PROVO — What makes BYU's defense the force it has become midway through the 2012 season?
Is it the experience and knowledge of Bronco Mendenhall's system? Is it chemistry? Or is it talent?
If Mendenhall had to rank those elements in terms of importance about this Cougar defense that is ranked No. 1 in stopping the run, No. 3 in scoring defense and No. 5 in total defense, how would he do it?
I posed that question to the BYU head coach this week as his 4-2 Cougars head into a homecoming game against No. 10 Oregon State Saturday.
His first response was to rank none of the above. He said that what makes Kyle Van Noy, Ziggy Ansah and the rest of the gang tick is actually high tech in nature. It can't be defined or ranked as to what is more important, but it is more of a "sequential" undertaking.
"I've never coached a team that spends as much time using technology. Rather than coming to the office to watch film, the use of iPads and computers and players communicating with each other about where they can go to watch (film) is something they eat up."
Mendenhall's defenders arrive at Monday meetings answering questions and are more in the know than BYU teams of the past. This kind of absorption of opponents' schemes and personnel would ordinarily come by Wednesday of a game week.
"That only comes because they want to be good," he said. "Their seeking knowledge is a result of their cohesiveness because they want to rally to do well for each other."
To use a popular political term these days, Mendenhall sees a "trickle-down" impact among his players — they fight to learn about an opponent on their own time. They get prepared because they care about being good and don't want to be the weak link or let anybody down. It's kind of a culture of not skipping homework or letting anyone down.
"I've coached individuals like this, but not this many individuals as a unit."
Mendenhall said he's preached to his team that knowledge is the purest form of competitive advantage. "So we've worked very hard to give them teaching and learning tools so they have access in an unprecedented way, maybe in a way nobody else is doing it. We're very protective of it."
In other words, it's been developed and is sort of a BYU trade secret.
"I guess I'll put it this way: We put a real emphasis on increasing our recruiting of kids who really love football and the more they like it, the more they will do the extra things. These guys really like to play."
This past summer, to gain more knowledge of defensive systems, every BYU coach visited the camp of the NFL's Houston Texans, currently the league's No. 1 team at 5-0.
"That helped a lot," said Mendenhall. Specifically, the visit to Houston brought his staff a few ideas, which it's implemented.
But the bulk of BYU's defense is taken from an extensive library of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"That's really helped, but we've tweaked it and added on things to fit our personnel, things we've added in the right way at the right time, including the movement work we added this summer."
Mendenhall said when players are more prepared, they get to spots faster. "And then, they are just more confident."
That appears evident in the final product. The Cougars have held opponents without a touchdown in the last 13 quarters; taking a team like USU that averaged 28 points and 454 total yards a game and allowing just three points and 243 total yards.
On Saturday, OSU will pose BYU's defense an interesting test since the Beavers will be without QB Sean Mannion, who has passed for 1,358 yards and seven touchdowns.
"We'll prepare for them the same, whether or not he is the starter," said Mendenhall.
To get "knowledge" about Mannion's replacement, Cody Vaz, Mendenhall said BYU's staff has gone as far as to obtain film from his high school days.
Now, that is high tech.