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Opponent Defense Preview: BYU

Motto: Rushing more than three is for nerds.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 USC at BYU Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Another week, another defense.

Another group of eleven sweaty dudes in the way of Husky fans’ dreams of crushing fools.

Another — ya know what, you get it.

Personnel and What to Expect

The first thing you notice when looking at their depth chart is a lot of “ORs.” In other words, just like UW, BYU rotates a lot. The second thing you notice is that there’s three Kaufusis on the defense alone, two of which the Dawgs are familiar with (ILB and edge linemen Isaiah and Devin, respectively) after their game last season.

While the Cougars liberally rotate players, the same can’t typically be said for their formations; other than the occasional 4-2-5 lineup, they’ve so far shown a 3-3-5 for the majority of snaps. Interestingly, they often only rush those three linemen as well instead of adding another linebacker off the edge or in a stunt to assist in that rush.

That propensity along with their preference to drop everybody and their mother into a softer zone coverage means A) they get few sacks even when hurrying the quarterback (three on the year — 113th in FBS), B) there’s identifiable areas of weakness on the field that quarterbacks can take advantage of, and C) when a quarterback fails to identify those areas, any given pass can be picked off in an instant.

Case in point: Against Utah, no interceptions but only 106 passing yards. Against Tennessee, one interception and 176 passing yards. Against USC, 281 passing yards, but three whole interceptions to go along with it. And it’s not just a secondary thing — two of those three were by linebackers dropping into coverage.

In the secondary, all but starting corner and redshirt freshman Isaiah Herron are fifth-year seniors. His counterpart on the other side of the field is Dayan Ghanwoloku, the third recipient of an interception against USC. At free safety, both Zayne Anderson and Sawyer Powell are degrees of injured, leaving redshirt freshman Hayden Livingston to receive more time. Unfortunately for the Cougars, so is their listed strong safety starter, Austin Lee.

What stands out in their defense against the passing game is that, due to their persistent zone, mid-to-long range passing via floods, verticals, or any other concept that saturates and overwhelms one portion of the field is probably their most potent weakness. What you’re probably not going to have a lot of success with, however, is a reliance on shallow crossing routes or slants with the hope of the receiver getting a lot of yards after catch; the same zone that creates the previously-mentioned vulnerability combines with their instinctual players that tackle well to ensure a pass-catcher will likely be tackled very shortly after catching said pass.

Pretty much, their passing defense is efficient until you take some shots, but only when those shots are very deliberately schemed.

In front of those defensive backs, the linebackers almost feel like more of a more versatile extension of the secondary than their own unit. Again, they’re dropping back far more often than not and are responsible for the majority of BYU’s interceptions so far this year. They seem to rotate a lot of players here as well. For example, ostensibly “second string” Peyton Wilgar is a player who shows up in the stats quite a bit.

Unfortunately for the Cougars, this unit also has a few injuries: Keenan Pili, Isaiah Kaufusi, and former bajillion star recruit, Chaz Ah You all are at least somewhat nicked up from USC and their status for Washington is unclear but I’d guess they won’t all be absent.

Hence, we’ll likely see even more of Wilgar, plus Jackson Kaufusi and Matthew Criddle. It should be noted that this group is already on the younger side — by BYU standards, at least — and it’s not helped by this situation. Wilgar and the last Kaufusi are both redshirt freshmen while Criddle is a redshirt sophomore, with redshirt junior Kavika Fonua the lone unaffected player. It’s worth noting that Fonua’s patience and eye reading led to BYU’s only interception against Tennessee. He’s more the size of a thumping safety at 6’ and 210 lbs, but expect to see him around the field quite a bit.

Continuing the trend from the secondary, this unit tackles well and doesn’t make it easy on opposing offenses even if they aren’t dominant. If there is a weakness-ish, it was on display last week against USC’s combination of powerful and shifty running backs; this group didn’t really give up any big plays, but they failed to consistently keep the Trojans behind the chains since the running backs were almost always making progress on the ground. They don’t allow huge breakaway runs, but each running play will do enough minor damage to keep the offense in control. This was also true against Tennessee and Utah and, by all deductive reasoning, will be true against Washington too.

Up front are players that the Dawgs are familiar with by now. Devin Kaufusi — the last Kaufusi, I promise — is still coming off the edge along with Zac Dawe, a two-time Utah wrestling champion. Trajan Pili is a redshirt senior playing opposite those two, while redshirt freshman Atunaise Mahe looks like the next great BYU lineman and junior Khyiris Tonga is a legit NFL prospect and maybe BYU’s best defensive player.

As previously mentioned, this unit isn’t gonna get a lot of sacks and will rush mostly three, sometimes even only two. Even given the amount of quite talented players up front, the lack of emphasis on havoc up there means they naturally aren’t dominant there. Related, opponents’ run game will be far from dominant but will often get holes where a running back who can get skinny and has good vision — sound like a certain third-ish-string-running-back? — can keep their offense ahead of the chains each play. Alternatively in the running game, while they’ll prevent big plays up the middle, they’ve been inconsistent in their ability to keep the edge sealed this season.

Overall, there’s not any particularly dominant parts of this defense but there’s even fewer glaring weaknesses. This appears to be partially due to scheme, partially due to personnel — the former is inherently conservative but efficient, while the latter is just classic BYU.

Bottom Line

This probably won’t be a huge stat game for Eason. When plays do rely on his arm, it’ll mostly come down to his decision making with passing lanes clogged up. Namely, it would be a good reminder to have a neon sign over the game clock that just says “DON’T FORCE THROWS.” The Cougars’ zone gives notable open areas that are particularly vulnerable but also allows their safeties and inside linebackers to be patient and read quarterbacks eyes; even more so than normal, good decisions by a quarterback can precisely pick apart BYU, while conversely, bad decisions have even worse consequences than normal.

Thus, given his adept route-running and general ass-kickery, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Hunter Bryant with a few mid-range chunk catches. Still though, I don’t anticipate anybody having a statistically overwhelming game as a pass-catcher.

The running game will likely be similar to what we saw against Hawaii. BYU’s strength in the middle and inconsistency on the edge means Salvon Ahmed’s running style has the potential to be particularly effective in spurts, especially with Richard Newton priming them with prior up the gut running and/or wildcat snaps. But I’m particularly excited to see Sean McGrew. Even given that this team won’t allow big chunk plays on the ground, McGrew really fits the profile of USC’s successful runs despite — or because of — being so much smaller than their corresponding backs: this year especially, his improved patience and vision combined with relatively small gaps that this O-line vs. D-line battle should produce fits his running style well.

Again, statistically I’m not expecting anyone to shine but, once again, the three-pronged attack of Ahmed-Newton-McGrew could be the cornerstone of this week’s offensive philosophy.

It should be frustrating, which will certainly make all Dawg fans react very rationally.

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