Brigham Young center Trevor Matich spends the night before every game with a bag of peanut M&Ms. The brown ones represent pass rushers, the orange ones linebackers ("Linebackers just seem orange," says Matich) and the green and yellow ones the offensive line. He moves the defensive M&Ms around in a variety of blitzing formations, countering each new alignment with adjustments among the greens and yellows. "Finally," says Matich, who has been around BYU long enough to have snapped to notable quarterbacks Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and, this year, Robbie Bosco, "I eat them up."
Thus do Matich and his mates on the offensive line—"The best we've ever had here," says Cougar coach La Veil Edwards—keep Brigham Young's quarterback from being eaten up the next day. In 12 regular-season games and 496 passing attempts, more than any other Division I-A team, Matich (pronounced MAT-itch), tackles Luis Wong and Dave Wright and guards Craig Garrick and Robert Anae (An-EYE) allowed only eight sacks. The sophisticated BYU attack, which led the country in passing offense this year, is based on the single premise that if the quarterback gets enough time to throw, the Cougars will be impossible to beat. And that's exactly what has happened over the last 23 games, all of which BYU has won, giving it the longest winning streak in major-college football. If Matich's M&Ms work their R[x] during the Cougars' Dec. 21 Holiday Bowl date with Michigan, and Bosco—who this season finished first in the nation in total offense and second, to Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie of Boston College, in passing efficiency—gets enough time to throw, Brigham Young, ranked No. 1 at the end of the regular season in the SI poll, will probably beat the Wolverines and finish as the consensus No. 1 team in the nation for the first time in its history.
French's Legion, as the offensive line has come to be known under offensive coordinator-line coach Roger French, does its job quietly, efficiently and unspectacularly. But when the game is over Bosco has been protected without any chocolaty mess. The line isn't elephantine—255 pounds is the Legionnaires' average weight—but it's tall. Matich, Garrick and Wright are all 6'5"; Wong and Anae are 6'4". "They're clones," says Edwards. "Physically, they're exactly what we're looking for here." And what they look for at BYU is pass-blocking leverage rather than run-blocking bulk. "They think they're good run-blockers," says French, "but actually they're not."
French's Legion doesn't leave its feet to make eye-catching blocks—"We've chopped maybe three times all year," says French—and it doesn't go looking for people to hit. "Make pocket not war" might be the slogan for the Legion. "The biggest mistake we can make is to overreact," says Wong. "It's like a fencing match out there," says Matich. "The real challenge is mental, not physical." Adds French, "We don't look for what you might call sluggers. The first habit we break our linemen of is being overaggressive. If you go forward, we tell them, you're going the wrong way." That doesn't sound like linemen talk, does it?
Like most blockers, the Legionnaires don't attract much attention. Media coverage of the Cougars focuses mostly on their famous line of throwing quarterbacks: Virgil Carter, Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Wilson, McMahon, Young and, now, Bosco. But no offensive line, no lineage. Game after game, year after year, everybody in the stadium knows BYU is going to pass 40 to 45 times a game (this season the average was 41.3). The defenses keep coming and coming, but nobody gets to the quarterback very often. Sure, McMahon and Young were adroit scramblers, but Bosco, like Wilson, is a statue.
French's Legion has to block against more different alignments and blitzes than any offensive line in the country. Colorado State, Utah and Utah State have placed all 11 defenders on the line and rushed as many as nine of them. Air Force and UCLA, on the other hand, have rushed as few as two, using nine defenders to cover the pass. New Mexico has done a little of everything. "Sometimes it's like they just drop a handful of marbles," says Matich, "and wherever they land, that's where they line up."
However, they rarely do anything that Matich hasn't M&M-ed beforehand. The credit for that goes to French. BYU's pass protection succeeds for the same reasons its passing routes succeed—preparation and repetition. "Since I used to be a defensive coordinator [at Minnesota], I start from there," says French, who has been with the Cougars since 1978. "I draw up the craziest defensive thing I can think of, all kinds of blitzes to get to our quarterback. Then I think of the ways that our line can counter them. Here, look at these."
