What's this? Two-a-days in December? Full-contact practices? Daily workouts for quarterbacks and receivers?
For BYU's slumping football team, bowl games are not all Disneyland and barbecues these days, for a change. One senses the Cougars are more determined in preparation for their annual bowl game, which this year will pit them against Colorado Thursday night in the Freedom Bowl. Who can blame them? For starters, BYU is not exactly Team December. And, too, the Cougars, who closed out the regular season by losing three of their last four games, are stumbling through their worst losing spell since 1975."The kids are tight," says linebacker coach Claude Bassett. "They know there is a lot riding on this game. There are one or two games every year that determine the course of the program for two or three years down the road . . . If we win this, we'll end the year on a positive note and build on that. If we don't, there are a lot of (hard) realities there."
"This is very critical for us," says quarterback/receiver coach Norm Chow. "We're not used to losing. We're better than that."
"I don't sleep well," says head coach LaVell Edwards. "We've got to get back and play well and win."
Edwards could be losing sleep over, oh, any number of things - turnovers (21 in the last four games), deciding on a starting quarterback (still no decision yet, but stay tuned) and a slumping defense (108 points allowed in the first eight games; 156 in the last four). And then there's BYU's bowl record.
The Cougars have appeared in 12 bowls, all of them under Edwards, and have lost eight of them, including their last three. Any argument that their bowl competition is simply better than what they see during the regular season doesn't hold. The Cougars have played comparable teams during the past few regular seasons and played them well. For that matter, Missouri, Ohio State (in 1985), Michigan and Virginia, among other BYU bowl opponents, were only slightly better than average teams.
BYU's biggest problem in bowl play, ironically, is its famed and prolific pass offense, which hums in October and fizzles in December - 16 points against Virginia last year, 10 against UCLA the previous year, seven against Ohio State before that. Even in victory, the BYU offense didn't run smoothly. The 24-17 win over Michigan in '84 was cursed with six turnovers. The 21-17 win over very-average Missouri in '83 was hardly a good night for the most prolific offense in NCAA history.
"We have not done very well in bowls at all," concedes Bassett.
The reasons, according to BYU coaches:
- A small indoor practice facility. The wet, cold December weather forces the Cougars to practice in one, small cramped end of the Smith Fieldhouse. "You can't practice a pass attack in there," says defensive coordintor Dick Felt. "There's not room. You can practice the run and defense, but not really the passing game."
- The monthlong break between the regular season and the bowl game. What's more, because of finals and recruiting, the Cougars don't practice during the two weeks that follow the end of the season. "A long layoff hurts a passing team," says Chow. "It throws off the timing."
The Cougars tried to correct the problem this year. The quarterbacks and receivers bypassed the two-week break and worked out together informally. Once the team resumed formal workouts (starting Dec. 17), they held three two-a-day practices and managed to get outside one day.
- Bowl games are just for fun. Chow echoes the opinion of many BYU coaches when he says, "We've always looked at bowl games as a reward. We don't approach them with the same intensity we do during the regular season unless it's like '84 for the national championship or it means getting back on track."
Clearly, Thursday night's game means the latter. The Cougars visited Knotts Berry Farm Monday (and Disneyland Tuesday), but only after a full-contact practice. Says Felt, "We've always taken the approach in bowls that we're not going to make them unpleasant for the players. But this time we're a little more serious about this because of the way the season has gone."