Just how good is Bronco Mendenhall’s defense?
It’s pretty good, maybe one for the ages.
But how much can it get done this season when the difference between BYU being 4-0 and 2-2 is only 4 points and the Cougar offense has directly given opponents 14 points in the two losses?
Therein lies Mendenhall’s dilemma.
He’s got a hammer for a defense, but his offense is a mistake-laden turnover machine with seven fumbles — three of them lost — and seven total turnovers in the last eight quarters.
His defense may stop opponents, but it can’t make up for gifts his offense wraps for the enemy.
It’s like depositing a check with a bank robber.
When NCAA statistics come out after this weekend’s games, they will be adjusted from numbers reviewed on Saturday for this column. With that in mind, BYU ranked No. 9 in the country in total defense heading into the Boise State game. It was 38th in pass efficiency defense, 20th in scoring defense, 32nd in pass defense, No. 5 in sacks and No. 7 in tackles for loss.
Against the Boise State Broncos, BYU’s defense handed BSU coach Chris Petersen’s offense its first sack of the season, a play by Ezekiel Ansah, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound novice who can run the 100 meters in 10.6 seconds.
However, the defense lost one of its best players over the weekend when senior defensive end Eathyn Manumaleuna injured his left knee (patella) at Boise State and will likely miss the remainder of the season.
This is a big blow for Mendenhall and D-line coach Steve Kaufusi. But there are alternatives.
Fortunate for Mendenhall, he has some talent and depth. He can also adjust without Manumaluena and go from a three to a two-man front, substituting linebackers.
Mendenhall’s 2012 defense has proved it can stop the run. It is physical and quick up front.
The linebacker corps is among the best he’s fielded in his tenure at BYU with Spencer Hadley, Uona Kaveinga, Brandon Ogletree and Kyle Van Noy. This is a veteran group that plays heads-up gap control, can chase and makes plays from sideline to sideline. Van Noy, a freelancer, can drop into coverage and stay with receivers.
This is unquestionably Mendenhall’s best cover secondary.
As a defense, it can tackle more cleanly. Players do get out of position at times, but pursuit and recovery time are as good as anyone has seen in Provo in a long, long time.
Against Boise State — granted it has a young offense with a struggling quarterback — BYU gave up 261 total yards. It marked the 10th consecutive game BYU held an opponent to under 300 yards and in this game, no offensive touchdowns.
In Thursday's contest, a national TV audience saw BYU’s defense hold Boise State —a program known for its trickery and extended drives — to zero fourth-down conversions in five attempts, including a series the Broncos had four attempts to score from BYU's 1-yard line.
The result? Boise State gained nothing on four consecutive plays.
This defense is fine. It's fun to watch. It’s a force in itself.
But "we have to get more turnovers for our offense,” said Hadley on Saturday.
And he’s right. That is the biggest area the defense can improve.
It must, to counter balance what is happening with the Cougar offense.
While offensive coordinator Brandon Doman is catching heat and senior quarterback Riley Nelson is being criticized for playing injured and ineffective, it all starts up front with the young offensive line.
Poor blocking and inadequate pass protection is blowing up Doman's plays and sending his quarterbacks running and improvising. They have little time to execute.
Unless this gets fixed fast by knowledge or accelerated skill acquisition, the only remedy for this Doman offense is playing inferior teams.
The inability to execute against good defenses has hobbled Doman in creating an offensive identity. What is this offense? A power run game, a spread offense, an option attack or a drop-back passing game? Is its roots that of a West Coast offense or hybrid form of Air Force's option attack?
Unfortunately, because Doman must dip into all of these attacks, none of it becomes a polished product. It just looks bad.
And that leaves things to the defense.
How many points can the defense score?
That may be the next frontier for Mendenhall.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.