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 8�" 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."