PROVO — It’s Cougars taking on Cougars Thursday night, with BYU welcoming Washington State to LaVell Edwards stadium to kick off the season. Offensive guru Mike Leach has taken the reigns of the WSU program while Bronco Mendenhall enters his eighth year at BYU.
WSU enters the game with a lot of enthusiasm, but with at least an equal amount of question marks. BYU, meanwhile, looks to field one of its best defenses in history while providing its share of question marks on the offensive end.
So how will the teams and what can fans expect as an outcome? We looked at how each position groups match up to give you the best look possible into tomorrow night’s game.
BYU rushing attack vs. WSU
BYU’s early season struggles on offense last season directly correlate to its inability to establish much of a threat running the football. That all changed once Riley Nelson took over at quarterback and Michael Alisa took over primary ball-carrying duties, albeit against subpar defensive units down the stretch last season.
Michael Alisa (6-1, 220) looks to reprise that role this season and is coming off a very promising fall practice session. Iona Pritchard (6-0, 244) is back after injury and should play a major role in the backfield along with David Foote (5-11, 200), who finally looks to warrant a lot of field time entering his senior season.
WSU will present a new 3-4 front that features Travis Long (6-4, 245, senior) as its assumed primary play-maker from his Buck linebacker position. It’s a defense that is very familiar to the same 3-4 formation that BYU runs.
“(Long) is a bit of a hybrid guy when looking at him on film and when studying my game notes,” said offensive lineman Houston Reynolds. “He’ll line up like a defensive end a lot and give us a front that looks like a 4-3 a lot of the time. It’s similar to what our defense does in situations. They have some good guys up front that are very aggressive off the ball and they’re going to be a challenge to run it against, but I think we’ll be up to that challenge.”
Cougar question marks
BYU Cougar question marks, that is. Due to a string of injuries to expected starters throughout the off-season, there are a lot of question marks surrounding the BYU offensive front. It’s a group that underperformed early last season, and without the named starters seeing many reps together as a unit, it could affect their overall symmetry adversely.
There is a lot of intrigue surrounding the use of freshmen Adam Hine (6-1, 202) and Jamaal Williams (6-0, 190). Both players provided exciting play throughout the fall practice session.
“There needs to be a feeling of unity and trust that we’re all going to complete our assignments and be at our best,” said Reynolds. “I really feel that it’s all mental for us, as an offensive line, and for the entire offense. If we can learn to trust others and just worry about doing our own thing and completing our own assignments, then we could be a dominant in our run-blocking and in other areas.”
BYU will not be providing the anemic ground attack it showed last season early on. Look for offensive coordinator Brandon Doman to be much more creative in how he attacks teams on the ground leading to a rushing attack that will gain well over 100 yards against WSU.
BYU passing attack vs. WSU
BYU presents a passing arsenal that is largely intact from last season. Returning its top quarterback, Riley Nelson (6-0, 199) and top receiver, Cody Hoffman (6-4, 215), is a big thing that should lead to some good success through the air.
As mentioned, WSU will present a variable front that will rely on a lot of deception and different looks according to Reynolds.
“Their defensive coordinator in the past has done a lot of blitzing and a lot of twisting,” said Reynolds. “We’ll have to be ready for all of that, but we just have to let them know that if they’re going to twist at us that we’re going to gash them and make them pay for it. It’s going to be a fun challenge, I think.”
WSU presents some good experience at secondary led by junior cornerbacks Damante Horton (5-10, 175) and Nolen Washington (5-11, 182).
“(They run) a lot of zone and when they play man (coverage), they run a lot of blitzing on top of it,” said quarterback Riley Nelson. “It’s hard because we have their defensive coordinator’s film, but with a different team and with different personnel, so he may feel he can do different things with this personnel than he did with previous teams. Watching their spring ball, they showed (everything). They looked like they went through their whole playbook in the spring game, so it’s hard to know what they’ll play like.”
Cougar question marks
A lot of attention has been paid to the tight end position this off-season and for good reason. Kaneakua Friel (6-5, 250, junior) emerged as the top tight end out of camp, but he’s largely unproven.
Ross Apo (6-4, 215, sophomore) is as athletically gifted as any receiver BYU has had in its program. He’s struggled with consistency early on, but looks to become a Hoffman-like force this season.
“Cody Hoffman has been a rock and a staple,” said Nelson. “I think he will have the year people expect him to have as long as he stays healthy. (All of the receivers) have been making plays and I expect them to continue to make plays.”
Don’t expect Doman to drop back Nelson in a traditional sense this Thursday and for the duration of the season. He knows what Nelson’s strengths are, possessing largely the same strengths when he played quarterback. For this reason, look for Nelson to do a lot of designed roll-outs and options in what should shape up as a very untypical BYU passing attack.
