Can the BYU Cougars rebound from a late-season slump? For that matter, can they just hang on to the football, for a change, for crying out loud? Can Sean Covey go the distance? Can BYU stop Colorado's Eric Bieniemy? Can Colorado stop BYU's passing game? Will the game turn into an incident, a war of words and late hits? Can either of these teams win a bowl game? Does anybody care?
All this and more tonight when BYU meets Colorado in the fifth annual Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, Calif.The game features a running team vs. a passing team, two out-of-staters from the Mountain West who have already appeared in (and lost) the Freedom Bowl during the last three years. It's Colorado, 8-3, 20th-ranked and a fourth-place finisher in the Big Eight Conference, versus BYU, 8-4, loser in three of its last four games and a third-place finisher in the Western Athletic Conference.
All of which could account for a less than enthusiastic turnout in 70,500-seat Anaheim Stadium tonight. According to the Freedom Bowl offices, "upwards of 40,000" fans are expected to attend the game. Both BYU and Colorado sold only about half of their allotted 10,000 tickets.
"Our performance at the end of the year dampened the enthusiasm," said BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett.
He was referring of course to BYU's November Nosedive, which has kept head coach LaVell Edwards awake nights. "I don't sleep very well," he says. "We didn't finish well, and that's what's bugged me the most. Even in our early years we finished better than we started."
Only if one forgets about bowl games. The Cougars are 4-8 in bowls - but then so are the Buffaloes. BYU is riding a three-game bowl losing streak, including a 31-10 loss to UCLA in the 1986 Freedom Bowl; Colorado is riding a five-game bowl losing streak, including a 20-17 loss to Washington in the '85 Freedom Bowl.
As the Cougars enter the game, their chief concerns are these: - Fumbles and interceptions. At the center of their late-season demise was turnovers - 21 in the last four games. "If we can just stop the turnovers, we'll be all right," says Edwards.
- Quarterback Sal Aunese. OK, it's true he completes only 41.5 percent of his passes, and he threw an average of only 10 passes a game - but he averaged 23 yards on his 44 completions.
"They cause a lot of confusion with that option offense and get people wide open," says linebacker coach Claude Bassett. "They lull you to sleep with the running game."
"When they throw, they go for the distance," says Edwards. "They'll run at you for a while, then suddely fake the option and go deep. We've got to prevent the home-run type play."
- The CU running game, and, specifically, tailback Eric Bieniemy. He is young (a sophomore) and small (5-foot-6, 185-pounds), but he rushed for 1,243 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
"Bieniemy is only 5-6, but he can run up the middle and run over people," says BYU safety Troy Long.
"They will be the best running team we play this year, even better than Air Force," says Bassett.
Toward the end of the season, the Cougars had great difficulty stopping the running game, at least partly because of a beat up defensive line. The line is healthy for the bowl game, but tackle Tim Clark didn't resume practicing until Monday after a month's layoff. He'll play, but he won't start. Noseguard Tim Knight, who also was sidelined frequently late in the season with injuries, will start, along with Pete Harston and Bud Orr. In the secondary, the Cougars will miss Rodney Rice, their all-conference cornerback who is sidelined with a broken arm.
- The pass rush. The blitz has been getting to the BYU quarterbacks all season. Undoubtedly, 6-foot-6, 230-pound defensive tackle Alfred Williams, among others, will be coming hard and fast.
If given time, Covey could regain his old form. Like the rest of the team, he fell into a late-season slump and was replaced by freshman Ty Detmer in three of the last four games. It appears Covey has retained his starting job for this game, but Edwards says, "Probably both Sean and Ty will play."
Whoever the quarterback is, he must have time to get the ball upfield and test the CU secondary. "Their secondary is a bunch of strong, tough, run-support guys," says BYU quarterback coach Norm Chow. "We hope to shake our guys loose back there."
In the their first five games, all against effective passing teams, the Buffaloes allowed an average of 21 points a game. In their last six games, all against run-oriented teams, they allowed 11.5 points.
What's more, the Buffaloes' pass defense will be hurt by the loss of their top defensive player, linebacker/end Kanavis McGhee, who broke an ankle in the 10th game of the season.
For their part, the Buffaloes, who start just three seniors, are a young team that is banking on next season. As CU coach Bill McCartney says, "This game will be a barometer of sorts for our young team."
Apparently, that's not enough motivation because some CU players - linebacker Michael Jones, safety Bruce Young and Bieniemy - have chosen publicly to denounce BYU as a racist, dirty team, thus repeating the company line sung by San Diego State, Miami and Texas.
"I know we'll get together as a team and talk about it before the game," said Jones.
BYU's long, drawn-out, often-controversial season promises to end true to form.