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June 1, 2015

Explaining the HHOF Cases of Austin Collie & Luke Staley

-- A lengthy ode to Cougar beloveds



The 2014 BYU football season expired with nary a player threatening the spots Austin Collie, Luke Staley and Kyle Van Noy hold in my personal player ranking system, the-very-made-up yet actually-quite-prestigious Hansen Hall of Fame. When last we visited this concept KVN had just made the list, bumping Steve Sarkisian -- the original member of the HHOF -- out of third place, leaving the hierarchy of my all-time favorite players looking like this:

1. Austin Collie
2. Luke Staley
3. Kyle Van Noy1
1. If you know your BYU numbers you'll notice that my favorite players wore, in order of ascending adoration, the numbers 3, 6 and 9. Peculiar.   
In that never-ending opus praising Van Noy I promised to eventually outline the rubrics against which BYU greats are evaluated for inclusion in the HHOF, and specifically how Collie and Staley claimed the top spots over the other stars of my viewing era: Harvey Unga, Max Hall, KO Kealaluhi, Jonny Harline, Brandon Doman, Chad Lewis, James Dye, Curtis Brown, Aaron Francisco, Cam Jenson and ... well let's cut it off there. In a post only I and my friend Devon could possibly enjoy, the day to fulfill that promise has come. 

The six categories whereby players meet their maker are presented below in order of least to most heavily weighted. For a refresher on the HHOF rules, follow this footnote.22. Rule 1: There are only three spots in the HHOF. To make the list requires dethroning another.
Rule 2: Only players that I've watched live are eligible for inclusion.

(In the spirit of full disclosure I admit to taking this ranking system more seriously than I should, but football players kill themselves for our entertainment so shouldn't we deliver similar effort in judging their accomplishments?)

THE METRICS

Career Success: meaning, quite simply, wins, championships, bowl games, awards.  

Miscellany:33.  In honor of Jeopardy I was this close to naming this category Potpourri. a category encompassing everything outside of actual football performance. Player appearance, jersey number, celebration technique, toughness, personality, ability to talk trash, propensity to infuriate opposing fan bases, quality of nickname, and any personal connection -- random as it may be -- all impact a player's HHOF destiny. Maybe you think this shouldn't be weighed more favorably than Career Success. Sorry - I do. Sports are about entertainment, and fun characters with ho-hum careers can prove more enjoyable than boring players with slightly better careers. Can I get an amen, Riley Nelson fans?

Highlight Reeling: Once upon a time Cody Hoffman made this catch. Fifty bleachers up from the end-zone was my wife, who broke the sound barrier screaming in celebratory shock. A year later Taysom Hill decided to score a touchdown by jumping over a Texas player which caused me to jump through the ceiling of my basement apartment. When a player does something so remarkable it causes the loss of adult senses and/or bodily control, these are Highlight Reel moments. You get rewarded for those.

Statistical Domination: I love statistics. You own the stats, you own my heart.

Level of Unstoppability:44. You are correct; this is not a real word. Did player X deliver whenever the team needed a big play? Could this player spark a rally on his individual talent alone? Could this player thrive despite being the entire focus of the opponent's attention? 

Big Game Chops: As mentioned 10 seconds prior, the entire reason sports exist is to entertain, and nothing entertains like the big game. Have you ever been to a big game live? It just feels different. The crowd is different, the players are different, and you are different. Everything means more and that's why the players that win these games reside in the history books of the adored. Now, to dominate in a big game is good … but to be the player that wins a big game in dramatic manner is even better.  Hence if you make the game-winning interception in the final seconds (Messer’s Omar Morgan and Jenaro Gilford), if you complete a miraculous 36-yard pass on 4th-and-13 (I'm looking at you  Doman) or if you win a rivalry game on the final play of the game (ahoy Jonny Harline!) you can expect your HHOF chances to increase exponentially.

Those are the six metrics. Time to see how the Hall of Famers hold up in these categories


KYLE VAN NOY



The case for Van Noy was outlined extensively in the aforementioned post, but for summary’s sake I’ll remind you that his was legacy was built almost exclusively on unstoppability.  His stats were certainly diverse, but never voluminous. He had a couple of dramatic moments and big game performances, but certainly none that would crack any best of lists. Meanwhile his career success is the weakest of the three HHOF members by far, not to mention well below a number of the ‘first four out’ candidates, but MAN COULD THE GUY PLAY BALL. Opposing offenses could not stop him. We need to move to the next honoree before I lose my mind and drop another 3,000 words in tribute to KVN.

LUKE STALEY     



Allow me to cherry-pick two of Staley’s numerous claims to fame as evidence of his greatness.

