There were six minutes and 16 seconds left on the clock in last Saturday's game between Brigham Young and the University of Texas-El Paso when Cougar Coach LaVell Edwards decided to give his quarterback, Jim McMahon, a rest. McMahon had earned it. He had directed BYU to a 42-0 lead, throwing for 372 yards and five touchdowns. It was the kind of outstanding performance that would keep him squarely in the running for the Heisman Trophy. But then perhaps "outstanding" is an understatement. You see, when Edwards pulled McMahon there were six minutes and 16 seconds left in the first half.
Eventually, BYU won the game 83-7, setting a school and Western Athletic Conference record for points scored. Mc-Mahon's first-half heroics established NCAA records. His halftime total of 384 yards, which included a 12-yard scramble, broke the NCAA single-half mark of 358 set by McMahon himself two weeks earlier in a 70-46 rout of Utah State. His passing total surpassed the single-half mark of 343 set by Illinois' Dave Wilson three weeks ago. This was the seventh time this season McMahon had amassed more than 300 yards of total offense, and that tied a single-season NCAA mark set by Rice's Tommy Kramer in 1976 and tied by last year's BYU quarterback, Marc Wilson. In McMahon's case, however, the seven 300-yard games have been consecutive. He extended his own NCAA record in that category.
As astonishing as McMahon's performance might seem to those who haven't been following Cougar football, it was hardly surprising to the 36,251 spectators in BYU Stadium. Aerial bombardments have been commonplace at BYU since 1972, when Edwards took over and decided to emphasize the pass. And since Doug Scovil joined Edwards' staff as offensive coordinator in 1976, BYU has spent more time in the air than TWA.
In fact, in the four years since Scovil went to Provo the Cougars have led the nation in passing three times. The only year they didn't, 1978, Scovil was on sabbatical with the Chicago Bears. The two BYU quarterbacks he coached before this year, Wilson and Gifford Nielsen, both made All-America teams, and his newest pupil, McMahon, although only a junior, is a legitimate Heisman candidate. After eight games McMahon leads the nation—and his better-known quarterback rivals for the Heisman, Ohio State's Art Schlichter and Purdue's Mark Herrmann—in passing yards with 2,929 and touchdown passes with 31. Meanwhile, the Cougars have all but locked up their fourth national passing crown. Following the rout of UTEP, BYU led the nation with an averge of 394.5 passing yards per game. Its closest challenger, Purdue, was way back at 286.
What's more, the Cougars are winning despite the oft-cited axiom that 300-yard passing days most often occur in defeat. At BYU the truth is that winning didn't become a way of life until Edwards decided the Cougars would live by the pass. And since Scovil arrived, Brigham Young has not only passed as never before but also won as never before.
Before 1976 the Cougars had won just two WAC championships and had never had more than eight wins. Since 1976 BYU has won four straight WAC titles and no fewer than nine games a season. Last year the Cougars were 11-0 in the regular season and their average winning margin was more than four touchdowns. They missed an unbeaten season by just one point, losing 38-37 to Indiana in the Holiday Bowl. This year, after an opening upset loss to New Mexico, they have won seven straight and are now within a bomb or three of a fifth straight conference crown.
Needless to say, Scovil's approach is heresy to the coaching fraternity, most of whose members live by the ancient adage that only three things can happen when you throw a football, and two of them are bad. By contrast, Scovil defines the pass as "the best and easiest way to move the football." But, Doug, isn't passing dangerous? Isn't the best offense supposed to be the one that avoids unnecessary risks? "Yeah, yeah, yeah," says Scovil, "but that's no fun."
Scovil, who calls all the Cougars' plays, doesn't hesitate to put theory into practice. The first time BYU had the ball against UTEP he called five straight passes. McMahon completed four of them, the last for 24 yards to Tight End Clay Brown, and the Cougars led 6-0. The next time they got the ball McMahon rolled left and lofted a 45-yard bomb to Wide Receiver Lloyd Jones. That scoring drive took one play and six seconds. McMahon had thrown 10 passes before he handed off for the first time, and then it was on a draw. It gained 11 yards. The only other BYU run in the first quarter was McMahon's 12-yard scramble. "Around here we don't pass to set up the run," says Wide Receiver Bill Davis, one of nine Cougars to catch a pass Saturday. "We just pass and keep on passing."
It was early in the second quarter and the score had risen to 21-0, on another McMahon-to-Brown touchdown pass, before Scovil called the Cougars' first no-frills running play. It was an end sweep by Homer Jones and came as such a surprise that the Miners' linebackers were caught backpedaling into pass coverage. Jones gained 14 yards. The next run came at the end of that series, on second-down from UTEP's one-yard line, and it was called only after the Cougars had failed to score with a pass on first down. Homer Jones was again the runner and he went into the end zone standing up. That was apparently enough running plays for BYU. On the Cougars' next two possessions McMahon took them 48 and 46 yards for scores, with each drive consisting of just two passes and consuming less than one minute of play. That made it 42-0 and finished McMahon off for the first half. He had thrown 28 passes and the Cougars had run the ball five times.
