[Note: This was also published simultaneously at www.philsteele.com/Blogs/Individual_Team_blogs/BYU_Blog.html]
After significant improvement from game one to game two, the expectations are high. It will take a great effort just to maintain the level of play the team displayed last weekend vs. Tulane. However, on the margins there are still areas that can be improved and several unanswered questions. Here are several things to watch for in Saturday’s game:
• Which injured players will play? Harvey Unga played for two series last week and is listed as probable for Saturday, but will he get in the game, and if he does, will he be 100%? Free safety Scott Johnson is listed as possible after notching his second concussion of the year; should he not play, Andrew Rich will move to free and Shiloah Te’o will play strong safety in his place. This will entail some drop off in secondary play, but how much remains to be seen. O lineman Braden Hansen is out with a sprained knee, and Moose Thorson, who had earned the starting spot at one time during fall camp, will replace him.
• Can Max Hall avoid throwing an interception? After only throwing 7 interceptions in his first 10 games last year, Hall finished the year throwing 7 in his last three (AFA-1, Utah-5, AZ-1). He has started this year with picks in both of the first two games (OU-2, Tulane-1), and has now tossed it to the other team in five straight games (10 picks in last 5 games).
• Which direction will the running game go? After only 28 net rushing yards against a quick and dominant OU defensive front, the team’s horses exploded for 206 yards on the ground last week in a one of the best team rushing displays in a while. It will be interesting to see if the team can pick up where it left off last week, or if it falls back to game-one-esque against another athletic front.
• How nice is it to be home? The Cougars open their home schedule defending an 18 game winning streak. The game is sold out. After two games away, a high national ranking, and a winnable game against a high profile opponent, expect the fans to be rabid and the noise to make a difference on at least one play.
• Will the refs become a factor? Although the first two games saw a lot of yellow coming from the zebras, they seemed to be balanced and well-called games for the most part. This weekend’s game will be called by an ACC crew, which isn’t necessarily significant, although BYU has been burned by sole conference officiating in the past (think Pac 10 crews).
• How much will the altitude affect the Seminoles? Coach Bobby Bowden says it won’t affect his team at all… history would say he is missing something. The question is how much will it affect them and when will it start to kick in. Look for the FSU defense to begin to drag a bit by the fourth quarter.
• Who will kickoff? And, will it stay in bounds? Bronco opened up the competition this week between Riley Stephenson and Mitch Payne for kickoffs (saying Payne will remain as placekicker on FGs and PATs). After both of them kicked it out of bounds last week, and Payne doing it the week before, watch for that to have been corrected. Stephenson has the stronger leg (he kicks it 5-7 yards further than Payne), so my bet is that as long as he was able to show consistency keeping it in bounds this week in practice, he will get the nod.
• Have we solved the punt return issues? After no punt returns last week (all fair catches or bounces), this question still remains following a poor showing from this department in the Oklahoma game that nearly cost us the game.
• Will the team be able to stay healthy? The 2009 Cougars are a talented, if not deep, team and have the potential to win a lot of games this year. One of the many things that might derail them would be significant injuries in thin positions (offensive line, quarterback, secondary, linebacker). As they gear up for a conference run, it is important that they come out of this game without losing any key players.
• Will the receivers be able to get open on FSU’s man defense? Against OU, the outside receivers often struggled to get open, and while FSU’s secondary is perhaps not as good as Oklahoma’s, it is filled with fast athletic players that will attempt to win a man-to-man defensive battle with our receivers. Tulane tried a similar strategy, but without the athletes to make it work. Should FSU succeed, watch for a lot of passes to the backs and tight ends. If the Cougars win this battle it could be a memorable day in Provo.
• Can the defense maintain pressure on QB Christian Ponder? The key to this game for BYU is going to be slowing down FSU’s passing game and the key to that is going to be getting pressure on the quarterback. Our defensive pass rush—its personnel, tendencies, blitz packages, alignments, and disguises—has been on display (and on film) for two weeks now. How effective it can continue to be will be the difference between a shootout and a comfortable win for the home team.
I think the BYU running game regresses somewhat, but that its passing offense continues to perform, and BYU’s defense slows FSU down just enough to get the win. BYU 34 FSU 23
Time for predictions… add your prediction in the comments below as well as anything else will you be watching for in the game.