Bring the Pressure: BYU defense on the spot to slow down Utah
The week preceding the BYU-Utah football game is always filled with rivalry talk on both sides, stories and anecdotes galore.
In the end, the talk is just that – talk. Scoreboard is the final word and the Utes have won nine straight games in the series.
That’s worth a statistical, raw numbers breakdown of how Utah has dominated the series lately.
The most obvious statistic from the nine-game run is turnovers. BYU has twice as many turnovers (29-14) as their rival and the Utes have scored nine defensive touchdowns. The Cougars haven’t had a single defensive score.
More subtlety, though, Utah’s simple game plan – run the ball a lot, then run it some more – seems to be another key to winning nine in a row. During the streak, the Utes have committed to the run game, even though 153 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry may not seem very dominating. Utah has averaged 38 carries per game during the streak. In their latest win (2019), the Utes ran for 262 yards on 48 carries and surrendered zero sacks.
Down and distance are extremely important in football. The inability to stop the run has kept BYU from getting Utah in second or third and long, prime moments for pressure.
In the nine games against the Utes the Cougars have just 10 sacks and only one in the past four meetings.
Now, a history lesson.
Bronco Mendenhall arrived at BYU in 2003 as the new defensive coordinator. He brought with him a unique 3-3-5 defense that sent pressure from all angles. Still, the sack numbers weren’t overwhelming. The Cougars managed 26 sacks in 2003 and 34 in 2004 (28th in the country). By comparison, the NCAA leader in sacks in 2004 was USC with 46.
When Mendenhall took over as head coach, the team sack numbers were modest, at best. Even though Jan Jorgensen had 30 sacks during his career (2006-2009) and logged 14 in 2007, BYU’s highest number of sacks during that time was 32 (also 2007). During Mendenhall’s 11 years as head coach, the 2015 season – his last – produced the top team sack totals with 40.
When Kalani Sitake became the head coach in 2016 he named long-time friend and colleague Ilaisa Tuiaki as his defensive coordinator. Tuiaki’s philosophy of dropped eight and rushing three has not been a fan favorite and twice produced just 17 sacks in a season (2017 and 2019). Even the 11-1 season of 2020 brought modest sack numbers (26). Still, the Cougars are annually a Top 50 defense in most metrics.
“Points are all I really care about,” Tuiaki said. “There are so many other stats that are important but they’re not the end all. We have to make sure to keep everything in perspective about keeping points off the board and getting the ball back for our offense.”
Last week, BYU logged four sacks in its 24-16 season opening victory against Arizona. All four of the sacks came at key moments to force field goals and punts. Three of those sacks came when the Cougars brought six-man pressure and the other came with the front four broke through.
“They came at opportune moments where we really needed them,” Tuiaki said. “We kicked them out of field goal range in situations a couple of times, so it was good.”
BYU managed to get Arizona in second or third and long, setting up those opportunities to sack the quarterback. The Cougars deep secondary has been able to play more man-to-man coverage and that has allowed for the added pressure.
“We were tested early,” Tuiaki said. ” Isaiah Herron was on B.J. Casteel and was tit for tat running down the sideline with him. That was good to see that from the box. It was encouraging to see the corners coming to the sideline and telling us they would like to play more man.”
Tuiaki said the Cougars learned a lot from playing Arizona, a program featuring a new coaching staff with a significant amount of NFL experience.
“We came back and watched film and we felt like they threw the whole kitchen sink at us,” Tuiaki said. “I thought they did a really good job prepping and showing us things that were hard to adjust to. They found some weak spots and were keeping us on our heels taking advantage of that.
“They threw out a formation with two offensive linemen on the numbers. We saw everything from empty to a lot of shifts and motions. It was a lot to handle and I love the way the players responded. Obviously we have things where we can get better. We should be playing faster but that’s more on me than on the players.”
Tuiaki added that the coaches counted 125 yards of offense allowed due to broken coverage and miscommunication.
“We will get those things tightened up,” Tuiaki said. “We’ve talked through the years about being sound on defense and keeping the shape of our defense. We get those things right and we’re in a pretty good spot.”
The BYU defense is faced with a difficult challenge this weekend against a Utah offense that will try to establish the running game and hit big plays passing the ball.
“They’re going to try to come out and strong ball us,” Cougar linebacker Payton Wilgar said. “They think they can run on us or whatever. I don’t really actually care what they think they can do. I’m kind of more focused on what we can do, and how our defense is going to play.”
Jaren Wilkey, BYU PhotoBYU freshman defensive lineman Atunaisa Mahe sacks the quarterback during the 42-14 Cougar win at Utah State on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2019.
Leah HogstenThe BYU defense pressures Idaho State quarterback Matt Struck (8) during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, at LaVell Edwards Stadium, in Provo, Utah. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)