The Cougars play this Saturday against their bitter rival Utah in a game normally reserved for the end of the season. As is almost always the case, this Saturday’s match-up looks to be a very competitive one based on this season’s early results.
For the first time this year, BYU will be facing a team it is very familiar with. There are some changes with Utah’s offense, but with two games of film to go on, the defense feels it has a good grasp regarding what those changes are.
Both teams come in having struggled offensively with their new systems but have shown good performances with their tried-and-true defenses respectively. Both teams are coming off of heart-breaking losses on the road from a week ago and will be raring to go on Saturday.
BYU rushing attack vs. Utah
After a barely average outing against Ole Miss, the Cougar ground attack stalled big time last week against Texas. The Longhorns looked to be vulnerable against the run coming in but used a lot of pre-snap confusion and lateral quickness to render the Cougar ground game completely ineffective.
For a unit that returns its entire running battery intact from last season, Saturday’s results were surprising.
“The majority of our offensive struggles fall on our (offensive line) shoulders,” said starting left tackle Matt Reynolds. “When we don’t run the ball well, we take it personally. It’s something we take pride in, and unfortunately we didn’t run it well last week, so that’s been a focus this week.”
Against Utah, the Cougars will again feature their three-headed monster in the backfield, dividing the carries between JJ Di Luigi, Bryan Kariya and Joshua Quezada. It’s a group that won’t be breaking off any spectacular runs but hopes to return to the consistent output that fans have grown accustomed to.
With Quezada ailing a bit, look for coaches to perhaps use Michael Alisa more, as he’s proven to have some pop through the first two games. It will be interesting to note how coaches manage the left guard spot, as Houston Reynolds struggled quite a bit last week.
Utah will be presenting the same 4-3 base defense that BYU players have become very familiar with over the years. It’s a defense that knows BYU very well in turn and has been able to do certain things to throw BYU off in past years.
“They know how to use their schemes to mess with offenses,” observed Cougar running back Kariya. “They do a lot of shifts right before the snap of the ball, which can be difficult. They like to cut our pulling lineman, just chop him down and clog up the lanes as well. They’re doing what they always do based on what we’ve seen on film, but I’m sure they’ll be throwing some new stuff at us as well because they like to do that in these games.”
Utah was able to hold Montana State to just 75 yards rushing the first week, but USC seemed to be able to find some cracks in week two. The Trojans were able to run for 152 yards with running back Marc Tyler running the ball 24 times for 113 yards.
The Utes will feature some good experience along their front seven with four seniors in defensive end: Derrick Shelby, 6-3, 271, at right end, James Aiono, 6-3, 305, at tackle, Chaz Walker, 6-0, 223, at middle linebacker, and Matt Martinez, 6-0, 225, at rover linebacker.
Their most exciting players along their front seven may be sophomore end Joe Kruger, 6-7, 270, and converted safety Brian Blechen, 6-2, 230, who will be starting at stud linebacker.
“They’re like they always are,” observed Reynolds. “They’re very quick to the ball, they’re fast, they cover a lot of ground and they’re just very good. They take advantage of any mistakes you make as an offense, and we’re going to have to be on top of our games for sure on Saturday.”
The team chalked up a lot of its struggles on the ground against Texas to unfamiliarity. Those problems won’t be there against Utah, so it’s fair to assume that the ground game will be more effective on Saturday.
The new BYU offense was presented as one relying on a solid ground game to set up long pass play opportunities on play-action. So far this year, we haven’t been able to see that come to fruition with defenses being able to play their safeties deep due to the running game struggles.
BYU has seen some good success against Utah in past years. Kyle Whittingham is someone who has always been intent on stopping BYU’s pass first and the run second, testing then-offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s resolve to stick with the run.
Most years have proven that Anae’s resolve to stick with the run hasn’t been great, leading to somewhat meager offensive outputs by the Cougars. We’ll see if this changes with Brandon Doman at the helm.
Utah likely won’t be stacking the box at all from the outset, and the Cougars should have their chances to mount an effective ground attack as a result. Forcing Whittingham to cheat his safeties and linebackers toward the line of scrimmage will be key in this game for BYU.
BYU passing attack vs. Utah
BYU has simply had a lot of trouble getting the ball downfield. A lot of this is due to teams not having to respect the run with their defensive alignments.
The Cougar wideouts have not been able to mount consistent threats down the field, unable to beat man coverage on too many occasions. They all but disappeared during the second half against Texas, leading to a very meager output overall.
The good news is that the tight ends have started to emerge, showing some good ability up the middle of the field. The hope is that this will open things on the outside for Ross Apo and company, leading to some more BYU-like gains.
“We definitely need to open the offense up more, and it starts with us,” said Kariya. “We have to be successful running the ball, and if we do that, we know that Jake (Heaps) will be able to beat a defense downfield more often, helping our whole offense.”
Utah will present a man-free coverage system, switching off to some zone coverages on occasion. It’s a pass defense that gave up 264 yards passing a week ago to USC.
The Utes will feature a relatively new defensive backfield with cornerbacks Ryan Lacy, 5-9, 187, junior, and Conroy Black, 6-0, 186, a senior, along with safeties Keith McGill, 6-3, 200, a senior, and freshman Eric Rowe, 6-1, 185.