Claim to Fame #1 – Staley owns perhaps the greatest statistic in BYU history, having scored 28 touchdowns in just 12 games55. Staley missed the final 2 games of the season due to injury after getting knocked out in the Mississippi St game. Of all the ill that 9-11 did to the world, this is obviously the least significant, yet still annoying to me. The attack postponed BYU’s game against Mississippi State which was eventually rescheduled for the final game of the regular season. What happens if that game is played at the beginning of the season as initially scheduled? Is Staley fresh rather than worn down from having played 12 games? Does BYU get out to a big lead early and rest Staley in latter stages of the game? Do any of these factors prevent Staley from getting injured? Does BYU make a more impressive SOS case for inclusion and not get denied BCS access before the end of the season? Does BYU play angry instead of depressed against Hawaii and Louisville and go 14-0?? So many alternate possibilities. in the 2001 season. Let me put that in perspective for you. Cody Hoffman, who holds the record for most TD receptions in a BYU career, who played a comprehensive four seasons at BYU spanning about 50 games, caught 33 touchdowns in his entire career. A second way to think about it: last year was the first time since 2009 that BYU AS A TEAM passed for more than 28 touchdowns in a season. Another way to think about it: the player in second place for total TDs in a season is Harvey Unga with … 17!! The second placeman is 11 TDs away from Staley! A final way to think about it: Staley averaged 15.45 points per game in 2001, which ranks 9th nationally all-time. Only eight have scored at a better rate in the history of college football.

Claim to Fame #2 – Staley delivered one of the all-time clutch,  come-from-behind big game performances in BYU history. It was in this same 28-TD season that BYU trailed by 11 against Utah with 4 minutes left in the game. An undefeated season was on the line; apart from 1996 I haven’t been alive for a game with greater stakes. Such was the setting when Staley did the following:
Cougar legend claims this series of events resulted in the loudest crowd in BYU history. I guarantee if I was there it would have been, for from my living room, listening on the radio, I screamed myself hoarse when Wrubell delivered the news of yet another Staley score, this one the most dramatic of the season.66. As a personal aside, this game was the closest I’ve come to giving up the Cougar faith; while the 1996 game against Texas A&M brought forth my initial conversion, this game was my refiner’s fire. BYU led the nation in offense that year, yet had struggled to do anything against Utah thanks to a costly fumble in the redzone and a pair of dropped touchdown passes courtesy of Rod Wilkerson, who suffered from a rare condition of having feet for hands. Trailing in the 3rd quarter, BYU got a stop on defense before roughing the punter and giving Utah a fresh set of downs. This was the breaking point. I slammed my radio in rage, crushing the mute button on top of the device. I cursed the gods of sport and asked how BYU could be so dumb and why they would put me through so much pain. I left my room and quit listening for about two minutes before turning the game back on. The first play back was a Utah touchdown, which only deepened BYU’s grave. Yet I wasn’t angry; I was sad I’d given up on the Cougs, even if it was only for a few minutes. I kept the radio on for the remainder, faith was ultimately rewarded, and I’ve never turned my back on the Cougs since. 

Staley had won my heart, but he probably would have even without that game. He was the spearhead of a BYU offense that finished number one in the nation in 2001; he gave BYU its first Doak Walker trophy, awarded annually to college football’s best running back; he took home consensus All-American honors (obviously); he was part of a team that led BYU to the 2nd highest national ranking I've witnessed; and if you want to talk unstoppability, he averaged 8.1 yards per carry his 2001 season.  The only reason he’s not the lead member of the HHOF is because ...

I LOVE AUSTIN COLLIE



In 2008 BYU played a game against Utah, and long before the game would end in extraordinary disaster for BYU, there was an opening kickoff. BYU was to receive, Austin Collie was there and so were the Utah fans, liquored heavy and ready to spew. They welcomed Collie appropriately.
What this video doesn’t show is what happened next. Collie fielded the kick and promptly returned it 70-yards into Utah territory, allowing BYU to take a 3-0 lead on the opening possession. In that moment is highlighted everything I love about Austin Collie: the fact that he could never be intimidated, the fact that he egged on the opposition and that he backed up his cockiness by dominating on the field.

Boy did he ever dominate. He began blowing up secondaries from day one, scoring deep touchdowns at will his rookie season, snagging one-handed catches as if it were the norm. He returned from mission in 2007 and didn't do much beside set the Y record for all-purpose yards in a game, snag this all-improbable bowl game catch and dispatch of his rival in the most fantastic of fashion. In 2008, with mission legs shaken off, he simply gave us the most prolific receiving season in BYU history. In an attempt to not get overly anecdotal, let’s run Collie's resume through the criteria one by one

How does his career success look? Not half bad.

2004: 2nd team freshman All-American, MWC freshman of the year, 5 Ws 6Ls, team’s highest Top-25 ranking: N/A

2007: MWC Champion, Las Vegas Bowl Champion, Bowl Game MVP, 11 Ws 2Ls, Top-25 high: #14

2008: 1st team All-American, 10Ws 3Ls, Top-25 High: #7,

Highlight Reel: Well there’s this, this and this, not to mention the 1:09, 3:02, 4:07, 8:42 and 8:53 marks of this video.77.  My apologies for no links to these individual clips, I tried but YouTube was being weird on me.  