From a shelf behind the desk in his office French picks up a stack of 8½" X 11" cards that's three feet thick. "They're my blitz cards," he says. He sounds as proud as a man showing pictures of his kids. He figures there are at least a thousand of them. Drop 11 marbles 100 times, and chances are that French has a card that looks like the landing pattern of every drop.
Blitz cards and M&Ms aren't enough, though. The Brigham Young pass-protect system also depends on the linemen making calls just before the snap and adjusting after the play has begun. The center, a guard and a tackle all may make blocking calls on a single play. "We sound like a bunch of magpies out there," says French. An example: Matich stands over the ball, makes a quick study of the defense and yells "3-4" to indicate that he sees an alignment of three down linemen and four linebackers. Left guard Garrick yells "Bandit," telling a running back behind him that Garrick will pick up the free safety (the bandit, in BYU parlance) who's apparently going to blitz. Left tackle Wright then yells "BOB," which translates into "big on big, back on back." Therefore, Wright will block the opposing tackle, the big man, and the running back on his side will pick up the blitzing linebacker.
Snafus do occur, particularly when the backs can't hear the linemen's calls or when the defense makes a last-second shift. French's Legion had major difficulties in its final regular-season game against Utah State, which constantly shifted at the last second. Still, the line allowed just one sack, and the Cougars won 38-13. "Around here," says Matich, "we prepare for everything."
Man for man, the Legion isn't as impressive as, say, Florida's or Ohio State's offensive line, or possibly even Michigan's, which averages only 260 pounds tackle to tackle. And it certainly doesn't have a player in the class of Pitt's Bill Fralic. "He's the kind the pros are drooling over," says French.
The Cougar linemen aren't drawing many drools, but neither are they leaving the NFL scouts dry. "I think this BYU team has more high-quality athletes and pro prospects than they've ever had," says Reed Johnson, director of player personnel for the Denver Broncos. "That's especially true of the offensive line. All four seniors [Wright is a junior] could be on an NFL roster next season."
Wong is The Unrecognized. He didn't even make honorable mention All-WAC, yet, except for Matich, he may have the best shot at a pro career because of his size (260 and rising). Anae, a second team all-conference pick, is The Natural, an outstanding all-around athlete who has also played center and tackle and prefers intramural basketball to any other game. If the pros think he can hold his weight—he has had trouble staying at more than 240 pounds—he could be a fourth-or fifth-round selection.
Garrick is The Unfortunate. He's certainly one of the few players in history to have come back from seven knee operations to make an all-conference first team. He also played most of last season, when he was named second-team All-WAC, with a broken wrist. Of Garrick's left knee, BYU's orthopedic specialist, Dr. Brent Pratley, says in amazement, "It's the knee of a 60-year-old arthritic man." Yet Garrick is the Cougars' fastest lineman, with 4.75 speed in the 40, and its strongest player. Because he had all seven operations before college, Garrick's still considered draftable in some quarters, most emphatically his own. "If the pros want somebody with no marks on his knee, they don't want me," he says. "But if they want somebody who can play football with any lineman in the country, then they do want me."
Matich, an All-WAC first team selection, is projected as a third-or early-fourth-round pick by most scouts. He's intelligent, mature beyond his years (he's 23 after having spent 18 months in Mexico working as a Mormon missionary, something that 37% of the Cougar players do during their college days) and dedicated to the game (witness the M&Ms). He also has been nearly injury-free and, at 6'5" and 260 pounds, has a frame that could accept 15 additional pounds. "And he's a center," says Johnson. "You can say all you want about converting a guy, but Matich has played the position with a noseguard lined up three inches from his face and gotten back to pass-block. That's important."
"He's what they look for," says French, who, as we've seen, isn't overzealous in his praise of his players. "He's got good strength and excellent feet. On film you see some players move. You see Trevor flow. No movement is wasted.
"On the other hand [there's always another hand with French], Trevor maybe isn't mean enough. He doesn't always go out and really level someone when he has the chance. I'm sure the pros will be looking to see whether he improves in that area."
