THE SKY'S THE LIMIT
These days BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian can look back fondly
on the Cougars' season opener against Texas A&M. That wasn't
always the case. In the second quarter of that game, those
weren't the voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir raining down
on Sarkisian from the Cougar Stadium stands. No, it was a
decidedly harsher chorus, its patience exhausted by another
three-and-out series by the Cougars' offense. First there were
scattered boos; then one voice rose above the others: "Get
Sarkisian out of there!" pleaded the fan. "Puh-leeze get him out
"I'm telling you," says BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow,
"the best job to have at BYU? Backup quarterback. Everybody
thinks you belong in the game."
Only at Brigham Young can a quarterback be the object of such
derision and emerge as a Heisman candidate less than two hours
later. By the end of the Cougars' 41-37 victory over the Aggies,
Sarkisian had completed 33 of 44 passes for 536 yards and hung
six touchdowns on the A&M defense. In BYU's four games since
A&M, including a 31-3 victory over SMU last Saturday, Sarkisian
has run his season passing total to 1,708 yards--second best in
the country, behind Wyoming's Josh Wallwork--and he has the 4-1
Cougars ranked No. 21.
Expectations were unusually high for Sarkisian when he arrived
in Provo last year from El Camino Junior College in his hometown
of Torrance, Calif. The previous fall he had thrown for 4,297
yards and 41 touchdowns and completed a national junior-
college-record 72.4% of his passes (228 of 315, with eight
interceptions). Sarkisian was given the Cougars starting job
right away, which was a radical step for coach LaVell Edwards.
Almost without exception, Brigham Young quarterbacks have
redshirted their first season, spent one or two more seasons
carrying a clipboard, and then thrown for 7,000-plus yards in
their final two seasons. "Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco
and Ty Detmer, they all did it," says Chow.
Even without the benefit of an apprenticeship, Sarkisian put up
impressive passing numbers last fall: a 64.9% completion rate,
20 touchdowns and 3,437 yards (third best in Division I-A).
However, BYU could do no better than a 7-4 record, and for the
first time in 18 years, the Cougars were not invited to a bowl.
The team's losses included a 38-12 defeat by Air Force, Brigham
Young's first setback in its last 13 games against the Falcons.
And for the third straight season BYU fell to hated rival Utah,
which pounded Sarkisian so thoroughly that in the final minutes,
his head foggy, he lined up behind the right guard.
"There were certainly times that Steve struggled last year,"
says Chow. "But when you consider that we've never asked any of
our [other] quarterbacks to start right away, what he's done is
fairly remarkable. If he had come in four years ago, who knows?"
Four years ago Sarkisian was enrolled at USC as a nonscholarship
baseball player. Although he had been an all-conference
quarterback in his senior season at West Torrance High, his
six-foot, 165-pound frame had scared away most football
The closest Sarkisian came to a football field during the single
semester he spent at USC was during his daily trek to baseball
practice. The football practice facility was located between his
dormitory and the diamond, and he would occasionally stop to
look at the players. "Those guys looked huge to me," says
Sarkisian. "I would watch the offensive line doing its contact
drills and think to myself, No way do I belong on that field."
His semester at USC was not a happy one. He was uncomfortable
with the dangerous neighborhood that surrounds the campus, and
he was discouraged by his backup status as a middle infielder on
the baseball team. Sarkisian finished the fall term and switched
to El Camino for the spring. There, it so happened, his first
class was a health course taught by John Featherstone, the
Warriors' football coach. Featherstone had tried to recruit
Sarkisian a year earlier, and he redoubled his efforts. "He
kept telling me that I had to give it a chance," Sarkisian says.
"He was relentless." Eventually Sarkisian relented.
