If he were alive today, Brigham Young, leader of the wagon train that escaped religious persecution and settled in the Great Salt Lake valley back in July 1847, would no doubt wonder seriously at the intentions of the two or three punk rockers present among his tribe of Latter Day Saints.

Even Robbie Bosco, the junior quarterback of the Brigham Young University Cougars and great-great grandson of one of the church's former presidents, is known to shake his head in disbelief and laugh at the improbable vision of Mormons with spiked hair and chains for jewelry.

"Before I came here," Bosco said the other day, "I thought you couldn't wear tennis shoes. I thought you couldn't even wear Levis. I thought, 'Oh, my God, what kind of school is this?' But look at me. I'm dressed like a bum. I have an old T-shirt on. I know there's a dress code -- we all know about it -- but nobody's told me yet to go back to my room and put on a three-piece suit."

The way to get a feel for this idyllic, high-minded community set at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, you should first take the 45-mile stretch of low road south from Salt Lake City and figure on hobnobbing spiritually with an army of wholesome clones.

For better or worse, these are the folks that Joseph Smith, founder of the church, figured would "run and not be weary and shall walk and not faint."

They are among the 26,000 students at BYU, 95 percent of whom are Mormons, or, as they call themselves, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The BYU football team (9-0), currently ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll and enjoying the nation's longest winning streak at 20, is a large army of do-rights possessed with the unlikely burden of goodness. More than two-thirds of the team is Mormon, and though it may defy the mechanics of the football heart, these young men go through their college days given to squeaky-clean acts of charity and kindness that would make a Boy Scout's work seem more than a tad tawdry. They obey an honor code that forbids activities such as drinking, smoking, taking drugs and premarital sex.

"But they do allow rock 'n' roll in the weight room," said Jim Hermann, a formidable defensive tackle. "People have so many misconceptions, and I did, too, when I first came here. My grandfather is a Mormon, but I never really knew what a Mormon was . . . What a Mormon was? I don't know. I hate to classify them. It just isn't right. But they really are the nicest bunch of people.

"When they find out that you're not a member of the church, they seem to go out of their way to help you. And it's all without any apparent motive. Tell you the truth, nobody's tried to convert me yet."

Slowly, and a bit begrudgingly, the Latter-Day Saints have learned to love their football, but their passion for the game remains largely unbridled, even with the Cougars winning their ninth straight Western Athletic Conference title this season.

Coach LaVell Edwards, who was an assistant here for 10 years before taking over as head coach 13 years ago, said it was often "the middle of the first quarter" before ticket-holders settle into the 65,000-seat Cougar Stadium. For the most part, they go by an internal clock set on Mormon Standard Time.

"There will be times in the game when you can hear a pin drop," Edwards said. "But that's part of the lifestyle here. For so many years, they thought you couldn't play football because it wasn't compatible with the teachings of the church. People thought you couldn't go out there every afternoon and bang heads and preach love at the same time. But there's a new respect now, and it's mainly come as a result of the respect we've had around the country."

Hermann points out another reason why the fans often fail to rise and unleash their collective voice. "After the first three touchdowns, and as we start running away with it," he said, "it's even hard for us stay all fired up."

Edwards, a devout Mormon, grew up just five miles from the BYU campus, one of 14 children. He worked the stubborn loam of his family's farm as a kid, digging holes in the orchard and planting a variety of fruit trees. At 14, just able to see over the steering wheel, the future prophet of BYU football drove the produce to market in his father's truck, and the rumble of that journey still sounds off in his memory today.

One of the reasons Edwards has remained at BYU -- even after offers from several college teams and the Los Angeles Express and Arizona Wranglers of the U.S. Football League -- is "because of my blood ties and roots here. My mom's 87, and my dad's 85, and they both enjoy coming to the games. My faith has a lot to do with my staying here, too.

"Nothing's ever really enticed me, not even promises of making all that money. I don't make much here, but I discovered that money didn't matter that much to me anyway, not as much as I once thought it did. I guess, most important than anything else, is that I just love this place too much to let it go."

The success of the football program is still a fairly new phenomenon here, especially so considering Edwards enjoyed only four winning seasons in his first 18 years as a coach.

BYU -- all 646 acres of it thriving between the imposing facade of Mount Timpanogos on the east and the 23-mile expanse of Utah Lake on the west -- is the largest private university in the country, with a larger enrollment than Stanford, Harvard, Oral Roberts or Notre Dame.

