PROVO — So far this season, BYU’s defense has faced two preseason Heisman Trophy candidates — Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.
The No. 20 Cougars shut down Tate and contained Taylor as they defeated the Wildcats and Badgers, respectively.
But BYU likely is looking at its toughest defensive challenge when it visits No. 11 Washington Saturday (6:30 p.m. MDT, FOX).
The Huskies boast quarterback Jake Browning, a strong offensive line, running back Myles Gaskin and wide receiver Aaron Fuller.
“Washington presents different challenges,” said linebacker Adam Pulsipher. “They definitely have a lot of speed on the outside at the receiver position and also the running back position. That will test us.”
Four games into the 2018 season, coach Kalani Sitake said there are many aspects that the defense can improve on — and at the top of the list is getting more sacks. The Cougars have recorded just five this season, three by Corbin Kaufusi.
“We’re getting pressure on the quarterback. Every week, we’ve missed some sacks,” Sitake said. “But we’re getting some disruption and you saw the result of that last week. We had some disruption in the Wisconsin game, but we couldn’t get the sacks. We’ll keep working on it. The guys are aware of it.”
How does Pulsipher assess the defense?
“I think we’re improving. We’re physical and we play hard,” he said. “We’ll continue to make strides as we jell together more as a defense and put in some new pressures that will allow us to get to the quarterback a little bit more.”
This season, the Cougar defense has held each of its opponents to fewer than 24 points. BYU ranks No. 23 in scoring defense (17.0 ppg) and No. 28 in total defense (328.3 ypg).
The Cougars also have eight takeaways this season, including four in their 30-3 victory over McNeese State last Saturday. Not only did BYU keep the Cowboys out of the end zone, they also didn’t allow them a single third-down conversion out of 10 attempts.
BYU’s defense has played well despite being without three starters due to injury — starting middle linebacker Butch Pau’u (who has missed the past two weeks), outside linebacker Zayne Anderson and starting safety Dayan Ghanwoloku.
But the Cougars haven’t experienced much of a drop-off in performance.
In fact, some of the backups came up big last Saturday. Linebacker Rhett Sandlin and safety Tanner Jacobson both had interceptions while the two fumble recoveries were by safety Sawyer Powell and defensive lineman Alden Tofa.
“It speaks to the depth of our team,” Pulsipher said. “I think guys have stepped in and stepped up, guys like Riggs Powell, Isaiah Kaufusi at the linebacker position. The D-line rotates probably 10 different guys. Even in the secondary, with Tanner Jacobson stepping in and making a play. It speaks to the depth of the quality of players that we have.”
Sitake said when injured starters are cleared to play by doctors and trainers, they aren’t automatically handed their starting jobs. They must earn it in practice.
“It’s important that when the backups are in there, they show that they’re there for a reason,” said linebackers coach Ed Lamb. “Depth charts change. Coaches change their mind over the course of time. Things like that can spark those conversations.”
Pulsipher, who mans the middle linebacker spot, likes playing behind nose tackles Khyiris Tonga and Merrill Taliauli.27 comments on this story
“It makes the job of the mike linebacker a lot easier when you have disruption, a guy taking on two blocks,” he said. Both (Taliauli) and Khyiris playing that nose spot are talented guys who do different things well. Khyiris is really good at penetration and Meti’s great at taking on blocks, eating up those blockers. That’s fun to play behind and get to make plays off of.”
While BYU enjoys good defensive depth, when it comes to facing Washington’s offense, the Cougars are hoping to have Pau’u, Anderson and Ghanwoloku back in the lineup Saturday.
“We’re a better team when everyone’s healthy and contributing,” Pulsipher said. “Hopefully, guys will get back***
No. 20 BYU (3-1) at No. 11 Washington (3-1)
Saturday, 6:30 p.m. MDT, Husky Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM