Tom Smart, Deseret News
SAN DIEGO — Before he became one of the most successful head coaches in college football history, thrusting BYU into the national limelight with a dizzying aerial attack and offensive fireworks, legendary LaVell Edwards coached the Cougar defense as an assistant for nearly a decade.
He's watched all of BYU's defenses dating back to the early 1960s, spanning more than 50 years.
That makes Edwards the perfect one to ask: How does the Cougars' 2012 defense rank in the annals of program history?
"It's a different time and era, but I thought this defense was a very good one," Edwards told the Deseret News last week. "It's very strong up front with very good linebackers. The secondary played well. It has to rank right up there with some of our better ones, no question."
Statistically, based solely on current national rankings, it is BYU's best ever. The Cougars rank No. 3 in total defense, No. 2 in rushing defense, No. 13 in passing defense, and No. 5 in scoring defense.
"Looking back at our body of work, I'm proud of what we've accomplished," said senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree, who told reporters earlier this season that the goal has been to finish No. 1 in those categories. "I try not to pay attention to the rankings too much until the end of the year. But they do kind of offer a perspective. Being in the top three is something to be proud of."
Is this defense BYU's best?
"I think we're right up there," Ogletree said. "I don't know who makes that call, but if I had a vote, I'd vote for us."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall, who also serves as BYU's defensive coordinator, said this defense compares favorably with the other great ones.
"Similar in culture and effort and attitude, with more talent, I would say," he said. "More playmakers and a real strong camaraderie. I couldn't tell you statistically in relation to other defenses, but I think they're pretty special."
Current BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, who played for the Cougars in 2006 and 2007, believes the final judgment on the 2012 defense will come Thursday (6 p.m., MT, ESPN), when BYU collides with San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
"How we finish against San Diego State will determine how good this defense is," he said. "They're on track to be one of the best ever. But obviously if we lay an egg against San Diego State, that won't be true. At the end of the season we'll be able to answer that question to the fullest."
Certainly, the Cougars will face a stiff test in the Poinsettia Bowl. While BYU is ranked No. 2 in rushing defense, allowing 84.25 yards per game on the ground, the Aztecs are No. 16 in rushing offense, averaging 229.17 yards per contest.
"We've got to stop the run," Poppinga said. "San Diego State is up to the challenge. They're fired up to play us, and we're fired up to play them. It's their strength versus our strength. We'll see who ends up winning that battle."
Poppinga said BYU's defense has been steady this season.
"Week-in and week-out they've been very consistent," he said. "They've had their ups-and-downs against Oregon State and San Jose State at times, but for the most part, we've played really well all season long. We've given our team a chance to be in every single game this year. That's all you can ask for from a defense."
When a discussion about BYU's best defense ever begins, there's also the acknowledgement that the game has changed dramatically over the years.
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