Oh what a BYUtiful mourning - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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Oh what a BYUtiful mourning

Given up for dead, Brigham Young is making a lively try for a title

Take one look at the face of Orrin Olsen and you can tell how things have been going in Provo, Utah this season. Olsen, a Brigham Young center who smiles wide and often when he is not tattooing a block on a defensive lineman's rib cage, is delighted that all eight of his siblings, including brothers Phil and Merlin of the Los Angeles Rams, will attend his wedding next week to Sandy Robison, daughter of the BYU track coach. Happy in his athletic work, Orrin has suffered no repetition of that memorable high school day when he snapped the ball and broke his quarterback's finger. And soon Orrin and his Cougar teammates may know the special joy that comes from finishing a season in a bowl after starting it by going to pot.

Such has been the year's remarkable reversal for BYU, a loser in its first three games before a little soul-searching and a crash course in competitive maturity produced five straight Western Athletic Conference victories, the latest of which was a 36-3 destruction of New Mexico last Saturday night in Albuquerque. One more, against Utah this week in Provo, and the Cougars will win the conference title and locker-room space at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. on Dec. 28. With Oklahoma State as opposition, BYU would be making its first bowl appearance, a fitting reward for Coach LaVell Edwards.

Edwards, who has only 10 seniors on his squad, has spent most of the season seeking experience and answering two questions. Early on it was, "What's wrong?" And lately, "What did you do to make it right?"

The answer to the first involves in part BYU's schedule, which called for the dubious honor of opening the season against Hawaii in Honolulu. Ideally, mainland teams are supposed to finish, not begin, the season in Hawaii, where Waikiki and similar distractions make it hard to concentrate on any game plan more complicated than a poi orgy. Violating that unwritten law led to a 15-13 defeat marked by seven Cougar turnovers and five Hawaii field goals.

"It's possible the trip hurt us," Edwards admits. "There is a carnival atmosphere over there, but most of our kids had never been to Hawaii and probably won't go again, so I wasn't going to keep them locked in a hotel room."

The Cougars' more serious problem was their inexperience, a condition that worsened when Jay Miller, a junior receiver of All-America potential, suffered a broken shoulder blade diving for a pass in practice. "After Miller got hurt," Edwards says, "we went through a whole bunch of receivers. Our passing game is based on receivers reading the defense. He adjusts his route as the play develops. It took time for our young players to learn that."

Through a 9-6 loss to Utah State and a 34-7 dismembering by Iowa State the following week, Edwards saw no reason to change his opinion of his club's true potential. The defense looked sound—when it didn't have to stay on the field all day—and the offense, led by senior Quarterback Gary Sheide (pronounced Shy-dee) seemed strong enough to make the Cougars a WAC contender.

No college team, however, succeeds or fails purely on its physical talent, as Woody Hayes will be only too unhappy to attest, and in BYU's case an intangible lift came from squad unity. The Cougars addressed themselves to their mistakes in some quiet meetings that bolstered their confidence. "We always knew we had a good team," says Linebacker Larry Carr. "We just told each other what had to be done, and then we started beating people."

In Sheide, Edwards had a record-breaking passer whose ability had been masked by inexperience and belied by his performances in the first three games. Rolling out frequently in those defeats, he threw for only one touchdown and was intercepted eight times. It was a boon for the offense when he discarded the rollout for the pocket, which became a fortress as his offensive line grew stronger. BYU's attack now has become so effective that Sheide leads the nation in completions per game and ranks fourth in total yardage.

Slope-shouldered like Joe Namath, whom he rates as "still the best there is," Sheide's passing style is not without certain sandlot tendencies, such as waving his receiver to an open spot with his left hand. But he is exceedingly cool. And persistent. He delights in hitting a "hot route" receiver under a blitz and is loth to forsake the forward pass under even the most discouraging circumstances.

Against Arizona State, for instance, Sheide suffered five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, but he persevered and finished with 24 completions in 41 attempts, two touchdowns and an unexpected 21-18 victory.

"He's got a lot of confidence," Edwards says. "Even against Arizona State, it never entered his mind, or ours, to do anything different. Most people don't realize he hasn't played much. He played about 5½ games in junior college, and he was injured here, too. Maybe that's why he improves every game."

Besides embarrassing some Arizona partisans who had suggested earlier in the year that the WAC was too minor a league for their state's two well-regarded teams (BYU beat Arizona 37-13), BYU's win over the conference favorite Sun Devils should have generated a worry-free week of preparation for New Mexico, considering that team's 3-5-1 record. In truth, it was the most nerve-racking period of the season for Edwards and several of his players, none of whom were charmed by the idea of playing a night game on the road.

But the game could have been played at dawn, for any real chance New Mexico had was lost four games earlier when Quarterback Steve Myer, who might have given Sheide a contest for passing laurels, was sidelined with a knee injury. In his stead, Coach Bill Mondt was forced to use Ken Bryant, a converted defensive back who spent a miserable night being tackled for 71 yards in losses when he did not fumble (three times) or get intercepted (twice).

Strangely, Sheide himself came up with a performance he rated "my worst of the year," even though he scored two touchdowns, passed for another and finished with a WAC career record for completions. His total of 347, in only 20 games, erased the mark of 345 set by Arizona State's Danny White in 32 games.

Sheide was off target early and seemed rattled by the Lobos' blitz and coverage until he threw his fifth pass, a 51-yarder to Tailback Jeff Blanc, who ran one of those hot routes through the entire secondary for a touchdown.

The Cougar defense was superb from start to finish as it held the Lobos to 59 yards rushing and 126 in total offense. A fumble recovery by Carr, whom Edwards calls "the most underrated player on the team," set up Sheide's second touchdown run from six yards out, and substitute Linebacker Frank Linford (no relation to Paul) scored the game's last touchdown when he returned an interception 24 yards. "I saw the end zone and I wanted it," said Linford. Mark Uselman, the only New Mexico native on the BYU roster, hung it on the home folks by kicking three field goals and three PATs.

BYU will be favored to knock off Utah for the conference title, and Blanc already is looking ahead toward Fiesta time. "I think we're going to kill Oklahoma Slate," he says. "Our defense is just perfect to stop their Wishbone. I know we'll kill Utah next week. It's gonna be nice to spend Christmas in Arizona with the team."


STRONG-ARMING New Mexico, Gary Sheide leads the nation in completions per game.