Tom Smart, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall.

SAN DIEGO — So, what about this 3-3-5 San Diego State defense?

What makes it a challenge? Why did Rocky Long and Bronco Mendenhall love it so much at New Mexico and why is it part of the success of the 9-3 home team in the Poinsettia Bowl that kicks off Thursday in Qualcomm Stadium?

The 3-3-5 defensive front is designed to confuse offensive linemen and blocking backs who try to pick up blitz-crazy quarterback eaters.

“They’ll play a lot of man on the back end,” said BYU receivers coach Ben Cahoon.

“We don’t’ have a lot of players who have gone against it,” said senior quarterback James Lark. “They are another football team you have to prepare for and they are very good. Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of time to prepare.”

When Mendenhall left New Mexico and Long, their hand signals from the sideline were exactly the same. “We could read their defensive signals,” said Long, “But we didn’t have time to relay that to our offense. Obviously, those calls have changed over the years. Bronco has another guy (Paul Tidwell) signaling them in.”

The 3-3-5 creates a challenge to blockers, pass protections and the run game. It is successful when deployed with talented corners and defensive backs who can move in space, show one thing, recover to something else. It is vulnerable to a good run game, play-action pass and quarterbacks who can read it and make play decisions in a quick manner.

When Mendenhall came to BYU, he brought Long’s 3-3-5 concept with him. But because he had more talent at the linebacker than the secondary, he took some 3-3-5 concepts and morphed it all into a 3-4 front. At times he uses two-down linemen in this front and can show five across. It, too, is deceptive. And with his current players, it can be very effective.

“This defense came from many parts,” said Long. “Coaches don’t invent things, they gather things.” Long says he learned things from a CFL coach, added some of the blitzes from former New Mexico coach Joe Morrison.

It’s a cornucopia of ideas from all over.

“It has a lot of blitz and blitz disguises,” said Cahoon. “They have guys who come across the line of scrimmage, sometimes engage and then fall back. Our line and backs have players they identify who come and lock on and when they fall back, it makes it hard with all the twisting they do. It’s a challenge. Coach (Mark) Weber has his hands full, so does coach (Joe) Dupaix, in sorting it all out.”

One thing that stands out, says Cahoon, is that Long’s defense is like Bronco’s defense. Everyone swarms to the ball and plays hard. “You can tell they’ve been training, running pursuit drills.”

SDSU’s reputation for being soft defensively? “I’m not buying it,” said Cahoon. “These guys play hard.”

SDSU’s best cover man is senior corner Leon McFadden, named the team’s most valuable player, who led the team in interceptions with three, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

“I heard some of our coaches talking that we recruited him out of high school, but I don’t know the story,” said Cahoon.

“He works hard, is very athletic and has speed. They have athletes all over the field and we’ll have to run great routes and get into them in the run game in order to stay on the attack and keep them on their heels.”

SDSU could adjust their defense to put an extra man in the area of BYU’s top receiver, Cody Hoffman.

The 6-4 junior receiver set a school record in his last game, a blowout of New Mexico State. He has drawn attention from defensive coordinators all year.

If the Aztecs do so, BYU will have to take advantage and deliver the ball to someone else and make them pay.

Said Cahoon, “They do play a lot of man coverage and that part of it isn’t hard for our receivers to figure out, it’s a matter of getting open against some great athletes. That is their comfort area, though, playing man coverage.”

Both Mendenhall and Long agreed on one thing about the 3-3-5, which transferred to the 3-4, or whatever defense is played. Everything is executed much better when the players are asked to give everything they have as long as they can. “When they do that, you can’t fault them,” said Mendenhall. Long seconded the motion.

In the end, it’s that, not schemes, that matters.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].