There was no single, obvious reason for BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco's horrendous play at the outset of the Cougars' 28-21 defeat at Provo of previously unbeaten Air Force. There were, however, several theories:
•The life-size posters of Bosco being hawked by the BYU bookstore on game day had been marked down from $4 to $2, and a sort of voodoo effect had set in.
•Bosco was in a funk because he has hardly seen his steady, Karen Holt, for four weeks. According to Mormon strictures, Holt must remain incommunicado while at BYU's Missionary Training Center, where she is learning Finnish, one of the few things more difficult than solving Air Force's veteran secondary.
•Bosco had too big a number on his back. As homage to star receiver Glen Kozlowski, who has missed most of the season with a torn knee ligament, Bosco had shunned his own No. 6 jersey and wore Koz's No. 7, which wasn't very lucky for Koz—and hadn't done too well for Bosco.
Of course, just when the fans from Colorado Springs were beginning to think that Air Force One might refer to the Falcons' standing in college football rather than an airplane, Bosco righted himself and the Cougars crawled out of a 14-point halftime hole and toward a possible 10th-straight WAC title. But that was later. On his first three snaps, Bosco threw an incompletion, lost a fumble and threw an interception. Of his first four passes, two landed in the hands of Falcons, or Zoomies, as they're known around the conference. And on those rare series not ending in Bosco turnovers, the Cougars had to throw in the Towle, in the person of their punter, Kevin.
Boos could be heard. They were sober boos, but they still made BYU coach LaVell Edwards livid. "A lot of people around here are spoiled," he said. "Robbie is 21-2 the last two years. That's better than anyone we've had. I coached here a lot of years when people didn't even get excited enough to boo."
Bosco did throw a 22-yard scoring pass to wideout Mark Bellini early in the second quarter to forestall more catcalls. But Air Force, having returned two interceptions of Bosco for TDs, still held a 21-7 lead at halftime when Kozlowski told Bosco, "Quit disgracing my jersey."
Bosco did Kozlowski's jersey proud. He did end up with four interceptions, but as Air Force cornerback Dwan Wilson said, "Bosco isn't a man to put it in the closet after a few turnovers." He wound up with 29 completions in 49 attempts for 343 yards as the Falcons left the closet door ajar in the second half, suffering uncharacteristic breakdowns in pass and punt coverage. One of Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry's many delightful bloopers—"Our defense ceases to amaze me"—would become apropos.
At first glance, the game itself had seemed a bit WAC-o. The Cougars, representing the descendants of intrepid overland trekkers, blaspheme their heritage by setting footballs to flying. The Falcons, meanwhile, are a team with so little air force that their quarterback, Bart Weiss, passes only about 10 times a game. But here they were, in their 11th week, confounding the traditionalists who find it unsettling enough that a WAC team is the defending national champion and absolutely subversive that two WAC schools should play in a game of such national significance.
With a 23-16 loss to hapless UTEP on Oct. 26—"The black hole in our galaxy," one BYU official calls it—the Cougars weren't going to repeat as national champs. But Bosco was still nursing hopes for the Heisman, and the Falcons were 10-0 and No. 1 in the supposedly dispassionate New York Times' computer rankings. The game was the biggest thing to hit Provo since Pepsi Free. Things got so giddy that Fiesta Bowl impresarios spoke of stuffing their pi√±ata with extra pesos, just in case an undefeated Penn State had to be lured to Tempe, Ariz. on Jan. 1 to play an unbeaten Air Force for the national title.
Such a match looked distinctly possible until the Cougars decided to stop comparing good-grooming habits with their opponents and start hunkering down. On the fourth play of the third quarter, Vai Sikahema dashed 72 yards up the middle with a low Air Force punt for a touchdown. Barely eight minutes later, Bosco pulled BYU even, finding Bellini again, this time all alone behind the secondary. "We screwed up," said Falcon free safety Scott Thomas. "As a matter of fact, I screwed that up. I keyed on the wrong guy. I should have been covering Bellini."
When Bosco squeezed off the game-winner with 5:41 remaining, Air Force was in man-to-man coverage. The 5'8" Sikahema ran out of the backfield and right past 229-pound linebacker Terry Maki, who was assigned to cover him. "I'd beaten my man, but when I turned around and didn't see the ball coming, I thought Robbie was sacked," Sikahema said. "When I finally saw the ball, I just hoped it would get to me before the defender did." Sikahema came back a bit to make the catch and then covered the rest of the 69 yards all crisp and clean and no caffeine.
Bosco has had a curious season—a better one, his coaches maintain, than last year. He has faced eight- and nine-man coverages and thrown from behind an inexperienced line to an injury-riddled corps of receivers. Yet nearly all of his numbers are up from '84. That, alas, includes interceptions, from 11 to 22. However, so many Cougar patterns are "reads," with receivers instructed to react to coverage and Bosco having to anticipate those reactions, that mistakes are to be expected. Says Norm Chow, the Cougars' receivers coach, "We throw the doggone thing so often, something's gonna happen."
But Bosco's Heisman chances have suffered from four interceptions he threw in the loss to UTEP and two more in the Cougars' other loss, to UCLA on Sept. 7. What's more, Bosco plays in a sort of media warp. Only one BYU game, a 31-3 thumping of Washington, has been on network TV, and ABC chose to beam that one to only 15% of the sets in the nation. "Bless the [Heisman] electors," says BYU sports publicist Dave Schulthess, "but they're not going to vote for someone they haven't seen."
The BYU defense is also deserving of more recognition. Air Force's fishbone offense is so well-conceived that Barry (Trash the WAC) Switzer, who coaches Oklahoma's 'bone, made three preseason visits to Colorado Springs to learn DeBerry's secret. Air Force likes to get down low, cut away at defenders' feet and crawl into the secondary like characters in a Steven Spielberg movie. Yet BYU quickly mastered the Falcon line's scramble blocks. Tackles Jason Buck and Shawn Knight consistently strung out Weiss and the Falcon fishbone, while the Cougars' back eight hurried up to make stops. BYU limited Air Force's ground attack, the nation's fifth-best coming into the game, to 86 yards net in the final three quarters.
After playing Utah (the Cougars have yet to beat a team that goes by four letters, beginning with "U") and Hawaii, BYU will likely take on either Auburn or Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. There the Cougars and their Latter-part-of-the-day Saint Bosco should fare well.