Edwards said there would be "twice as many" students here if the enrollment ceiling were lifted. Only 36 of the 26,000 are black; 10 of them play football. Until 1970, there were no black athletes on any BYU athletic teams, and although recruiting efforts brought black prospects in from all over the country, few chose to attend the school. Some feared the inevitable absence of a social life; others may have heard the lost voice of old Brigham himself, booming back in 1855, "The Negro is damned, and is to serve his master until God chooses to remove the curse."

"For anyone, no matter his race, BYU is quite a restrictive environment," Edwards said. "Some people can't buy it. There are a lot of kids who come on recruiting trips who have the same value system as we do but who are frightened off anyway. They choose not to have certain restrictions imposed on them, and I can understand that. They think religion will be forced on them when it isn't."

Bosco, who leads the nation in passing efficiency and has completed 204 of 318 attempts for 2,844 yards and 27 touchdowns, said he wasn't a member of the Mormon church when he was being recruited by BYU out of high school in Roseville, Calif. But he converted his freshman year.

"I chose this place because of football, not the church," he said. "I wanted to be a part of the great tradition of quarterbacks here. I was never a big party guy, it just wasn't a part of my life. I didn't enjoy it. You know, there are about 25 players who are married here, and they have a bunch of kids. It's really weird, but there's a level of maturity here that really helps you as a player and as a team. You don't have to worry if the guys have been out partying the night before the game.

"It calms you down. And the nonmarried players look up to them."

One of the married players, Craig Garrick, is now a well-seasoned 25 and spent two years on a church recruiting mission in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

In those days, he bounced from one neighborhood to the next knocking on strange doors and offering good prose from his handy Book of Mormon to anyone who'd listen.

Now a team cocaptain, Garrick is legendary in these parts for having endured seven knee operations and the two-year sabbatical, only to return to the game with 4.8 speed in the 40-yard dash and a maximum bench press of 450 pounds. He once wore a skull-and-crossbones on his helmet to signify "what I was all about out there," but it wore off after only a few days of contact work.

Edwards says it's players such as Hermann and Garrick who convince him "we can compete with all the great teams. Much like the service academies, we get highly committed kids who are quite intelligent and motivated and know what's necessary to win. But I think this year's team is a little different than most of the others. I don't know of a team in the country I wouldn't mind playing. I feel comfortable that we could have a good shot beating anybody. But this is the first year I've ever felt this way."

BYU, under Edwards, is 114-37-1, and has played in every Holiday Bowl since the San Diego bowl's inception in 1978. The WAC champion is under an agreement to play in the Holiday Bowl, which is usually played a few days before Christmas.

That commitment has been both a blessing and a curse of late for the Cougars. One letter to the editor of The Daily Universe, the BYU student newspaper, claimed the bowl "stinks" and is "a disservice to the WAC champions."

Edwards said, "I've seen a lot of teams that have won in our league -- have gone 9-2, 10-1 or whatever -- and have been overlooked by the bowls because they weren't a viable candidate. Now, you know when you win the title you're going to get to play. This year, we happen to be viable and probably could go to any number of bowls.

"But I think it's a two-way street. You can go with them during the bad times, then you should be able to go with them during good times, too."

Last year, the Holiday Bowl paid BYU $400,000, which was about $1.4 million less than the four major bowls paid each of their teams. Edwards said the "money factor cannot be ignored, but it shouldn't matter. I feel a great sense of loyalty to the conference and the Holiday Bowl."

Last year, quarterback Steve Young was the runner-up to Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier of Nebraska. Edwards said it "bugs him" that a lack of national television coverage prevents players such as Young -- and quarterback greats Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon before him -- from winning the honors they deserve.

On top of that, the team -- still a mystery to fans and sports writers alike on the East coast -- comes up short in the national polls.

"It's ironic that Doug Flutie of Boston College will probably win the Heisman this year and his team will end up losing three or maybe even four games," Edwards said. "When you look at our quarterbacks and the great success they've had, it doesn't seem quite fair that they don't get the great national attention.

"But it's a little like Willie Nelson, I think. He sang for 30 years, and overnight, he was a success. Suddenly we've caught the fancy of a lot of people. We're big enough and good enough.

"The key to our success, though, continues to be the type of kid we get here. As long as we have that, we'll win. Maybe we won't get a national championship, but I promise, I won't lose any sleep worrying about that.

"I know how well we can play, and I know what we deserve. One day, if everything falls into place, we'll slip in there and get our due."