BYU’s national defensive ranking has always been relative to the strength of its opponents, especially during the independence era.
Most recently — since Kalani Sitake took over the program in 2016 — the Cougars have ranked 23rd, 34th, 51st and 68th in total defense. Generally, BYU improves in total defense toward the end of the season due to the front loaded schedule of Power Five teams.
Last year, for example, the Cougars gave up 428.8 yards and 32 points per game during the opening four-game stretch against Utah, Tennessee, USC and Washington. In the next nine games (eight against Group of 5 teams and one against an FCS team), BYU surrendered 377.8 yards and 22.5 points per contest. That’s 50 yards and nearly 10 points per game less. The numbers show the Cougars allowed about 70 yards less per game rushing but about 20 more yards per game through the air.
BYU currently don’t have any Power Five teams on its 2020 schedule, which is one reason the Cougars earned a No. 1 national ranking on defense through the first three games of the season. Against Navy, Troy and Louisiana Tech, BYU was giving up just 214.3 yards and eight points per game.
Gaudy numbers, indeed.
That’s why last Saturday’s performance in a 27-20 win against Texas-San Antonio has Cougars Nation so troubled.
Backup quarterback Lowell Narcisse torched the BYU secondary in the final 12 minutes, completing 7 of 7 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. The game really came down to the Cougars recovering an onside kick with 1:17 to play, because they had shown no ability to stop the Roadrunners passing game in the fourth quarter.
BYU is still one of the best the country in run defense (No. 4 at 71.0 yards allowed per game) but the numbers are rising vs. the pass.
“After last week’s performance we learned quite a bit as a team,” Cougar head coach Kalani Sitake said. “There are some things that we can work on, things that are very fixable. It will take a lot of focus of the guys having better concentration. Give credit to our opponent but we didn’t play as well as we could.”
Friday’s opponent is the Houston Cougars, which played their first game last week. In a 49-21 victory against Tulane, Houston quarterback Clayton Tune was 20 of 33 for 319 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Marquez Stevenson — one of the fastest wide receivers in the country — finished with five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown while returning a kickoff 97 yards for another score.
The red Cougars scored 49 points despite a whopping five turnovers.
So which defense truly represents the strength of the blue Cougars: The dominant group in the first three games or the leaky, stumbling one in the fourth quarter against UTSA?
As usual, the answer lies somewhere in between.
It’s important to note that through three quarters against UTSA, BYU allowed just two field goals. That will win plenty of football games. It was also the first time in four games the score had been close, so perhaps fatigue played a factor.
The Roadrunners were much better than they were given credit for before playing the Cougars, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. UTSA’s Sincere McCormick came into the game as the nation’s leading rusher at better than 120 yards per game. BYU held him to just 42 yards on 11 carries.
The defensive game plan, according to linebackers coach Ed Lamb, was to limit the Roadrunners running game and force them to pass. Making the adjustment to Narcisse was the issue.
“I think we underestimated Narcisse’s ability to throw on time and to throw accurately,” Lamb said. “We also didn’t finish our pass rush as well as we could. Painting with a broad brush and saying the team didn’t rise to the occasion or that they overlooked the opponent, sometimes that lets us as coaches off the hook. There are things we can do better. The majority of the coaching staff just digs in and takes a look at the video to see how we all could have been better in our individual roles.”
Personnel wise, the BYU defense has lost linebacker Chaz Ah You and defensive end Lorenzo Fauteau to injury, but is relatively healthy in the secondary.
Seniors Troy Warner and Zayne Anderson have been mainstays at the safety spots. Freshman Micah Harper and senior Chris Wilcox started at cornerback in the first four games, with juniors Shamon Willis and Keenan Ellis rotating in for reps. Senior linebacker Kavika Fanua has also played some safety and nickel for the Cougars.
BYU totaled 12 sacks during the first three games of the season, using primarily a three-man rush. The Cougars only got home once against UTSA, with sophomore Gabe Summers logging an important sack that led to BYU taking a 27-13 lead in the fourth quarter.
“We’re a really bad (as in good) defense,” senior defensive tackle Bracken El-Bakri said. “We play really good defense, we’re a really tough, hard defense and that’s how we play. That’s our identity. We’re not looking to improve or disprove our reputation because it should speak for itself about the way we play football and the way we show up on Friday.”
Warner, who has interceptions in back-to-back games, said the defense is intent on getting back to its dominant ways.
“I think it just came down to the little things,” he said. “There is no one thing to pinpoint as to why that (the struggles against UTSA) happened. We’ve just got to minimize the MA’s — the missed assignments. We’ve just got to do the little things better and I think if we do that in a much better position to play well.
“That’s just something we lacked last game. We lost a bit of focus and got caught up in what happened the last series, and we can’t let that happen. We have to tune those things up this week and get ready for Houston.”