Notes on the enemy: BYU depends on youthful front line

By By Jason Peterson

By Jason Peterson

Some things never change.

Since the inception of LaVell Edwards’ 28-year reign and his high-powered, aerial offense in 1972, BYU has evolved into one of the most prolific quarterback factories, yielding such college legends as Gifford Nielsen, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer.

Count John Beck among the latest in a line that doesn’t cease to replenish itself.

Every year, it seems, the shoes are too big to fill at the quarterback spot, and, nearly every year, a new face seems to prevent BYU football from becoming a total disaster — no matter how low the preseason expectations might be.

Beck, tight end Jonny Harline and running back Curtis Brown formed a devastating trio that accounted for a vast majority of BYU’s yardage and scoring in 2006.

In their places, however, three Cougars have surfaced with surprising seasons.

Second-year quarterback Max Hall recently emerged as the nation’s top sophomore quarterback with 3,121 yards through 10 games. With Saturday’s 331 yards against Wyoming, Hall broke the record for most passing yards by a first-year starter in the Mountain West Conference.

A pair of returned missionaries has bolstered the Cougars’ receiving corps left shaky by Harline’s departure. Tight end Dennis Pitta leads BYU with 693 receiving yards, and sophomore wideout Austin Collie is close behind with 678 yards.

Perhaps the most shocking surprise for BYU this season is the play of halfback Harvey Unga. The freshman tallied 194 total yards in his first game against Arizona, leaving Cougar fans giddy at the thought of having him for three more years. Unga leads the team in rushing (931 yards) and is third in receiving (573 yards).

The youth of Hall, Collie and Unga figures to give the Cougars plenty of stability into the foreseeable future.

“I think it’s just the beginning of what they’re capable of doing and what they will do here at BYU,” Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Each game they were playing early in the year, they were gaining a lot of confidence in each other. We have a chance at some continuity offensively for awhile.”

Receivers Matt Allen and Michael Reed add much-needed experience to the young class of Hall’s targets.

U safety Steve Tate and the secondary don’t plan on underestimating the youth of BYU’s receivers this Saturday.

“They’re talented,” Tate said. “Their numbers speak for themselves. Once we see the film, we’ll see what their tendencies are and do our best to take advantage of (them).”

BYU’s 14th-ranking in total defense is propelled by a trio of linebackers: Kelly Poppinga, Bryan Kehl and David Nixon. Together with the Y’s defensive line, the Cougars have allowed 922 yards rushing all year — fifth-best in the nation.

“I expect those guys to be physical,” U quarterback Brian Johnson said. “They have a great front seven. They’re very sound in what they do defensively. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

BYU’s secondary took a hit when starting safety Quinn Gooch went down for the season with a torn ACL. Although Mendenhall considers the senior “the glue of our defense,” Poppinga, who leads BYU with 82 tackles in 2007, is the vocal leader.

“Kelly’s done an outstanding job of giving this team an identity and a consistency of what we represent,” Mendenhall said.

Consistency. If there were a motif for BYU’s football program in the last 35 years, it’s the ability to put up a challenge year in and year out. It’s one of the ingredients that make the rivalry with the U a special one.

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