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Utah, BYU football: Which will falter first — the Utes' passing defense or the Cougars' passing offense?

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 1:55 a.m. MDT

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Cody Hoffman (2) reaches up for a pass down the sideline as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 at LaVell Edwards stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Cody Hoffman (2) reaches up for a pass down the sideline as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 at LaVell Edwards stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

On the "Jim Rome Show" on Sept. 10, Bronco Mendenhall repeated a goal of his BYU program: to go to a national championship. Recently, he has not expressed lofty goals of a much smaller ordeal — improving the Cougar offense — this fall. In fact, he has done a bit of downplaying.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said after his team’s domination of Texas, when it scored 40 points. “Eventually it will (take care of itself). … We know (the offense) is going to take time.”

At least one aspect of the offense. In a read-option offense, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill rushed for 259 yards — second-most in school history — in defeating the Longhorns.

Passing is another story, however. After going 9-of-26 with an interception on Sept. 7, Hill this fall has thrown two interceptions, one touchdown and is 22-of-66 for 33 percent — 123rd out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

Utah's Nate Orchard (8) and Keith McGill (1) tackle Oregon State fullback Tyler Anderson during the first half of a game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013.  (Matt Gade, Deseret News) Utah's Nate Orchard (8) and Keith McGill (1) tackle Oregon State fullback Tyler Anderson during the first half of a game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

He may want to throw more effectively against Utah — especially considering the Utes’ defensive strengths and weaknesses. Utah has given up just 96 rushing yards per game, including 48 to Oregon State last weekend. Its ground defense ranks 13th nationally — drastically better than Virginia’s (111th) or Texas’ (114th).

Against Utah, it’s not like the Beavers needed to pound the rock much. Sean Mannion’s 443-yard passing day followed Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton’s 314-yard outing (connecting on 32-of-40 attempts). Both were expected to be among America’s best signal-callers this season, but it’s not like they faced much resistance at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Hill may be struggling mightily to connect with receivers, having thrown too far to the left, too far to the right, too short and too far from them. But in this version of the rivalry, he may have just caught a break in facing a defensive backfield that ranks 112th out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. (Actually, he might just need it if Utah indeed stacks the box to ensure Hill doesn’t beat the Utes like he did Texas.)

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill (4) looks for an open receiver as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 at LaVell Edwards stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill (4) looks for an open receiver as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 at LaVell Edwards stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. No cornerbacks — including Keith McGill, Davion Orphey and redshirt freshmen Reginald Porter and Justin Thomas — came into the season having started an FBS game.

That’s a problem when your defense relies on man-to-man coverage at those positions.

Experience is also a problem for nickel back Joseph Smith, also start-less prior to this season. Strong safety Tyron Morris-Edwards and Michael Walker each had just two starts entering the season. In that category, free safety Eric Rowe, who has started every game since his freshman year, was nearly alone.

Assuming receiver Cody Hoffman will sometimes be clamped, perhaps this is the game that Hill remembers he has tight ends — or “inside receivers,” or “slot receivers” or whatever offensive coordinator Robert Anae and crew are calling them. Brett Thompson said before the season that Anae’s new offensive system fits him, Brandon Gurney wrote, “like a glove.”

So far, Thompson has just three receptions for 36 yards.

Perhaps it’s also assured that Utah’s cornerbacks will get beat for deep plays at least a half-dozen times and that Hill sets one of his better marks for passing yards. (He’s averaging 162.5 per game in the four contests he has started.)

Either that, or the Utes win their fourth straight against their rival. The difference Saturday may not be which unit of strength endures, but which unit of weakness musters some sort of brawn.

Perhaps, then, it won’t be the “bloodbath” Kyle Van Noy has predicted.

Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. rhett.wilkinson@usu.edu | @wilklogan

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