the following play, Whalen ripped off a 36-yard gain on the ground. Then Engemann ran into the endzone from three yards out on a bootleg — the first rushing touchdown of his collegiate career. Payne's kick sailed wide left.

Clinging to a 27-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter, Engemann tossed a short pass in the flat to receiver David Christensen, who broke a tackle and sprinted down the sidelines for a 50-yard touchdown. "That kind of broke the game open," Crowton said.

While BYU seized a 33-21 lead, a celebration penalty followed (it was one of 13 Cougar penalties on the night) and Payne couldn't hit the long extra point.

From there, Syracuse unraveled like a giant Orange peel. BYU tacked on nine more points in the final 6:33 — a 31-yard Payne field goal and a one-yard run by true freshman Curtis Brown (Payne's PAT missed, again). Syracuse turnovers led to both BYU scores.

As for their own turnovers and other woes, the Cougars say they aren't worried. "We're strong mentally to overcome those. It's no big deal," Toby Christensen said. "When you win, everyone feels good."

E-MAIL: jeffc@desnews.com