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Crowton staying focused in up-and-down year

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BYU head coach Gary Crowton, at left getting pumped up with the Cougars' go-ahead touchdown against Wyoming earlier this month, has seen his share of ups and downs so far in the 2004 season.

BYU head coach Gary Crowton, at left getting pumped up with the Cougars’ go-ahead touchdown against Wyoming earlier this month, has seen his share of ups and downs so far in the 2004 season.

George Frey, Associated Press

So, Gary Crowton and BYU's football team have a week off.

How much does it help head coach Gary Crowton that the most recent memory of the Cougars is of his backup quarterback taking a knee at Air Force? Taking a knee in a place no BYU's team hadn't won in 10 years. A knee after a 38-point second-half Cougar explosion filled with nifty big plays and tons of yards and player of the week honors.

Well, it couldn't hurt. The mental picture is something that will hang around until two Saturdays when San Diego State comes to town and we know who the president will be.

Perhaps it tones down rhetoric from critics. Some have blamed Crowton for everything from depleted world supplies of flu vaccine to empty lakes and reservoirs and weather patterns in North America.

Since the August bombshell headlines of player trouble, an injured starting quarterback, the shake-up in BYU's athletic department, a missed game-winning field goal at Boise State to a fumble-filled setback at home to UNLV, it's been a roller coaster ride for the Cougars. And most everyone in the program has read Internet posts or listened to radio talk of candidates for Crowton's replacement since last Christmas.

Still, the Cougars haven't blown up. We haven't seen a player mutiny and visits with vice presidents that became famous with the men's and women's basketball programs some years back, and nobody's attacked a teammate like we saw on TV in the 1999 Motor City Bowl where BYU stars were punting helmets on the sidelines.

In fact, the AFA game showed a ton of team unity if nothing else. At 4-4, it appears, at least on the surface, the Cougars are on a little run after wins over Wyoming and Air Force. These guys aren't quitters; they appear to really like one another and, for the most part, they've got one another's back.

How does one keep focus while tiptoeing through a minefield?

I threw the question at Crowton on Monday.

"Every team goes through some ups and downs, some kind of distractions, whether it be injuries or off-the-field situations," Crowton said.

So, he's not agreeing that just his squad is pelted with hurdles.

"What we've wanted to do is just stay focused. Our coaches have all kept themselves focused. They are excited about being here, they want to win, they believe in the players, they have good practices and are excited about the progress we are making.

"Our players are of good character, they are able to set aside distractions and focus away from things that have happened. The maturity of our team has helped us maintain focus on what we need to get done."

So, today the Cougars stand 4-4. Back in August, I had them going 7-4 but didn't fathom the UNLV setback. It would appear 6-5 is now realistic. And who knows what the record would be if the Cougars had gone through September against Montana State, New Mexico State and Nevada-Reno instead of Notre Dame, USC, Stanford and Boise State in the land of Smurf Turf?

Perspective. Perhaps this rest time calls for a dab of that. OK, well, go with the bright, positive, sunshiny spread.

We're now deep enough into Mountain West Conference play to accumulate a feel for the league. At least statistically for league games only, you can measure conference teams apart from non-conference results and separate the varied strength of schedule by all eight teams. And believe it, there is a big difference.

What we get is Utah clearly ahead and dominating. Second, we've got the Cougars alone in second place.

For league games only, the Cougars are first in passing offense, second in total offense, scoring and rushing defense.

The Cougars lead the league in first downs and field goals and are third in rushing offense and scoring defense.

Individually, BYU's Curtis Brown leads the league in rushing and all-purpose yards. John Beck leads the MWC in passing yards average and total offense. Kicker Matt Payne is the leader in scoring by kicking and is tied for second in overall scoring. Kick returner Bryce Mahuika is the conference leader in kick returns.

The biggest negative — one that the sunshine spread can't cover — is BYU's 24-20 loss to UNLV. That is a haunting failure that looms like a bucket of slop over a pig trough.

Other than that, in league play, BYU is perfect.

They should have sent John Robinson's tickets to Hawaii in the mail after the game.

Here are the picks:

UTAH 34, SDSU 10: This score will be whatever the Utes want it to be, although one must give the Aztecs credit for a very good defense. What SDSU gets on defense is given up by an offense that is struggling mightily with youth, inexperience and injuries.

NEW MEXICO 17, CSU 14: This one could go down to the wire. On paper, the Rams would win this game, but CSU will be facing the best defense since BYU came to town and turnovers matter. A paper-thin margin and the nod goes to Rocky Long.

AIR FORCE 28, WYOMING 21: This is an intriguing contest because you've gotta wonder which squad has more in the tank after the Cowboys lost to CSU and the Falcons lost to the Cougars at home. Because the Cadets have more experience overcoming adversity, go with the Fly Boys.

E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com