Any given Sunday, BYU fans can watch former Cougars Kyle Van Noy, Fred Warner, Daniel Sorenson and Ziggy Ansah excel and even dominate defensively in the NFL.
Any given Saturday in college football this season, it’s been a much different experience.
The BYU defense has been a point of contention for fans in 2019, from missed tackles to giving up too many rushing yards to the “rush 3, drop 8” concept.
Last year’s defense allowed 324.1 yards per game, giving up 130.1 yards rushing (3.7 per carry) and 194 yards passing per game. The Cougars also allowed 21.3 points per game and totaled 27 sacks.
This year through 11 games, BYU is allowing 395.6 yards per game — 189 rushing (4.6 yards per carry) and 206.6 passing. The Cougars have allowed 25.7 points per game and has totaled only 10 sacks.
The overall numbers have improved since the schedule lightened up, but how did we get here? How did a Top 20 defense from 2018 (18th in total defense) fall to 72nd in 2019?
The first point of discussion should be personnel. BYU lost some key players to graduation: Linebacker Sione Takitaki (led the team with 118 tackles), defensive end Corbin Kaufusi (eight sacks), cornerback Michael Shelton (37 tackles, 4 pass breakups), underrated defensive tackle Merrill Taliaui, linebackers Butch Pau’a and Adam Pulsipher and safety Tanner Jacobson.
Between those players were 287 career games and 52 starts in 2018.
In addition, injuries hit the defense hard in 2019. BYU’s most talented and experienced linebacker, Zayne Anderson, played in just two games before suffering a season-ending injury for the second straight season. Projected secondary starters Chris Wilcox and Troy Warner were also injured and didn’t get on the field until a couple of weeks ago.
All of those factors led to a more conservative approach by defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki as younger players had to step in to more prominent roles at cornerback and linebacker. Coaches also began raiding the offensive side for depth, moving running backs Tyler Allgier, Kavika Fonua and Payton Wilgar to linebacker and former tight end/offensive lineman J.J. Nwigwe to the defensive line.
Early on the defense was giving up big chunks of yardage on the ground against Utah (262 yards), Tennessee (242 yards), USC (171 yards) and Washington (187 yards) but managed to keep the scores close in three of those games with timely interceptions. BYU beat the Vols and the Trojans but late collapses at Toledo and South Florida pushed head coach Kalani Sitake into taking a much more active role in the defensive game plan. The more collaborative approach that sparked the offense also seemed to make a difference in the defense as well. The Cougars held high-scoring Utah State, Boise State and Liberty well below their season averages in victories and dominated weaker opponents Idaho State and UMass as well.
What’s worked well for BYU? The Cougars have 15 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries in 2019 and the 22 total turnovers is a Top 10 mark in college football. The linebackers have 10 of those 15 interceptions.
BYU coaches have been able to get a lot of different defensive players game reps this season, which should pay big dividends in seasons to come.
“When have those opportunities I always have mixed feelings,” Tuiaki said. “We like to pitch a shutout and keep them down, but we like to trust the other guys coming in that they can do it. I have to remind myself in the middle of the game that these guys getting reps, when they come back on Monday, we can talk about those mistakes.
“The speed of the game is always a little faster than they anticipate. They will be the future eventually so those reps are really important for them to have. Field time is so important for someone to learn to play with poise and technique when it matters.”
Ghanwoloku and Lee will graduate and junior defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga is expected to test the NFL waters but 19 other players with at least 10 tackles will return for the 2020 season.
The secondary should be solid and the Cougars have enough linebackers returning that Anderson could move back to safety. If there is a position group that could use an upgrade it is probably the defensive line, which loses Tonga and Nwigwe and has generated little pass rush this year. Would BYU be willing to dig into the JUCO ranks for a pass rush defensive end?
In the meantime, the Cougars will close the regular season at San Diego State on Saturday, which will try to establish its running game because the Aztecs quarterback will be a true freshman making his first start. On Dec. 24, BYU will finish the season at the Hawaii Bowl.
“Right now we’re a battle hardened, season-hardened team,” BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb said. “There are some challenges to keep that going so we have to pay attention to those. We have to own the results losing to Toledo and South Florida. The question is ‘Can we finish as a great team?’”