Here are five reasons why the Cougars will emerge victorious Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Zach Bloxham is the Managing Editor of Vanquish the Foe, SBNation's BYU site, and co-creator The Upset, a blog covering college sports in the West. He is a second-year law student at Gonzaga University School of Law.
Bronco Mendenhall's 2012 defense is the most talented he has ever had. The 3-4 scheme puts great emphasis on the gap integrity of the defensive line. The foursome of Eathyn Manumaleuna, Russell Tialeava, Ian Dulan, and Romney Fuga are about as stout as it gets. The big boys eat up space and allow the talented BYU linebackers to fill the gaps and make plays in the backfield.
The Cougar defense has allowed just 1.8 yards per rush after the first two games of the season. Look for this to continue on Saturday at Rice-Eccles. John White IV is a terrific back, but the Utah offensive line has been less than imposing. The Utes are in the bottom third nationally in yards per carry. And this after two games against teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences.
Utah will struggle to establish the rushing attack and first-year offensive coordinator Brian Johnson will be forced to rely on either Jon Hays or Travis Wilson to beat the BYU secondary through the air. The 2012 version of the BYU defense has been much more aggressive and if the Utes become one-dimensional, look out. Kyle Van Noy and Ezekiel Ansah could very well be in the backfield on a consistent basis.
BYU had seven turnovers in last year's game against Utah. Seven. And many of those turnovers led directly to Utah points. It was as close to Murphy's Law on the gridiron as you could get. Utah's defense is fast, athletic, and can make plays in space. BYU will need to take care of the football to be victorious on Saturday.
Brandon Doman has looked much more comfortable in Year 2 of his offensive coordinating duties. The emergence of Riley Nelson, Michael Alisa, and the continued growth of Cody Hoffman have helped the process, as has Doman's game experience. Alisa is going to get a steady dose of carries as BYU will control the clock.
If Utah's offense has as difficult time as it looks like they might, BYU's offensive game plan may become very conservative as the game progresses. This scheme will help BYU keep the turnover margin in its favor. It will be a low-scoring affair.
The BYU offensive line will face its stiffest challenge of the year when Saturday's game kicks off. Utah defensive lineman Star Lotulelei is a sure-fire NFL first-rounder. Lotulelei has quickness, power, and often makes more plays than even the stat sheet can reveal. The Utah State game plan was to effectively run away from the big man. Not a bad scheme, in all honesty. BYU doesn't have the type of quick scat-back that USU has in Kerwynn Williams. The plan will have to be different.
The last time BYU played against a defensive lineman of this caliber was back in the 2009 opener against Oklahoma. Then it was Gerald McCoy, who would go on to become the third overall pick in that year's draft. BYU did something unique that night in Dallas. The Cougars ran right into the middle of McCoy's territory.
McCoy surely made plays, but BYU's combination of Bryan Kariya and Manase Tonga were able to make first downs in short yardage situations. The Cougar duo did not run for many yards, but the effect was that McCoy had to stay at home, and his pass rushing ability was limited. BYU will need to do the same thing with Mr. Lotulelei. The fewer times the 2011 Morris Trophy winner's name is called on Saturday, the better BYU's chances.
The redshirt freshman QB burst on the scene in BYU's home opening win against Washington State. Inserted in a Wildcat formation, the multi-talented Hill threw an 18-yard touchdown pass during his first snap as a college football player. Hill originally committed out of high school to Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, only finding his way to Provo after Harbaugh left to coach the San Francisco 49ers. BYU coaches are surely glad to have him on board, commenting that he is the most athletic player on the team.
Utah State's Chuckie Keeton, a more seasoned version of the dual-threat quarterback, had success on the edges against the Utah defense. Utah will be athletically superior to BYU on both sides of the ball. BYU can counteract this on the offensive side through an expanded use of Taysom Hill. A specific scheme, designed to get Hill to the edge against the Utah defense, could be successful. And don't sleep on Hill’s ability to throw the ball down the field against a talented but young Utah secondary. BYU fans may just get to see the future of the football program sooner rather than later.
You cannot overestimate intangibles. For the previous three seasons of his college career, Riley Nelson has been too small, too slow, and too untalented to play quarterback at a high level in FBS football. The latter part of 2011 began to quiet those criticisms. The first two games of 2012 have continued that narrative. Now, it is time for Riley Nelson to take the next step.
Riley Nelson has channeled the very best qualities of Max Hall: fiery leadership, coupled with a desire to work hard on and off the field. And boy, has it translated to his teammates. The dynamic of the BYU squad changed dramatically when Nelson was inserted for the struggling Jake Heaps during the second half of last year's Utah State game. Interestingly, the difference in the passion and excitement of the team when Nelson was inserted was analogous to when Bronco Mendenhall again took over the defense coordinating duties in 2010. They may go about their leadership in different ways, but there is no denying the results on the field from both men.
Nelson has had the game against Utah circled on his calendar for a year. He knows this will be his one and only chance to take the reins of the Cougar offense and deliver a rivalry week victory in Salt Lake City. The guy just knows how to win football games. If the BYU-Utah game comes down to the final minutes, as it usually does, it would be hard to imagine the Logan High alum not getting the job done. And until we see contrary evidence, believe in Riley Nelson.