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November 1, 2011

Investigating BYU's Defense

It seems at times that the entire focus on BYU Football this year has been directed towards the offensive side of the ball. Fans and media have watched as rookie offensive coaches have tried to forge a new identity with a group of offensive players in flux. The results have been up and down at best, and analyzed to the point where I no longer care.

Why let the offense have all the fun? The Cougars defense has been a much more interesting unit to evaluate through 12 games. Dominant at times and reckless at others, let's try and determine just how good (or bad) the defensive side of the ball has been for BYU.

Some of BYU's initial defensive statistics look impressive: 23rd in scoring defense, 21st in rush defense, 28th in pass defense and 17th in yards allowed. Placing within the Top 25 in three categories is nothing to be ashamed of. And once the points allowed statistic is altered to reflect the scores given up by the offense, BYU's scoring defense improves to 17.8 points per game, which would rank 10th nationally. Those are encouraging numbers for a squad that will return seven of 11 players next season.

Not all is well on the defensive side of the ball however. BYU is middle of the pack in tackles for loss (65th nationally) and below average at sacking quarterbacks with only 20 sacks on the year, good for only 78th in the nation. That's a terrible number made even more discouraging when you consider that six of those 20 sacks came against FCS Idaho State, a team that dropped back 60-plus times to throw and allowed Cougar defenders to bring pressure non-stop. Remove those six sacks and BYU drops to 108th in the nation in quarterback takedowns.

BYU returns five of their seven box defenders next year and they will need to improve vastly at bringing pressure if they want to beat the better teams. Against Texas, TCU, Utah and Utah State (the four opponents with winning records) BYU recorded a total of one sack. One! In four games!

One might point to that low sack total as a reflection on BYU's philosophy to avoid pressuring the QB in exchange for preventing the big play, but BYU struggled this year in defending big plays as well. The Cougars have given up nine plays on the season of greater than 50 yards, which ranks 100th in the nation. They've given up two plays of over 80 yards (only Indiana has given up more plays of 80 plus) and another for 79 yards against Hawaii.

Here are where things get really troubling for the Cougars defense. Basic football strategy proposes that there are two very basic defensive mentalities that a team can adopt.

1) Blitz and pressure the quarterback more frequently while running a higher risk of giving up a big play, or

2) Play a conservative, minimal blitz defense while focusing on preventing big play opportunities.

We've established that BYU has been extremely unsuccessful at pressuring the quarterback, especially against competitive opponents. They tend to blitz less often than others and when they do blitz, it isn't producing the expected result. But at the same time, BYU is still giving up more big plays than the average team. The point is that BYU's defense is getting the worst of both worlds right now, neither disrupting the quarterback nor preventing long runs and passes.

Despite these deficiencies, the defense has looked great at times, and the players have done more than enough to help in BYU winning nine games this season. They even rank in the Top 25 in a trio of defensive categories, but the fact remains that either something is awry with BYU's defensive scheme or the way that scheme is being executed.

So can a defense that struggles to disrupt quarterbacks and prevent big plays reverse those trends against a Tulsa team ranked 24th in scoring offense? Will they pair with a Riley Nelson-led offense to make BYU a more complete team in 2012?

I really don't know, but I’m eager to find out.

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