Utah St BYU Football

BYU quarterback Taysom Hill

You're looking live at Provo, Utah — not really, but just play along — where BYU football fans evidently have some knowledge of Nebraska gridiron history.

"The first thing the fans talk about is nobody beats the Huskers in their opener," says Ben Criddle, a starting cornerback for the Cougars in 2006-07 who hosts the "Cougar Sports" radio show from nearby Lehi, Utah. "They look at that as a challenge, like, 'Hey, if we were ever to do it, this would be the year with one of the best quarterbacks to ever come through the university in Taysom Hill.'

"It's really all on the shoulders of Taysom Hill."

Even with Hill in the fold, Criddle senses guarded optimism among BYU fans. Yes, the Cougars feature the dynamic senior dual-threat quarterback. But they're coming off three straight 8-5 seasons. Their defense is suspect, especially in the secondary — again. Plus, the Cougars recently lost their second-most important player on offense, senior running back Jamaal Williams, who withdrew from school for personal reasons.

Meanwhile, the specter of suspensions resulting from last season's brawl with Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl tempers enthusiasm. Who will be suspended? For which games? Coach Bronco Mendenhall likely won't announce anything until the week of the Sept. 5 game against Nebraska, if he announces anything at all.

My sense is many Husker fans also are guarded in their optimism, in part because the opener is the toughest since 2003, when unranked NU defeated No. 24 Oklahoma State 17-7 in Lincoln.

Nebraska last lost a season opener in 1985, when No. 17 Florida State prevailed 17-13 in Lincoln. The Huskers were ranked No. 10 despite an inexperienced team. The on-field temperature soared to 132 degrees.

BYU's offense is more than capable of heating up the Sept. 5 game, says former Journal Star sports editor Darnell Dickson, one of the kindest souls you'll ever meet. He now covers BYU football for the Daily Herald in Provo.

He envisions a high-scoring game, with both teams in the 30s.

Dickson's opinion is important to me because he covered Nebraska football in 2013 and retains a strong handle on the Huskers' talent level. He says the teams' talent among "front-line guys is pretty comparable, although I would say Nebraska probably has a little more speed in the secondary."

Give Nebraska the edge in overall depth, he says.

BYU averaged 37.1 points per game last season but allowed 27.5, as opponents took to the air. The secondary was undisciplined, Criddle says. Dickson says there still are concerns on defense "pretty much everywhere."

Mendenhall, in his 11th year as head coach, has taken over play-calling on defense. That should help matters, Dickson says, because "Bronco just commands so much respect in the (meeting) room."

BYU plays a "bend-don't-break" defensive style, practically daring opponents to put together sizable drives — eight, nine, even 10 plays — mindful that a colossal mistake might be around the corner. With Nebraska in a new offense, and players still learning, the method seems particularly germane to this discussion.

"All of a sudden, your dual-threat quarterback, Tommy Armstrong, tries to force a pass into double-coverage," Criddle says. "Maybe he doesn't see the zone coverage that BYU employs. Or maybe BYU brings a zone pressure that Tommy doesn't see off the boundary side and all of a sudden, it's a strip-sack-fumble type of thing."

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Yeah, what a wonderful vision for NU fans as the Huskers spend this month trying to formulate an identity on offense.

The 6-foot-2, 234-pound Hill embodies BYU's identity.

"It's a possibility that Taysom, on every single play this season, is the best all-around athlete on the field," Criddle says.

Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker compares Hill to Jake Locker, the former Washington quarterback. In two games against the Huskers during the 2010 season, Locker was a combined 9-for-36 passing. He did run for 142 yards on 24 carries (5.9 yards per rush).

"Taysom's much faster than Locker," Criddle says

Hill may be a better passer than some folks think. Through four games last season, before his season-ending leg fracture and ligament tear, he completed 66 percent of his passes.

He can be very good when working the short and intermediate routes. Judging from recent practices, he's improved his vertical passing, Criddle says. He also says BYU has a good group of tall receivers, including 6-6 Mitch Mathews, who had 73 receptions last season.

In fact, Criddle says, the wide-receiver corps has made the biggest impression on him in camp.

It should be noted Hill has been completing 65-to-70 percent of his passes in practice, Criddle says.

Says Dickson: "It's going to be a dangerous offense."

On the other hand, BYU is still trying to identify playmakers and leaders on defense, Criddle says. One of its best pass rushers is suspended for the Nebraska game, and a second-string SAM linebacker last week suffered a season-ending neck injury.

BYU fans can take comfort in their quarterback. By the way, they're a passionate group and travel well, Criddle says.

"They'll want to interact with your community," he says. "They love that."

They'll arrive with guarded optimism.

Nebraska fans can relate.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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