BYU rush defense vs. WSU
BYU looks to have a potent run defense with its front seven returning virtually intact from a year ago. Headlining the front seven are four of the most experienced defensive linemen any team could hope for (Ian Dulan, 6-1, 271; Eathyn Manumaleuna, 6-2, 288; Romney Fuga, 6-2, 318; and Russell Tialavea, 6-2, 275). Although Dulan will miss this coming game, the Cougar front-seven looks apt to stop most of what WSU throws at them on the ground.
So what will WSU throw at BYU on the ground? Using Leach’s offenses at Texas Tech as a guide, not much is the answer.
WSU should be chucking the ball around frequently with not much attention paid to a running attack that features three scat-back types on its two-deep roster.
“It’s difficult to know what any new offense is going to look like for that first game,” said outside linebacker Spencer Hadley. “We know that Leach likes to throw, so we’re expecting a lot of passing, just like everyone else is, but we have to be ready for anything.”
Cougar question marks
Not a lot of question marks surround BYU’s ability to defend a straight-up running attack, but WSU won’t be presenting that type of attack. It will rely on deception with its cadre of quick, elusive runners looking to beat BYU on the edges and when they’re least expecting. How well BYU defends against this sort of attack is a big question mark.
“We can’t expect them to be passing every time they line up,” said Hadley. “It’s important to just remember our keys and stay with our assignments, and we should be fine.”
Expect WSU to run the ball more than what is largely expected, due to the process of settling down a relatively new quarterback running a brand-new offense. As mentioned, WSU most likely won’t be mounting a traditional attack from its backfield, so the key will be not to be taken by surprise with anything the team runs at the BYU front.
BYU pass defense vs. WSU
BYU looks to field an untypically strong pass defense that features three returning starters (Preston Hadley, 6-0, 190; Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 206; and Joe Sampson, 5-10, 203) and a very promising first-year starter in Jordan Johnson (5-10, 185). BYU fared well in running out of a nickel formation last season, albeit against subpar passing attacks.
WSU lists four wide receivers on its depth chart with no tight end and a single running back, in case you needed more evidence of Leach’s proclivity to pass the football.
The passing attack is headlined by wide receiver Marquess Wilson (6-4, 195, junior) who will be as good as any receiver BYU faces all year.
“He’s pretty tall and I’m just 5-10, so he’ll have some inches on me,” said Johnson, who should be matched up with Wilson quite a bit. “I hope I can make up for some of that with my vertical, so it should be fun. I’m excited to play him straight up, and he’s the type of test you want as a new player.”
It’s not just Wilson, however. BYU will have to watch everything in WSU’s arsenal including some shifty slot receivers.
“They’ll throw a wide variety of passes at us, especially that smoke screen to the slot,” said Hadley. “I expect that I’ll be playing off the line quite a bit in coverage, and hopefully we can work well in containing a lot of those short screens that we think they’ll be throwing.”
WSU has not named a starter, but should go with senior Jeff Tuel (6-3, 221).
Cougar question marks
BYU should be going with a 2-4-5 alignment throughout the game, but how affective they’ll be in defending a wide-open attack is certainly a question mark.
Another question mark surrounds the team’s ability to rush the quarterback. BYU doesn’t present a proven pass rusher, but should look to blitz more often than usual. Fans have been anticipating Ezekial “Ziggy” Ansah emerging as a pass rush threat, and we’ll see how he fares soon enough.
“I feel very confident in our defensive backs,” said Hadley. “We have smart and athletic guys back there, so I’m not worried about them at all. We like our nickel a lot, and I think if we come out and just execute our responsibilities, our gap assignments and everything else that we’ll be fine. I believe in our game plan and now it’s just up to us to get it done.”
WSU would be the type of offense that would give most BYU defenses fits, but this isn’t your normal BYU defense. It’s a defense experienced in running a nickel package with some argument to be made that it’s the team's best package. Quality play from the outside linebacker position is key in defending a Leach offense and BYU has one of the best in the nation in Kyle Van Noy.
Look for WSU to struggle with its consistent throwing game, with BYU proving better able in defending the flats it has most years.
BYU typically doesn’t put a lot of points on the board during its first game under coach Bronco Mendenhall. Save for the 2008 year, against Northern Iowa, the BYU offense rarely scores over 20 points, with its highest total being the 23 points it put up against Washington in 2010.
BYU should have much more identity on offense this season, however, and coupled with what looks to be a subpar WSU defense, predicting north of 30 points doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Defensively BYU should prove more apt in defending a spread offense than it ever has. WSU will put up some yards and Wilson should be able to make some plays, but look for BYU to limit the WSU with its experience and its effectiveness in running a nickel defense.
Final Score: BYU 34, WSU 20