Levi Kealaluhi and Kaiponohea McGuire - you may know them better as K.O. and Kaipo - know they have their work cut out for them Wednesday in the Cotton Bowl.
Steve Sarkisian's two favorite receivers will be facing what is considered by many to be the best secondary in the nation.Kansas State, BYU's opponent in the first New Year's Day game for both teams, has a stellar defensive backfield led by two-time All-American cornerback Chris Canty and including All-Big 12 safety Mario Smith and cornerback Joe Gordon, who was an All-Big 8 player in '94 and '95 and a preseason All-American before missing all but four games this season due to injury. Gordon is healthy now and ready to play in the Cotton Bowl.
"Canty is the best cornerback I've seen in my two years (at BYU) and the scary part is the guy on the other side is just as good," said Sarkisian. "It will be a big challenge for K.O. and Kaipo, but that's what college football is all about. We'll see what we're made of."
Added Kealaluhi, "This is a make-it-or-break-it kind of game for me as an individual and for the team. If I can do well against these two cornerbacks then maybe NFL scouts will see it and think I can make it at the next level. If I'm not good enough (to make it in the NFL) - if I'm too slow or something - then maybe I'll learn it in this game."
Kealaluhi, a 6-2, 200-pounder from Maui, finished the season with a team-high 49 catches for 901 yards - an average of 18.4 yards per catch - and eight touchdowns. McGuire, 5-10, 170, hauled in 42 passes for 658 yards and five scores.
Both had huge games the only other time the Cougars faced a Big 12 team this season, the opener against Texas A&M. McGuire caught seven passes for 146 yards and a pair of TDs, while Kealaluhi caught six balls - including the 46-yard game-winner with 1:03 to play - for 151 yards.
"K.O. makes big plays - none bigger than the catch against A&M," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "Kaipo is quicker, has good speed and is very tough for a little guy. He's also a good blocker. K.O. is more physical and bigger. They both catch the ball extremely well."
McGuire has worked on his speed the past two years with BYU's WAC-champion sprinter Windy Jorgensen - who just happens to be his girlfriend. He now runs the 40 in the 4.4-second range.
"I had terrible running form," said McGuire. "Windy's helped me get a lot faster."
Kealaluhi suffered a knee injury - a grade 2 ligament tear - in a midseason game against TCU. Coaches wanted to hold him out the following week against UTEP as a precaution, but with the Cougars struggling early in the second half, he entered the game and caught five passes for 77 yards and a TD in less than a half.
Sarkisian, for one, likes his Hawaiian buddies' chances of getting open against Kansas State even though he realizes the competition will be a notch or two above the likes they've become accustomed to in the WAC.
"The beauty of our receivers is how intelligent they are, how they understand coverages and can get open," said Sarkisian. "Kaipo and K.O. do a nice job of anticipating what they are going to see and making adjustments when they need to. That's what makes my job easy."
Then again, Kealaluhi realizes the most important battles Wednesday will be fought in the trenches.
"If our offensive line does a good job, then we'll have fun," he said. "If not, well, it could be a long day."