Most football games can be boiled down to one or two key factors.
For instance: If the offensive line gives the quarterback time to throw, he'll pick apart the opponent's weak secondary. Or: If a strong defense against the rush can shut down the option, the opponent will have to rely on a passing game they don't have.
The Sea World Holiday Bowl isn't that simple. It features two teams, ninth-ranked BYU (10-2) and 19th-ranked Texas A&M (8-3-1), who really haven't seen anything like each other. There's little basis for comparison, which leaves whole bunches of key factors.Here's Key No. 1: Time to throw - If BYU quarterback Ty Detmer gets it, he will move the offense. Period. The strength of an opponent's secondary has been far less important in determining BYU's passing success than the strength of a team's pass rush, particularly the outside rush.
Cougar tackle Neal Fort said that Oregon and Hawaii had the most effective outside rushes against BYU this season. They are also the only teams to beat BYU.
Texas A&M has a strong - and quick - outside rush. Outside linebackers William Thomas and Marcus Buckley had 17 sacks between them. Thomas has announced to the world that he will blitz; the key is whether BYU can stop him.
"If you pressure Detmer, you can force him to throw some bad passes and probably some interceptions," Thomas said. "Nobody is going to stop him, but he is less effective if you get in his face. Any quarterback is going to be less effective if you are in his face all day."
"What we have to do is look at what the linebackers are doing and adjust to it," Fort said. "Buckley and Thomas aren't as big and physical as most outside linebackers we've faced; they're just fast."
Detmer, for one, thinks the Cougars can handle them. "We are adept at picking up the blitz," he said. "We can keep backs in to block if we have to, and we can get rid of the ball quick."
A&M feels it can live with that. "We think our best chance is to force the other team to throw quick and take away the big pass," said Aggie defensive coordinator Bob Davie.
Which brings us to Key No. 2: A&M's man-to-man pass coverage - Only one team has tried to cover BYU's receivers man-to-man this season, and San Diego State gave up 62 points in the process. It has been widely accepted that the only way to limit the Cougar passing game is to mix up defenses, keeping Detmer quessing.
A&M Coach R.C. Slocum disagrees. His team has had a two-fold plan for playing passing teams all season - blitz the quarterback and play the receivers man-to-man - and it has worked well enough that he can't see any reason to change.
So the question is whether A&M's secondary is good enough to cover the BYU receivers one-on-one. All-SWC cornerback Kevin Smith is the team leader in interceptions with seven, but the entire rest of the secondary had three pickoffs all year.
The Aggies finished 26th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense but faced only two or three teams that throw the ball much. They lost to Houston, which throws all the time, and to Texas, which throws about half the time.
Key No. 3: Defending the option - A&M opened the season with Lance Pavlas, a dropback passer, at quarterback. It was 3-1 with Pavlas, but after a 17-8 loss to LSU, Slocum made Bucky Richardson the starting QB. Since then, A&M has averaged 333 yards and more than three TDs a game on the ground.
BYU has generally played well against traditional three-back wishbone/option teams, but A&M runs the option like no team the Cougars have ever played. "The closest thing we see to Texas A&M's offense is Colorado State," BYU Coach LaVell Edwards said. "And these players are bigger, faster and better."
The Aggies run their option out of an I formation, with the tailback lined up behind the fullback. Their bread-and-butter play, called 17-lead-option, goes like this: Richardson takes the snap and runs parallel to the line of scrimmage, with fullback Robert Wilson and tailback Darren Lewis running parallel to him. If a hole opens Richardson dives into it, otherwise he pitches to Lewis, who goes around the corner as Wilson delivers a crushing block to a defensive back.
A&M runs 17-lead-option about 25 percent of the time, with a few variations. Sometimes it's Wilson running up the middle, or Richardson faking to Wilson up the middle and pitching to Lewis, or just a straight run with Lewis behind Wilson, Outland Trophy finalist Mike Arthur, the center, and all-SWC guard Mike Pappas.
The option is so effective that a half-dozen times this season, the Aggies have had drives of more than seven minutes that consisted of 17-lead-option left, 17-lead-option right and not a single pass.
"When we get our option series working, we become a very emotional football team," Richardson said. "We know it works."
BYU also knows it works and has devised a plan to stop it.
"We've got two guys assigned to the quarterback, two on the fullback and two on the tailback," said defensive tackle Eddie Green. "If one guy gets blocked, there's another guy to take his place. If everybody does their job, we should be all right."
The key to BYU's ability to stop option teams in the past has been just that - every man doing his job. Against A&M, it will be critical.
Key No. 4: Who's freshest in the fourth quarter?
- Against Houston, lack of depth in the secondary hurt the Aggies late in the game. Houston passed for 200 yards in the final quarter alone, after gaining just 250 passing yards in the previous three quarters.
"Houston alternated receivers on every play and tried to run off our corners on almost every snap," Davie said. "Their receivers had the fresher legs at the end of the game."
Davie realizes that BYU is similarly deep at receiver. "BYU always has fresh receivers in the game, and they can all run patterns and catch the ball."
A&M's plan for keeping the secondary fresh is to control the ball on offense. "If it got into a track meet, that might be where our lack of depth in the secondary would show," Smith said. "We need our offense to take some time off the clock."
Those are the primary keys, but there are a few lesser ones that could prove important, including: Ty's interceptions - Detmer can get picked off a couple of times and still win, but if he gets intercepted four times or more, it's going to be an indicator of other problems (see "Time to throw" above).
Richardson's passing - The A&M quarterback swears he's a better passer than people give him credit for, but if the Aggies are behind by a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, can he pass them back into contention?
BYU's running game - Davie says A&M's defensive weakness is up front, which might mean BYU's draw-trap with fullbacks Peter Tuipulotu and Mike Salido will work. If outside linebackers are blitzing and middle linebackers are worrying about the draw-trap, someone is going to be open.
Playing surface - BYU plays most often, and most effectively, on grass. A&M has lost three of its last four grass-stadium games, including its only grass game this year. A natural surface tends to neutralize teams that rely on speed, and that's A&M.
The crowd - BYU sold 16,000 tickets to this game in Provo, compared to 4,000 tickets sold in College Station, Texas. The Cougars also have a large following in California. Expect more BYU fans at this one.
Detmer's magic - "I've just seen that young man perform magic too many times," said Slocum. "I've seen him make some just remarkable plays, when somebody is about to sack him, and all the receivers are covered, and he pulls a rabbit out of his hat and turns it into a big play."
So what it comes down to, after all the analysis and evaluation and guesswork, is that this game could be decided by something as ethereal, as intangible, as magic. Judging by past Holiday Bowls, it's probably as good a way as any to look at it.
COUGAR NOTES: In the continuing saga of Matt Bellini's ankle injury, he's now officially listed as questionable. Edwards said Bellini will suit up, and then it will be up to the halfback to determine how much he is able to play . . . Junior cornerback Tony Crutchfield and senior safety Norm Dixon are both listed as doubtful. Crutchfield continues the tendinitis in a knee that has plagued him all season; Dixon's back bothered him in practice Wednesday.
Detmer received the Admiral's Trophy, awarded annually to a player from each Holiday Bowl team who exemplifies unselfishness and teamwork. The honoree is selected by his teammates in a secret ballot. Wilson was A&M's choice.