There is a bitter taste lingering in the players mouths after the loss to TCU, and they’ll be looking to take a bit of that out on Idaho.
PROVO — Cougar fans have waited two weeks to see their beloved team take the field after a bye last weekend. The reward for their wait is a game against the Idaho Vandals.
Sure, the Vandals don’t look like much on paper, with most fans and pundits expecting the Cougars to cruise to victory. The players and coaches see it a bit different, however.
“We can’t afford to overlook anybody,” said tight end Austin Holt. “Coach Mendenhall does a good job of us focusing on ourselves and our own improvement, and that doesn’t change no matter who we’re going up against. We have our goal in mind, which is our own improvement. We have three tough games coming up and then our bowl game, and we’re focused on that.”
The Vandals will come into LaVell Edwards Stadium with a 2-7 record but fresh off of a 32-29 victory over San Jose State, which is a team that gave the Cougars some trouble earlier in the year. They’ve been a bit of a hard luck team this year, losing some very close contests, including an overtime loss to Virginia on the road.
So how do the teams match up and what can fans expect Saturday night?
BYU rushing offense vs. Idaho
Just as Michael Alisa appeared to take center stage in the Cougar ground attack, senior workhorse JJ DiLuigi has re-emerged as the top ground-gainer on the team. He’s coming off a game against TCU where he ran the ball just 11 times but for 69 yards, including several long gains up the middle of the Horned Frog defense.
Alisa, meanwhile, gained just 11 yards on six total carries but will be looking to re-establish himself as the team’s top runner against Idaho.
Any mention of the Cougar ground game can’t be just limited to the running backs these days. Riley Nelson doubled DiLuigi’s run attempts last week with 23 and saw some good success with 84 net yards despite being sacked six times.
They’ll be going up against a Vandal defense that yields 124.9 yards per game. If you want a ready reference to what that number entails, BYU gives up 124.6 yards per game on the ground, though doing it against some better competition on the year.
They’ll present a 4-3 base defense that uses a lot of rotation and pre-snap movement among its front four down linemen.
“They have a tough and energetic front four. They play hard and they play physical, so they’ll be a challenge,” said offensive lineman Braden Brown. “They flop their defensive ends a lot, so I’ll be going up against some different guys throughout the game.”
Their free safety, Gary Walker, 6-0, 192 pounds, a junior, is their leading tackler and will be playing close to the line of scrimmage throughout the game, looking to make plays in the backfield. Their leading tackler among their front seven is senior middle linebacker Tre’Shawn Robinson, 5-11, 250 pounds.
There is a bitter taste lingering in the players mouths after the loss to TCU, and they’ll be looking to take a bit of that out on Idaho. The offensive line, in particular, wants to come out strong and aggressive, “We’re looking to just hit some guys again and throw some teams back and get going again,” said Brown.
BYU should be able to gain well over 200 yards against Idaho and even approach 300 yards rushing. Fans can expect a heavy dose of runs, especially if the Cougars jump out early, as they’re expected to do.
BYU passing attack vs. Idaho
The Cougar passing attack has changed quite dramatically with Nelson under center. In the place of mostly timing routes, receivers are freelancing to get open given the time their new quarterback hangs on to the football.
The big beneficiary in all this has been his good buddy Cody Hoffman. With his size and strength, he’s become Nelson’s favorite target, trusting him to go up and get the ball against anybody when Nelson has to improvise, which is a common occurrence with how he plays.
The Vandal pass defense can be had through the air. They give up 281.6 yards passing per game with a defense that relies primarily on zone coverage.
It’s hard to define them as a team that blitzes the quarterback or a team that relies on coverage, as Cougar defensive players have noted that it changes from week to week. Given their difficulty in defending the pass, it’s more likely a result of coaches scrambling to find an answer in limiting opponents more than anything.
“We think they’ll be blitzing us quite a bit,” said Holt. “They’ll want to stop the run, so we think they’ll throw us a lot of run blitzes and they’ll definitely try to get to Riley (Nelson) early, so we think they’ll be coming with a lot of guys."
Throughout practices, the scout team has been throwing a variety of looks at the offense in preparation for what Idaho will bring.
“It’s been a lot of fun practicing, actually,” said Holt. “Usually we see the linebackers showing a variety of formations, but this week it’s been the defensive line, which has been a challenge, but a fun challenge. Idaho will be doing a lot of twists and things like that, so we’ll have to be ready for everything.”
Don’t look for the Vandal pass defense to suddenly wake up this Saturday. With the Cougar ground game cranking, it should open plenty of play-action opportunities, several of which should go for big-gainers down the field.
I haven’t predicted 200-plus yards passing once for Nelson so far this season, but he should be eclipsing that mark easily come Saturday.
BYU rush defense vs. Idaho
As mentioned, the Cougars give up 124. 6 yards per game on the ground. While they’ve proven strong up the middle throughout the year, it’s the big-gainers off-tackle that have given the team most of its problems.
Fortunately for them, the Idaho offense looks to play right into their strength as a defensive unit.
“They probably run downhill and go between the tackles probably more than any team we’ve faced so far,” said linebacker Spencer Hadley. “They have three running backs they’ll be throwing at us, and we’ll be looking to limit those guys, stack the line a bit, but they’ll be a challenge."
Given Idaho’s tendency to focus between the tackles with its runs, one could expect the Vandals to present some big and bruising running backs. That isn’t the case, however, with each of their top three runners weighing in between 5-8 and 5-10 and 192 to 206 pounds.
“They run bigger than they are from what we’ve seen,” said Hadley. “They’re not afraid to take a hit, and it’s effective for them. They’re fast and physical backs that run hard.”
Idaho has one of the least-productive offenses in the country. Given its focus on running the ball, it’s somewhat alarming that it has only averaged 96.1 yards on the ground per game.
The Vandals' downhill style plays right into the hands of a Cougar defense that is built for stopping the run up the middle. The Cougars should have no trouble defending the Vandal ground attack as a result and should be able to hold them below their season average.
BYU pass defense vs. Idaho
The Cougar pass defense has been decent this year, giving up 209.6 yards per game. Most games have witnessed some coverage errors that have resulted in big gains and touchdowns, however.
They’ll be looking to fix that against the Vandals come Saturday.
Idaho comes in averaging just 195.1 yards per game through the air. It is led by sophomore Taylor Davis, 6-3, 221 pounds, who took over the starting job from senior Brian Reader a couple of games back.
Idaho's leading receiver on the year is junior Mike Scott, 5-11, 178, who has 45 receptions on the year for 568 yards.
Up front, their offensive line has given up 23 sacks on the year. The Cougars haven’t been great by any stretch of the imagination in rushing the quarterback, so they’ll do well in accounting for 2-plus sacks come Saturday.
Idaho should be playing catch-up for the better part of the game, so look for it to be throwing the football more than usual. Given how the game is likely to go, the Vandals should be able to throw for more than 200 yards on the night, but they’ll largely be meaningless yards against the typically soft coverages Mendenhall throws at offenses when managing leads.
Prediction: BYU 42, Idaho 13
BYU is looking for some redemption after the TCU game. With a week off to further prepare, a relatively weak Idaho team should have its work cut out for it.
BYU should take a three-touchdown lead into halftime and cruise to an easy victory. Jake Heaps should see the field in the fourth quarter as a result, in what likely will prove to be the most interesting feature in Saturday’s match-up.