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BYU, Utah football: Battles within the battle

Today: Backs and 'backers

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 19 2008 12:18 a.m. MST

BYU's Harvey Unga slams into Utah's Stevenson Sylvester, bottom, and Robert Johnson, right. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) BYU's Harvey Unga slams into Utah's Stevenson Sylvester, bottom, and Robert Johnson, right. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Editor's note: This is the second of a four-part series exploring the battles within the war.

UTAH'S RUNNING BACKS: Matt Asiata and Darrell Mack have proven to be a productive duo at tailback. Through 11 games, they've combined to rush for 1,126 yards and 13 touchdowns. The job-share program has nearly been split evenly. Asiata has carried the ball 122 times, while Mack has 110 rushes.
Each of the backs has a three-touchdown game to his credit. Asiata did it against Utah State. Mack matched it at Air Force, where
both players topped 100 yards on the ground.
Asiata is Utah's leading rusher with 633 yards. His 10 rushing touchdowns are the second-most in the Mountain West Conference, as is his 5.2 yards per carry average.
Mack, meanwhile, has netted 493 yards on the ground and needs just 13 more to surpass Carl Monroe (2,029 yards) as the eighth-leading rusher in Utah history.
Then there's Eddie Wide. The sophomore is averaging 6.1 yards per carry in limited action (30 carries). Senior Ray Stowers has also made contributions. He has rushed for two touchdowns.
The running backs have also been involved with the pass game.
Mack has 13 receptions this season and Asiata has caught 10 passes. Asiata has also thrown for a score, completing a 32-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Jereme Brooks against UNLV.
Such versatility is one reason why the Utes currently lead the conference with 36.5 points per game. More than half of the team's 43 touchdowns (22) have come on the ground. They've outrushed 8-of-11 opponents this season, despite ranking just fifth in the MWC with 173.5 yards per game.
UTAH'S LINEBACKERS: The starting trio of middle linebacker Mike Wright, rover Stevenson Sylvester and stud backer Nai Fotu have combined for 161 tackles this season. Wright and Sylvester, who are juniors, lead the Utes with 65 and 61 stops, respectively.
Wright, who was named MWC Defensive Player of the Week after making 15 tackles in Utah's victory over Oregon State, has made other contributions as well. He has four broken up four passes, recovered a fumble and registered a sack.
Sylvester's leadership skills are appreciated by his teammates, who elected him as a captain — the only non-senior in a mix that includes Robert Conley, Brian Johnson and Brice McCain.
On the field, Sylvester has tallied five tackles-for-loss, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
Fotu, a sophomore, tops the linebackers with 5.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
The underclassmen have played like veterans on a Utah defensive unit that ranks second in the conference in four major statistical categories (rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense).
The Utes have been particularly strong against the run, holding four opponents (Michigan, Utah State, Air Force and Weber State) to less than 60 yards rushing. They held the run-oriented Falcons to just 53 yards on the ground, 300 below their season average at the time and their lowest game total since 1980. Only three opposing backs have reached 100 yards rushing against Utah's defense this season. No one had more than 106.
— Dirk Facer

BYU'S RUNNING BACKS: Sophomore Harvey Unga, the Mountain West Conference's freshman of the year in 2007 (he scored the game-winning touchdown against Utah a year ago), is one of the Cougars' biggest offensive weapons. Though he has been banged up much of the season with shoulder and stinger injuries, he's still managed to rush 208 times for 945 yards (averaging 4.5 yards per carry), needing 55 yards to break the 1,000-yard barrier for the second straight season.
Unga has scored eight touchdowns on the ground this season. He is also the Cougars' third-leading receiver, catching 38 passes for 298 yards and four TDs. Unga has a knack for making big plays, such as his season-high 40-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against Colorado State.
Prior to the season, one area of concern for the offense was replacing Manase Tonga, who was suspended for the year. Senior Fui Vakapuna has more than filled that void, embracing the role as Unga's lead blocker. He has also done a good job protecting Max Hall from blitzes. Vakapuna has rushed 49 times for 225 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and he's scored two of his three touchdowns in the last two games. He's also caught nine passes for 64 yards and a TD.
Other backs in the mix include senior Wayne Latu, who has rushed for 51 yards on 10 carries, and freshmen J.J. DiLuigi (13 carries for 48 yards) and Bryan Kariya (eight carries 35 yards). Both Latu and DiLuigi have both fumbled the ball away twice this season.
BYU'S LINEBACKERS: This is a key area in the Cougars' 3-4 defensive scheme. Senior outside 'backer David Nixon headlines this group with 77 tackles, a team-high 10.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, three interceptions, four pass breakups, five quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. Nixon turned in perhaps the best overall performance of his career in the victory over San Diego State a couple of weeks ago with a career-high 14 tackles and an interception. BYU's defense counts on him not only for his play, but also his leadership.
Inside linebacker Matt Bauman leads the Cougars in tackles with 89.
He has added 8.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
The other outside linebacker, Shawn Doman, underwent an appendectomy last week but is expected to play this week. Doman has 51 tackles this season. His replacement against Air Force, backup Matt Ah You, played well in Doman's absence. At the other outside spot is Coleby Clawson, a transfer from Snow College. Clawson has 46 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss and four sacks. Key backups include freshmen Daniel Sorensen, who was sidelined last week with an ankle injury but is expected to be available this week, and Iona Pritchard.
BYU's linebackers aren't known for their speed and have had trouble with opposing players who are quick enough to get on the edge for big plays, as what happened in the loss to TCU and last week's win over Air Force, which executed reverses for huge gains.
— Jeff Call

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