Even in a more aggressive, run-oriented system, however, it's unlikely that Matich would be a meanie. This is a guy, after all, whose specialty in high school was dancing the Charleston and the jitterbug; a guy who coached BYU's upper-class coeds to a 29-22 victory over the underclasswomen in an October powder-puff touch football game (Young was his offensive coordinator); a guy who's going to be selling skin-care products, of all things, after the season; and a guy who weighed in at a nerdy 207 pounds when he returned to Provo in September 1982 after completing his mission.
Matich's experience in Mexico represents a true picture of the missions that cause so much consternation among Cougar opponents. Yes, players like Matich do get an extra season of maturity and experience on a mission, during which time they wear a hair shirt and not a redshirt. But the last time anyone looked, precious few blocking sleds were in the dusty, poverty-stricken states of Durango and Chihuahua, where Matich spread the Mormon word. At best, he ate one square meal a day, and for the duration he didn't even see a football, much less a sled, blocking dummy or weight room. He says he did "a little running and a little rope-jumping" during his last two months in Mexico, but that was it. And he got in some sprinting one day in Chihuahua, but that was after he was shot at by Communists. "They don't care for us preaching," says Matich.
After his mission, Matich looked less like a 21-year-old college lineman with two years of varsity experience than the lanky, teenage singer-dancer of Galena Street East, the musical variety troupe with which he'd toured the Caribbean, Hawaii and Mexico during his high school days in Sacramento. "I left not knowing whether I would play when I got back," said Matich. "Guys have lost their interest after they've seen another part of the world. When I was out there I didn't miss it. I wasn't in Mexico to prepare for the football season. After I came back I had the desire to play but no competitiveness, no fire. After a while it returned, mostly because I got tired of getting pushed around."
His appetite returned, too. "I had a rule," he says. "I ate everything slower than me." By last fall he weighed 250 and his skills had returned. Edwards had the luxury of alternating Matich and Anae at center most of last season.
Along with football, studies and church work, Matich has found time to be a founding director of QuestAmerica Corporation, a Fort Worth-based direct sales company. His mother, Carol, a noted nutritionist and home economist in northern California, is a founder of the company. He spent last summer training the sales force in his areas of responsibility: skin care, health and nutrition. Thus, the No. 1 woman in his life right now is Anita of Denmark, the name of the skin-care line. "Sounds like a pornographic movie," says Matich, "but I think that was Anita of Sweden." Once the Holiday Bowl is over, Matich will be coordinating QuestAmerica's sales force on a full-time basis while working toward his degree in speech and communication.
Matich's father, Tony, who sells burglar alarms, played football, baseball and basketball at the University of San Francisco. Tony was a starting defensive end and tight end in 1949 and '50, when Gino Marchetti and Ollie Matson were starring for the Dons. French's Legion doesn't block the way linemen did in those days. If Tony wanted a crash course on pass blocking in the '80s, he could view French's 30-minute instructional film called The Protectors, an excellent compilation of BYU's pass-blocking philosophies, techniques and drills. French estimates that 75% of the Division I-A schools have purchased it. Matich, the master of technique, is one of the main demonstrators in the film. Perhaps in an updated version French will include a shot of the candy man arranging and rearranging his M&Ms before the game.
The film stresses French's fundamentals: Don't be overaggressive; keep the head up and don't use it to butt; keep the chest up, the butt down and the feet moving in choppy steps; think and react, don't just act; retreat ("not by yards but by inches," says French) rather than go forward. In great detail he breaks down the "punch," a blocking technique perfected by the Pittsburgh Steelers to capitalize on liberalized holding rules. The punch is a quick, upward thrust of both arms, delivered with locked elbows to the top of the opponent's numbers. It stuns the defensive man and throws him off his pass-rush path. Matich is so enamored of it that he taught it to his team in the powder-puff game—"not really considering," he says, "the possible consequences."
Punch, punch, retreat, turn your man outside, jab, parry, punch, retreat. Sometimes the talk in French's office seems to be coming from a boxing gym. And a French technique called the "double rip-off punch"—in which the blocker knocks away the pass rusher's hands and quickly draws his own hands back inside onto the numbers—conjures up something worse. Pro wrestling, perhaps, or a Chuck Norris flick.
But that's how offensive lines protect their quarterbacks these days. And precious few have done it as well as French's Legion, even with a philosophy that's more M&M than S&M.