PROVO, Utah — Boos at BYU? It's true. Brigham Young won the mythical national title in 1984, but now its fans are saying, "How many points have you scored for me lately?"
Not many, and there's the problem. This used to be Quarterback U., but this year's quarterback, Steve Lindsley, isn't exactly earning a passing grade (only 12 touchdown passes compared to 30 by Robbie Bosco last year). It's not Lindsley's fault that the BYU offensive line is mediocre, as the coaches admit, but the fans pick on him constantly.
"The minute you walk on the field here, you better be an All-American or they (the fans) don't even want to see you," Lindsley said this week.
To be sure, Coach LaVell Edwards has been forced to change the course of Cougar history. BYU comes into Saturday's game against San Diego State as a defensive team. Whereas their best players used to be quarterbacks, their best players chase quarterbacks. This is a major reversal. People in Provo remember Virgil Carter and Gifford Nielson and Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon and Steve Young and Bosco. They remember 40 passes a game. They remember 40 points a game.
Now, they see about 40 runs a game.
And about 27 points a game.
So BYU has lost once, twice, three times this year.
"Yep, people have actually been booing us," wide receiver Mark Bellini said. "That's just beyond me. We've been the winningest team in college football the last 10 years. I mean, our program has been phenomenal, and our fans--our supposed fans--are booing us. It's just unheard of."
To salvage its season, BYU must win Saturday and then win again against Air Force the Saturday after that. Then, they would be Western Athletic Conference champions for the 11th consecutive year.
"Listen, we'll be normal BYU this Saturday (against SDSU)," Bellini promised. "We'll walk in calmly and leave with a victory."
But this isn't a normal BYU team, for heaven's sake. Edwards knew that Lindsley, a seventh-year senior, would have trouble throwing the football. He also knew he had a great running back in Lakei Heimuli and great defensive tackles in Shawn Knight and Jason Buck. As much as it hurt inside, Edwards decided to pass on the forward pass.
"Don't worry, though," he said. "We'll be a passing team again someday."
But not Saturday. First, they'll try to set the tone with defense. For instance, Knight (6-feet 6-inches, 285 pounds) has 14.5 sacks this year. He's very quick, which can be traced back to his days of playing tennis. Growing up in Sparks, Nev., he says he was "into the Wimbledon scene" and dreamed about making it in professional tennis. Today, Knight has a 21-inch neck, so he's not built like most tennis players.
"It's true," he said. "I wanted to go to Wimbledon. But when I was 16, I got beat in the first round of a big tennis tournament, and the guy who beat me got beat in the second round. Finally, I succumbed to the peer pressure and started playing football."
But he knew nothing of the game. Terms such as "snap count" and "screen" and "draw" were foreign.
"One of the things that perplexed me the most about football is that they'd say a guy got '100 rushing yards,' " Knight said. "But then they'd tell me to 'rush the passer.' I said, 'I don't understand! Who rushes? The offense or the defense?' Maybe I'm just not that smart."
So his high school coaches made it very simple. They told him, "Shawn, when the ball moves, chase it!"
He has been chasing ever since.
Buck, BYU's second-leading tackler and an Outland Trophy candidate, is the opposite of Knight in many ways. Knight's dad is an attorney and his mother is a teacher, whereas Buck grew up in poverty. Buck (6-6, 270) always tells Knight about how he and his family used to sleep under trucks because they didn't have a house. Buck used to get shoes for Christmas or $5 for Christmas. Knight would get a stereo.
Football is not an end-all for Knight, but it seems so for Buck. Knight wants to be a physical therapist someday. Buck seems only to want to stop entire backfields. And, Buck, a pro prospect, might have a chance to make a living doing that.
"I played football to pay for an education," Knight said. "I remember Mom asking me, 'Shawn, do you still keep your scholarship if you don't make the starting lineup?' I said, 'Yes, mom.' And she said, 'Then, wouldn't it be better to just play in practice and not make the road trips? That way you wouldn't miss any classes.
"As for Jason, football is his life. I worked construction with him one summer, and we talked football for a week straight. The second week, he started talking more football and I said, 'Jason, don't you talk about anything else but football?' He got this puppy dog look on his face and said, 'Well, I don't know.'
"So I asked him, 'What do you talk to your wife, Roxi, about?' He said, 'Uh, football.' I said, 'What does she say?' And he said, 'Not much. She listens a lot.' "
So, anchored by Knight and Buck, BYU's defense is in good hands. The offense, however, is lacking a good arm.