Up front, the Cougars are expecting a lot of pressure to be applied from a variety of blitz packages.
“They love to be aggressive on defense, and they’ll throw everything at you,” said Reynolds. “We expect them to be coming hard on Saturday. They always like to be physical and aggressive, and we have to match that with our play.”
A big key for the BYU passing game will be Heaps’ ability to stand in the pocket, allow routes to develop and take some big hits. Against Texas, he too often looked rushed in his progression, throwing it off his back foot to underneath patterns over and over again.
Last year against Utah, Heaps did very well in this regard, and will do well to draw on that play this time around. In order for the Cougar passing game to be effective, he has to be able to stand strong in the pocket.
The Cougar offensive front, with its experience, should be able to provide ample time for Heaps and the passing game.
Another big key will be how well the Cougar receivers get off the line. Utah will be aggressive and try to jump routes, which puts the onus on Apo and company to exploit that down the field.
Look for BYU to find better gains with its passing attack than it did a week ago. Utah will be clogging up the middle of the field, so Apo and Cody Hoffman should have some good chances deep with outside routes.
BYU rush defense vs. Utah
BYU has faired very well against a straight running attack so far this season, but against Texas’ zone-read attack led by its quarterback, the Cougars struggled. The defense simply wasn’t ready for that style of attack last week and should see improvements as a result.
The Cougar front seven can be dominating and are the strength of this year’s defense. They’ll feature the same six-man defensive line rotation that will work to keep the Cougar linebackers free to make plays.
Utah struggled to mount an effective running attack against the Trojans. Primary ball-carrier John White rushed the ball 20 times for only 56 yards.
Despite his struggles last week, Cougar defenders are impressed by him and know they’ll have to be at their best to stop him.
“He’s a very good back from what I’ve seen,” said linebacker Jameson Frazier. “He’s fast, he hits the hole hard and he’s shifty. He’ll be someone we have to account for and be focused on stopping to have a good game against them.”
The strength of the Ute offensive front is with senior tackles John Cullen, 6-5, 300, and Tony Bergstrom, 6-6, 315. They’ll present a very traditional approach, running out of a predominant pro-style offensive alignment.
“They’re a lot different with some things than what we’ve been used to over the years,” said safety Travis Uale. “They don’t spread the field as much, but they’ll run a lot of different things at you from the same formation. There’s a lot more deception that we’ll have to be ready for.”
Look for the Cougars to rebound nicely from their surprising ineffectiveness against Texas last week. Utah starting quarterback Jordan Wynn is hardly a running threat, and they won’t have to key on him and go full bore after White.
It’s hard not to like this Cougar front seven against any straight-up running attack that focuses between the tackles. Summarily, look for BYU to hold Utah to well under 100 yards rushing.
BYU pass defense vs. Utah
The Cougar backfield, while not being severely tested as of yet, has proven to be adequate so far this season. It has been able to limit downfield opportunities and keep passing attacks from going for big gains.
“I’m happy with how we’ve down in defending the pass, but Utah will bring a new challenge,” said Uale. “There are some mistakes we’ve made that we’ll have to clean up against them if we’re going to limit them and their chances.”
The standout play so far has been provided at boundary corner where a rotation of junior college transfers Preston Hadley and Joe Sampson has proven to be very effective. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said this past week that their play at that position has improved from last year.
Utah will provide a variety of weapons, starting with junior wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, 6-1, 200. Christopher caught just short of half of Wynn’s completions last week, tallying 11 receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s as good as any receiver we’ll face all year,” said Uale. “He’s fast, he’s quick, and he can get downfield on you. We saw him last year, and he’s still the same guy — probably even better. Number six (Dres Andersen, 6-1, 171, freshman) and No. 14 (Reggie Dunn, 5-10, 170, Junior) both look really good and explosive as well.”
Utah will be using its tight ends quite a bit this year, which hasn’t been its norm through the years. Tight ends Kendrick Moeai, 6-5, 260, junior, and Dallin Rogers, 6-3, 245, junior, have combined for 11 catches for 78 yards so far this season.
There are still some huge question marks surrounding Wynn and his ability in getting the ball down the field. He showed some life against USC last week, but for the most part has had to rely on short and intermediate passes to move the offense.
“Even though they haven’t gone downfield much, we still have to be ready for it every time,” cautioned Uale. “If you’re too confident, if we cheat too much, that’s when they’ll beat us, so we have to be careful to always stop the long pass first as safeties.”
Despite his difficulties, Wynn and the Utah passing arsenal look to be the most potent that BYU’s secondary has faced so far this season. The key will be to stop Christopher, who looks to be the Ute’s most potent offensive weapon.
Prediction: BYU 20, Utah 17
BYU should be able to figure some things out on offense, but until it does, it’s hard to assign the Cougars any more than 20 points. On the other side of the ball, BYU should be able to hold Wynn and company in check.
Fans can expect an ugly and competitive game, which will follow the course that most BYU vs. Utah match-ups have followed through recent years. This one will come down to the fourth quarter, where a more experienced BYU offensive arsenal will prove to be the difference
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