In the heat of the night of Sept. 5 in Tuscaloosa, BYU's defense was wilting in the Alabama humidity.
Less than 22 minutes into their season opener, the Cougars had given up 24 points. So much for the supposed strength of this year's team - or so it seemed."We were shocked. A couple of times I put my hands up and said, `How can this be happening to us? What can we do?' " BYU middle linebacker Rob Morris said. "It was like a bad dream, but we bounced back from it OK."
Though the Cougars went on to lose 38-31 on that balmy evening at Bryant-Denny Stadium, BYU's defense has since worked toward meeting preseason expectations. Entering Saturday's Western Athletic Conference opener at Fresno State, the Cougars rank as the league's top defensive unit, allowing just 291.8 yards per game. BYU also tops the WAC in rushing defense (75.0 ypg) and defensive pass efficiency (97.07 rating). Nationally, the Cougars are ninth in defending the ground game and 21st in the other two categories.
"In a meeting the other day, we said, `We've got to move up and we've got to stop people from scoring any points,' " senior safety Chris Ellison said. "Our mentality on the field is to dominate. We're getting there. We're just moving along. It's progressing."
In its last three games, BYU's defense has surrendered just one touchdown per outing to opposing offenses. Arizona State, Washington and Murray State learned first-hand what the Cougars are capable of doing on defense.
"You have to give credit to BYU," ASU coach Bruce Snyder said. "They are physical and they can hit."
So impressed was Washington coach Jim Lambright, he sought out Morris after the Huskies' win to tell him.
And Murray State's Denver Johnson compared BYU's defensive front to "some of the teams at Oklahoma State when I was coaching there."
With eight returning starters, BYU's defense is experienced, confident and determined.
"We've got a bunch of ornery guys out there who like to be intense," Morris said earlier this season. "We settled for being average sometimes (last year), but that isn't going to happen again."
A bowl-less 6-5 season is more than enough motivation for the Cougars. And they've gotten downright defensive about turning things around. After the Alabama loss, BYU shut down a pair of Pac-10 stars in ASU tailback J.R. Redmond and Washington QB Brock Huard.
"We're pretty experienced. We've seen a lot of different offenses - spread offenses and offenses where they just plow it up the middle," senior linebacker Brad Martin said. "I'm not too worried and I don't think the defense is really too worried. Because playing in the WAC, you see every offense there is."
Pass. Run. Whatever. Bring it on, say the Cougars.
Twenty-eight different players have made tackles this season. Morris, BYU's defensive points leader in 1997, tops the chart with 35 tackles, while Ellison (who did not play against Murray State because of a sore shoulder) leads four others in double-figures with 23. Over the first four games, the Cougars have made 26 tackles for losses, recorded six quarterback sacks, broken up 10 passes, caused four fumbles and recovered four others.
In addition, defensive end Bryon Frisch has returned a fumble 39 yards for a touchdown and safety Jason Walker has already matched the number of interceptions BYU as a team had all of last season with his four picks. Add Justin Ena's interception of Murray State to the mix, and the Cougars already have eclipsed 1997's 11-game total.
"There's been a lot said about our defense - the front and the linebackers," BYU coach LaVell Edwards said. "But I think right now our secondary is playing about as well as any secondary we've had here in some time. That's been a real plus for us. Hopefully, we can keep that going."
It took BYU six games to get its first interception a year ago. A second didn't come until the ninth week before the total was doubled in the season finale. Walker, a senior from Springville, equaled the tally himself over the past three weeks. He currently ranks second in both the nation and WAC with an average of one per game.
Walker and Ellison have meshed with junior college transfers Heshimu Robertson and Brian Gray to give BYU a solid secondary. Edwards has said how the newcomers blend in would say a lot about what kind of defense the Cougars would have.
And thus far, all is well.
BYU's defense has taken the spotlight away from the school's passing tradition, which has struggled this season. Could it be a changing of the guard? Or is this defensive unit just special?
"I don't know if we're the best defense in BYU history," Morris said. "I'm pretty certain I'm not as good as Leon White or Kurt Gouveia, but I'll tell you what - we're a tough defense. We're up there. Let's say that."
Ranking BYU's defense
Team WAC NCAA
Rushing (75.0 yards per game) 1st 9th
Pass efficiency (97.07 rating) 1st 21st
Total defense (291.8 yards per game) 1st 21st
Scoring (18.3 points per game) 3rd 28th
Individual WAC NCAA
Jason Walker (1.0 INTs per game) 2nd 2nd