McMahon returned to the game for the first two series of the second half and ended completing 28 of 36 for 451 yards. Three of his passes were dropped, including a 50-yarder on the first series of the second half. On the next series, however, McMahon drove the Cougars 90 yards in seven plays for yet another score. He passed for 85 of those yards, completing five of his six throws. The final pass, a nine-yarder to Wide Receiver Matt Braga, was McMahon's sixth touchdown toss of the day. "Jim throws the ball pretty well," deadpanned Edwards afterward.
Funny thing, Edwards seemed the least likely person to turn Brigham Young into a passing powerhouse when he became the coach. He had been a defensive coach at BYU for the previous 10 years, and he still swears that defense wins football games, although he's willing to admit that 83 points is a pretty good defense against any opponent. As a defensive assistant, however, he had found that a well-conceived passing attack gave him more problems than anything else. Most important, Edwards wanted a recruiting advantage. With so many teams running option offenses, he thought there would be less competition for skilled passers and receivers.
Yet though the Cougars have repeatedly come up with top quarterback talent, it isn't because they've outrecruited anybody. Instead, they've generally had to settle for players no one else wanted. Edwards' first good passer was Gary Sheide, who finished second in the NCAA in 1973 and 1974 and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. He was virtually unknown when he came to BYU after two years at a junior college he had attended to sharpen his baseball skills. His successor, Nielsen, who finished sixth in the 1976 Heisman voting and was a favorite for the trophy the following year before being sidelined by torn knee ligaments, was a local boy who grew up four blocks from the BYU campus. He's also a Mormon, so there was little doubt that he would attend Mormon-sponsored Brigham Young. Not that anybody much cared. In high school Nielsen was slow afoot as a Wishbone quarterback and had never demonstrated any passing ability. It wasn't until his third year at BYU that he finally chose football over basketball.
When Nielsen moved on to the Houston Oilers, Marc Wilson became the regular and thereupon set 13 NCAA records to finish third in the Heisman race before being drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders. The Cougars had to go to the state of Washington to get Wilson, but he too was a Mormon and had been largely overlooked by recruiters after missing most of his senior year with a broken jaw. McMahon is another Utah boy, a Catholic who wanted to go to Notre Dame but wasn't recruited by the Irish.
Unquestionably, the best recruit Edwards ever signed was Scovil. Scovil had always been associated with top quarterbacks. As a collegian he succeeded Eddie LeBaron as signal caller at the University of the Pacific. He coached Roger Staubach at Navy and in the late '60s, while head coach at his alma mater, he tutored Bob Lee, who's still making a living as an NFL quarterback. After that he spent six years working on Dick Nolan's San Francisco 49er staff. When Nolan was fired, Scovil decided he was ready to "do things my way," but was unable to land a job as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. Eventually he got in touch with Edwards, who offered him just the inducement he was looking for. Edwards handed Scovil the BYU playbook and told him he could do whatever he wanted with it.
What Scovil has done is install a complicated passing game and then drill the Cougars until they execute it to perfection. In large measure it succeeds because the Cougars emphasize it so strongly. "For 2½ hours at practice almost all the quarterbacks and receivers do is throw and catch," says Davis. "Our execution level is incredibly high." Scovil estimates, for instance, that the Cougars can complete a basic seven-yard sideline pass eight of 10 times. This precision is rough on opponents, who have just one week to get ready for the BYU aerial fireworks after spending the rest of the year defensing run-oriented option offenses.
Yet Scovil's sophisticated attack would baffle even the best-prepared opponents. BYU quarterbacks spend freshman year learning the system on the junior varsity and then are redshirted for a season before they are deemed ready to handle the offense. Receivers need almost as much schooling, because Scovil's system requires that each knows all the other receivers' routes as well as his own. On most plays there are five receivers in the pattern. To tax defenses further, Scovil alternates both wide receivers on every play to keep a fresh pair in the game at all times. Orchestrating the whole attack is Scovil himself, calling the plays from a list he prepares after studying the opponent all week. "The year he was with the Bears we had the same offense," says Davis, "but the guy calling the plays just didn't have Doug's feel for the game. We finished eighth in passing. It was such a letdown."
"There's no question that it's the system that makes the quarterback here, not the other way around," says McMahon, who's not known for his modesty. Indeed, before this season got under way he was talking about the Heisman. But why not? In 1978 McMahon split time with Wilson and eventually was named the All-WAC quarterback ahead of Marc. Last year, while McMahon was redshirting to rest a surgically repaired left knee, he watched as Wilson became an All-America and the top vote getter at his position in the Heisman balloting.
At 6'1", 180 pounds, McMahon is smaller than either Nielsen or Wilson, both of whom stood 6'5", but he's quicker and has a stronger arm. When he cocks that arm, it makes a grinding noise, the result of bone fragments left over from a high school shoulder separation. Off the field McMahon wears glasses to improve the vision in his right eye. The pupil there is a trifle egg-shaped. At the age of six he was trying to untie his shoelaces with a fork and ended up sticking it in his eye. But he has no visual aid on the playing field. "I've got radar," he says with an easy smile. "I can see the color of the jerseys and that's enough."
Or, as UTEP will testify, more than enough.
McMahon is the latest leader of the Cougars' aerial circus.
Wired for battle, Bombs Away Scovil plans the attack.