Statistical Domination: Welcome to Collie’s wheelhouse. Collie led the nation in receiving yards in 2008, set the BYU record for all-purpose yards in a season in 2008, set the BYU record for all-purpose yards in a game in 2007, led all freshman receivers nationally in receptions in 2004, owns the BYU records for receiving touchdowns in a season (15), receptions in a season (106) receiving yards in a season (1,538) and 100-yard games in a season (11); has the 2nd highest kickoff return yard average in BYU history and would have cemented Stockton-style every conceivable BYU receiving record if not for an early departure to the NFL.

Overall Unstoppability: I reserved one stat for this section as it is crucial in illustrating Collie’s case for this category. The national record for consecutive games recording 100-yards receiving or more is 12, set by … not Austin Collie unfortunately. The record holder is Justin Blackmon, who reeled off 12 such games in 2010. In second place with 11-straight 100-yard games is Collie, who was 26 yards shy of setting this same record. So why does this matter? Because even as Collie led the nation in receiving week to week in 2008, even as he was stamping his name as the best WR in the country, even as BYU’s primary offensive weapon, the target of all opposing defensive game plans, he was still putting up insane numbers. He could not be denied.

As a second witness to his unstoppability, consider this: Collie didn’t throw passes from the wide receiver spot, take handoffs, line up at quarterback88.  Is that a Christian Stewart sighting in an article from 2008!!! Yes it is! Man, BYU careers can last forever. and return kicks just because there were no other options. Fact is he was just better than everyone else even across positions outside his domain. 

Big Game Performance: Collie started his career with a 42-yard TD catch against Notre Dame that proved the decisive score, then followed up with scores on the road against ranked Boise and Utah during his rookie campaign. Over his sophomore and junior years he tallied 83 receptions, 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 ‘big games’ (games against ranked teams, rivals, bowl opponents) which averages out to 7.5 receptions, 117 yards and 1.1  TDs per contest. He was MVP of the 2007 Las Vegas Bowl, took particular pleasure in abusing UCLA to the tune of 23-296-5(!!) over three career meetings and oh yes, one more thing about his big game performance.

FOURTH AND EIGHTEEN

Believe me when I say experiencing this moment in-stadium magnified its magic tenfold. The communal despair of 64,000 evaporated instantly the moment we all saw Collie -- somehow, someway – streaking wide open past the first down marker. We held our breath as Max heaved and next thing I knew a bomb went off. How I ended up on John Warr’s back, slapping him in the chest like a delirious schoolboy, I’ll never know. How Brent Warr didn’t scream himself mute yelling ‘B-Y-U’, vocalists cannot say. How and when my glasses got knocked two rows down from our seats, and managed to avoid obliteration in the jumping stampede, heaven alone can tell. This catch remains the greatest in-stadium moment of my life.99.  It's interesting to think that if Hall hadn't had his shoulder separated the week prior this pass probably ends up turning into an 87-yard TD. Thank the heavens it didn't happen because such a shock would have killed me.

Miscellaneous: I saved this category for last, not because it’s weighted the highest (it’s actually second from the bottom, remember?), but because Collie’s score in this category nukes ever other candidate’s. I don't know if there are others out there like me, but I gravitated toward this player more than any that has come along. If you happen to be Austin Collie, or Austin Collie's wife, please know I'm not that weird, just an unnecessarily huge fan. Now that that's out of the way, prepare yourself for two paragraphs of rapid fire notes on Collie’s many miscellaneous features.

The guy had a tremendous ability to annoy enemy teams and fan bases, partially because he was great at football, partially because he had tremendous hair and partially because he credited God for success and once threatened to put a hurt on his rival. He was the first BYU recruit I ever researched online. He's the only BYU player to successfully pull off the Robocop/LT visor. He delivered my all-time favorite celebration1010.  And most controversial, he said with the biggest eye roll known to man. after a catch against Washington, a seamless and casual between-the-legs spike that I spent an hour teaching to After School Club members at Hillcrest Elementary, their main question being, How do you do that without hitting yourself in the balls?

His college path paralleled mine: we shared a freshman year, left for neighboring missions at the same time and each peaked in 2008; really about the only difference between us is he left school early for millions while I went on to … the tax commission. He (allegedly) refused to pay his BYU parking tickets and how do you not love that? Don’t we all wish we could stick it to the freaking ticket punks that roam campuses preying on the parking desperate? He remains the only player I've ran proxy plays on behalf of. He tweets about pogs, Taylor Swift, Seinfeld and Christmas Vacation which begs the obvious question: what more could you ask of a player? Mash it all together -- the domination, the stats, the highlight reels, the clutch performance, the miscellany -- and the case is closed: Austin Collie is my favorite athlete to don BYU blue. Long live number nine.

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Postscript

As a final note there is the possibility, albeit very remote, that a certain running quarterback could return from injury and find himself cracking this list. It would require the realizing of some mighty fine improbabilities -- like say an undefeated season along with a magazine cover or two -- but it's not impossible. Beyond the great Taysom however, there appears to be no one in the foreseeable pipeline to threaten the status quo. It seems the top three can rest easy for the time being.

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