The Daily Herald’s BYU sports experts Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson weigh in on five of the biggest questions facing the Cougars this week:
1. BYU football clobbered UMass in the second quarter, then struggled in the second half. Was the dropoff a big deal?
LLOYD: I don’t think it should be considered terrible by any means but I think the Cougars had every reason to hope that the third and fourth-string guys would do better than they did. Yes, BYU was trying to respect the game and not be too aggressive but this is a Cougar team that has talked extensively about building depth. A number of the BYU players that were in late in the game, particularly on defense, had seen action at other times. Since a football player never knows when his number will be called, guys have to be ready. There were too many breakdowns on both sides of the ball after halftime to say those players were ready to go. They showed they still have a lot to learn.
DICKSON: Nah, it wasn’t a big deal. BYU uses a lot of guys defensively in its regular rotation, so the third and fourth stringers were going against UMass in the second half. It’s a valuable teaching moment for the Cougar coaches because there are 3’s and 4’s who think they should be playing more. Now they know what’s up and they will be more focused. Offensively the play calling was super conservative because Kalani Sitake doesn’t want to embarrass the opposition. BYU could have scored 100 against the Minutemen.
2. How much would a Cougar football loss at San Diego State in the regular season finale tarnish the late-season success BYU enjoyed in October and November?
DICKSON: It would be a pretty big blow for a team that has won five games in a row and has plenty of confidence. BYU has been up and down this season and the mark of a good team is consistency. I would expect the San Diego State game to be a tough one because the Aztecs defense will present quite a challenge. But if the Cougars are focused they can keep their momentum going right into the bowl game.
LLOYD: I agree with Darnell that a loss to the Aztecs would be very disappointing but too often we let those moments diminish earlier successes when I don’t think we should. Football is a physical sport that changes from week to week. Even the top teams in the nation have games where they don’t play as well. It’s part of the game. A loss to SDSU shouldn’t make fans think less of wins over USC, Tennessee and Boise State. Those were good wins and should be remembered as such, no matter what happens on Saturday (or what happened in Toledo and Tampa). I think a bigger deal is what level the Cougars play at. If BYU plays an A-level or B-level game and the Aztecs win anyway, then credit San Diego State. A C-level or D-level game would clearly indicate a step in the wrong direction.
3. How big was the performance put on by the BYU men’s and women’s cross country teams at last week’s NCAA championships?
LLOYD: Unless you have run cross country (which I haven’t), I don’t know if you can truly appreciate what was required for the Cougars to accomplish what they accomplished. It was staggering, perhaps one of the greatest athletic feats in BYU history. The Cougar men lost so many All-Americans from last year, while the women came in ranked at No. 9. That’s respectable but certainly not considered in the running for a national title. Both teams came together and executed their game plan at an extremely high level. I hope BYU fans take time to consider the endless hours of work, the relentless dedication, the toughness required to run so well on a muddy course and the enormous magnitude of being the best in the country.
DICKSON: Like most people running isn’t my thing, especially long distance running. Much respect to the guys and girls on the Cougar squad. I see both BYU cross country teams running around Provo all the time, putting in the miles. To win a national title (men) and finish second (women) there are certain individual sacrifices that have to be made for team success. I say this all the time, but BYU has some truly outstanding Olympic sports coaches. Ed Eyestone is one of the best.
4. Should BYU basketball fans be pleased with how the Cougars fared in the first half against No. 4 Kansas or disappointed that the Jayhawks pulled away in the second half?
DICKSON: It’s just one game -- and another game without Yoeli Childs in the lineup -- so I wouldn’t put too much into it. The Jayhawks are an elite defensive team and BYU just doesn’t have the horses right now if they aren’t shooting it well from the outside. As we saw on Wednesday night against Virginia Tech, when the Cougars are shooting the three well they are very formidable. Looking at 6-3 with Child returning for Game 10? That’s better than I would have expected. This team mirrors its coaching staff -- relentless effort on both sides of the court. That will get you somewhere good in March.
LLOYD: I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the Cougar coaches and players for playing five good halves of basketball in Maui. If you would have told me that BYU would come away with wins over UCLA and Virginia Tech with a solid showing against Kansas, I definitely would’ve said that was a positive. Yet there is a part of me that is disappointed in how the second half went for the Cougars against the Jayhawks. I know Kansas is a very good team with some impressive athletes, but I didn’t feel that BYU did as much as it could’ve done to put the pressure on. The Cougar limitations are well known but I just got the sense that BYU could’ve been better, that with a few more made shots and a few better defensive sequences, the Cougars could’ve been knocking on the door of a big upset. Those opportunities don’t come around often so you would’ve love to see BYU be able to give itself a better shot.
5. Now that the regular season is over, do you see the BYU women’s volleyball team reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the eighth straight year?
LLOYD: This is all going to come down to matchups for the Cougars. BYU is a good volleyball team -- but I’m not ready to say it is a great one. The Cougars will really have to elevate their game to get to that level. Still, if BYU is able to get some favorable seedings and matchups in the NCAA tournament, the Cougars have a good shot to put together some wins. I just worry that the BYU offense is going to struggle in one of the early matches and an aggressive opponent is going to take advantage. The Cougars still have plenty of talent and if they can lock in, they can make a deep run. I can easily see it going either way.
DICKSON: It’s going to be very, very close. The Cougars will probably be ranked No. 12 or 13 in the final regular season polls and their RPI will be somewhere in the high teens. I think they have developed quite a reputation and could get the benefit of the doubt. BYU lost some all-timers from last year’s Final Four team and it has had another remarkable season. At 25-4, all four losses have been to ranked teams. Texas is ranked fourth, Marquette 10th and San Diego, which beat the Cougars twice in five sets, is 20th. I think they’ve earned a couple of home matches in the NCAA Tournament.
BONUS: What is your score prediction for Friday’s BYU women’s soccer showdown at No. 1 Stanford in the Elite 8?
DICKSON: I was talking it over with a friend the other day and he was convinced the NCAA will put the fix in the game. If BYU wins the NCAA will have to change the date of the final (currently scheduled for a Sunday) so my buddy expects there to be some phantom foul that gives Stanford a penalty kick for the win. I won’t buy into his conspiracy theory because the Cardinal are very, very talented. But I think the Cougars will be right there with them. I’m going to put BYU into its first Women’s College Cup with a 2-1 victory. San Jose, here I come.
LLOYD: This is a championship-caliber matchup between a pair of elite teams, which makes the outcome tough for us prognosticators. I fully expect this to be a one-goal game that might end up going into extra time. The Pac-12 is far better in women’s soccer than it is in football as four teams are now in the quarterfinals. The Cardinal won that league without dropping a match, so it is battle-tested. Ironically, the only Stanford loss came against Pepperdine, a team BYU crushed by four goals. I love this Cougar team and I think it will be in it to the end, but I think the Cardinal come out with the 1-0 win in overtime.