PROVO — BYU’s defense has shined this season but will have its work cut out this Saturday against San Jose State. The Spartans present a high-octane passing attack that is ranked ninth nationally in passing yards per game at 325.
The Cougar defense largely hasn’t been tested much through the air this season but did allow 332 yards passing against the Cougars in the Oregon State game. The Beavers used a lot of max-protect and precise passing from Cody Vaz to account for most of their yards.
The Cougar coaching staff expects San Jose State to employ a lot of the same strategies that Oregon State used, but will BYU be ready this time around?
“I think so and hope so, but we’ll find out,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “We’ve played a lot of games since then, and you’d think if we’re that vulnerable that other teams would have done it since, so either we’ve closed it down or we (haven’t) and we’ll find out.”
BYU has given up just 172.2 yards passing per game on the year, but may be facing its biggest test of the year this week. The Spartans' passing attack is led by quarterback David Fales, who has completed just over 72 percent of his passes for 3,126 yards this season.
The Spartans employ a lot of spread formation, with Fales receiving the ball in shotgun or even a pistol alignment. He’ll be looking primarily for speedy receiver Noel Grigsby, who leads the team in receptions and yards with 58 and 914 respectively.
“This team is good at passing and the short routes, moving the ball methodically and then hitting you with the big long shot,” observed outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “We have to contain them, get them in third-and-long situations and then get off the field, and I think we’ve done a good job.”
Containing the Spartans' passing attack may prove a bit more difficult given the dismissal of starting free safety Joe Sampson. Craig Bills should be fine replacing Sampson in BYU’s base 3-4 formation, but the potential problem comes when the team employs its nickel package, which it will likely do frequently this week.
Rather than employ another defensive back, coaches will ask their outside linebackers to work as nickel backs. It’s a role Van Noy and the other outside linebackers feel comfortable with.
“I’ve done it all year,” Van Noy said. “We’ve had more practice this week and seen more routes this week, so that’s been a benefit and we’re just going to battle through coach Mendenhall puts us in good situations, so I think we’re going to be just fine.”
Van Noy and other players actually believe that switching defensive alignments while not changing base personnel may work as an advantage against a team like San Jose State.
“We’re confident in (our ability) to give them a lot of looks, and I think that’s what (Mendenhall) wants to do is to give a lot of different looks out on the field and then try to give the quarterback looks he hasn’t seen all year,” Van Noy said. “With rotating the nickel package and rotating the base and having the base personnel play the nickel package, it’s going to be a great benefit to us.”
With all the focus on San Jose’s passing attack, the defense is still mindful of defending the run. Although the Spartans average just 118 yards on the ground, they have some horses out of the backfield that can beat a defense.
“They do a little bit of everything and just enough passing that it can open up the run,” Van Noy said. “They remind me of what BYU used to do when Max (Hall) was here when Harvey (Unga) would go for 100 yards, and that’s what they can do when they throw the ball and no one is expecting the run.”
Overall, Van Noy is excited for the challenge San Jose is likely to present on Saturday.
“It’s what we want to go against right now,” Van Noy said. “They’re very confident — thinking we can’t stop them, and I think it’s going to be a battle. It’s good to hear people that are confident because we like (that challenge.)”