The results were astonishing, and soon recruiters from schools
that had ignored Sarkisian before--including Brigham Young,
Kansas State and Washington State--were arriving at his
doorstep. It didn't hurt that he had added two inches and 30
pounds to his wiry frame. When the Cougars' incumbent
quarterback, John Walsh, a Torrance native and childhood friend
of Sarkisian's, revealed during the 1994 season that he was
leaning toward turning pro, the BYU coaching staff told
Sarkisian that if he transferred to Provo, he could step in and
play right away. In late December, two weeks before Walsh
announced he was giving up his final year of eligibility,
Sarkisian signed with the Cougars.
Despite his success this season, Sarkisian understands that
Cougars fans could turn on him at any minute, as they did in the
first half of the Texas A&M game. He has heard the stories: In
1984 Bosco, now the Brigham Young quarterbacks coach, finished
third in the Heisman voting and led BYU to its only national
title. But in the Cougars' home opener the following season, a
27-24 loss to UCLA, he was roundly booed after throwing a
second-half interception. Walsh, for his part, passed for 7,439
yards in his last two years in Provo, yet one of the most
indelible moments of his college career came when BYU fans
showered his hometown friends--who were loudly cheering for
him--with insults and, later, punches during a loss at UCLA in
"You could bring Steve Young back under some other name," says
Edwards, "and fans would say, 'Well, he's lefthanded, but he's
no Steve Young.' Fans always want more."
"Oh, Steve will handle it O.K.," Chow says of Sarkisian.
"Nothing really gets to him. Anyway, there are fans who will
always be yelling for the backup quarterback. That will never
Despite Florida State's No. 2 ranking, the Seminoles entered
last Saturday's game against North Carolina with serious
concerns about a defense that finished 31st in the nation last
season. "That's not conducive to contending for a national
title," coach Bobby Bowden said two days before the game. But
this is: Florida State's defense held previously undefeated
North Carolina to 187 yards and didn't allow the Tar Heels
inside the Seminoles' 30-yard line during a 13-0 victory. "I
don't think I've ever seen anything like it," North Carolina
coach Mack Brown said of Florida State's defensive prowess.
The success of the Seminoles' fast-break offense, which flies at
Mach 5, has long cast a shadow over the feats of the defense.
But 10 of the last 16 Seminoles taken in the first three rounds
of the NFL draft have been defensive players. And this year
Bowden might have his most talented defense yet. The two ends,
senior Reinard Wilson and junior Peter Boulware (12 tackles and
4 1/2 sacks between them last Saturday), wreaked so much havoc
on the Tar Heels that Brown labeled them the best in the
country. The unit has also been bolstered by the improved health
of middle linebacker Daryl Bush, the junior Butkus Award
candidate who had off-season surgery after playing all of last
year with a damaged left knee.
The Seminoles could not have chosen a better time to reassert
themselves defensively. Their offense, which Bowden called
"ragged" despite the 83 points they scored in their first two
games, continues to struggle. Last Saturday, Florida State
gained just 213 yards, including, for the second time in three
games, less than 100 passing yards. "I don't think we can play
any worse than we've been playing," said tailback Warrick Dunn.
Wilson hardly seemed worried. An hour after the North Carolina
game ended, he sat on a stool in the Seminoles' locker room and
explained: "This is FSU. The offense is going to score points.
For now, though, the defense will be happy to give a little lift."
Oklahoma State's David Thompson appears to be the latest in the
Cowboys' long line of brilliant running backs, which has
included Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. Thompson, who has
rushed for 469 yards in Oklahoma State's last two games, credits
much of his success to his daily viewing of Sanders's highlight
His obsession with Sanders, however, is a fairly recent one.
During Thompson's official visit to Stillwater four years years
ago, then Cowboys coach Pat Jones showed him a videotape of
Sanders. Recalls Thompson: "I saw this blur go across the
screen, and I'm thinking, Who is that guy?"
COLOR PHOTO: CORKY TREWIN Sarkisian has stood tall in the pocket this season, averaging 342 yards passing for the 4-1 Cougars. [Steve Sarkisian passing football to teammate]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Greg Spires (90) and company brought North Carolina to heel. [Greg Spires and teammate tackling Universtiy of North Carolina football player]