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Opponent Defense Preview: BYU

What to know: they’re jacked.

NCAA Football: California at Brigham Young Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Well hello there, and sorry for the delay in this week’s defensive preview.

This week: the first of two Cougars.

Personnel and What to Expect

In their first three FBS games, the Cougars have shown themselves to be relatively versatile with their fronts, although if they had their way every time, they would probably prefer to go with a standard 4-3—a strength which they got to utilize in their upset against Wisconsin’s heavy offensive front.

While being able to focus on the box is BYU’s strength, as previously stated, they’re not a one-trick pony. Against Arizona’s more speed-based, dual-threat abilities, they played almost completely in 3-3-5 with a sprinkle of 4-3 and other nickel packages, showed nickel at times against Wisconsin, and were primarily in a 4-2-5 and what looked like some occasional dime against Cal.

What was surprising, given the spread of the meme of Arizona’s fall and BYU’s rise, is that in the first few drives the Wildcats actually looked pretty good against a bend-don’t-break defense. BYU by no means suffocated either J.J. Taylor or Khalil Tate, especially when Tate targeted the 6’5” mismatch in Shawn Poindexter. In the end, however, the Cougars were able to maintain control in much the same way as UW, Utah, ASU, etc. have done: solid fundamentals and good tackling to prevent small plays from turning into something more explosive.

This trend mostly held up against Wisconsin and Cal—change in defensive fronts notwithstanding—plus the Cougars having a bit more difficulty against the two better coached and more talented teams. Namely, while BYU’s defensive line was going to town against Arizona, both the Cal and Wisconsin offensive lines held up quite well in pass protection more often than not—Cal QB Chase Garbers had a well-thrown touchdown pass on a Patrick Laird post route in which he had, I swear, like seven seconds of protection. Obviously, they loaded the box against the Badgers. This tactic mostly worked but at times backfired during the few times when RB Jonathan Taylor got into the second level and was able to gain some decent chunk plays, as far as the running game goes.

What especially stood out against the latter two teams was linebackers and safeties who hit hard over the middle. Sione Takitaki, while often used as a pass rusher, is also decent when dropping back and probably better coordinated where the ball’s concerned than most comparable players. And, in continuing with the trend of “former safeties at Utah schools converting to linebackers,” Zayne Anderson makes noise in many plays. Besides their physicality, what stands out about this unit is their experience: they’re made up overwhelmingly of seniors, and almost all of them are built like NFL guys. Of the two-deep, only starting MLB Butch Pau’u is under 6’1”, then his backup, Adam Pulsipher, is 6’1”, and then the rest are all 6’2” or 6’3” and built. No wonder they hit hard.

Their secondary two-deep is also primarily juniors and seniors, along with some contributing sophomores who’ve held their own. Michael Shelton can play nickel or a more traditional corner role, Chris Wilcox is a leader at corner as well, and the versatile Troy Warner can play either safety spot after converting from corner. From what I’ve seen, no single guy particularly stands out but that’s not a bad thing for the Cougars. As a unit, like the rest of the team, they seem disciplined and dependable. Well, minus a few costly errors like the Kanawai Noa touchdown for Cal, in which the receiver was wide open for a 40-yard touchdown due to a busted coverage on BYU’s part. On the other hand, if a quarterback throws late, players in this secondary are smart and athletic enough to make them pay big time, as Alex Hornibrook and Wisconsin’s offense learned the hard way.

Overall, the DBs are probably BYU’s least dependable unit on the defense, but that’s not really an indictment of them so much as it’s a compliment to the linebackers and line. Oh, right, the line:

First off, the Cougars’ line is jacked. If there’s only one thing you take away from this, it should be that.

Up front, sophomore NT Khyiris Tonga is a Vita Vea-like force at 6’4” and 345 lbs, with a monster bull rush that even put Wisconsin’s All-American offensive line in danger. The pass-rushing Kaufusi brothers, Devin at 6’7”, 260 lbs, and Corbin at 6’9” and 275 lbs, compliment Tonga’s power up the middle with a dangerous threat off the edges, along with Trajan Pili and Uriah Leiataua on their opposite side. While all of those guys have made impacts, it’s Corbin who’s seemed to be everywhere all the time in all the games. DT Bracken El-Bakri will make his name known Saturday, too, but I really anticipate we will see a lot of Corbin Kaufusi and Khyiris Tonga.

Bottom Line

Against FBS competition, BYU has allowed pretty similar final outcomes, with Cal and Wisconsin scoring 21 points and Arizona getting 23. That’s pretty good, but far from suffocating considering Arizona’s been a dumpster fire while Cal and Wisconsin are pretty balanced teams, offensively/defensively speaking, and it’s not like the Cougars held them to crazy fewer points than either have put up so far this season. Pretty much what I see from this unit is that they’re really good in preventing an offense from getting explosive and will likely hold any team slightly below their typical scoring, but aren’t gonna dominate. They will always give their own offense the chance to win but, if it comes down to it, probably won’t take control of a game themselves. And yet their physicality and smarts are terrifying.

While Cal and Wisconsin’s offensive lines showed that they could make BYU’s defensive front submit in pass protection, it’s gonna take consistent play at a high level. Because, as Arizona’s line showed, relax even a little bit, and the Cougars’ strength on the line will push opponents around. Literally.

It feels like we could see Saturday where Washington’s offensive line looks great for one drive, then BYU’s front controls it the next drive, then back, and so on.

Similarly to ASU and Utah, and what is by far BYU’s strength, is that they’re consistent and disciplined, hit hard across the middle, and are incredibly powerful up front. A few sweeps from time to time could help keep them on their toes, and even so I wouldn’t be surprised if the running game on Saturday is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back situation, where Gaskin and Ahmed get some really good gains followed by some stagnation; wash, rinse, and repeat.

If Washington can get the passing game going early, the Dawgs will be able to establish their control; the Cougars do best when teams dare to rely on the run, like what happened at Wisconsin, where they can boss around the line of scrimmage. Conversely, what’s such a dominant front in the run game has had trouble against better pass-protecting offensive lines, further telegraphing that we’ll see early establishment of downfield passing if the Huskies are gonna finish the game looking good.

It also wouldn’t surprise me if Browning gets a few plays where he can identify a broken coverage and get some explosive yards, but otherwise Washington and its fans are gonna have to be patient against a defense that, for the most part, doesn’t mess up or allow few yard gains to turn into big chunk plays.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.