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October 5, 2014

BYU's Defense Takes a Trip to Clown College

-- A defensive nightmare; and worse

The LaVell Edwards Stadium record for points scored by an opposing offense in the modern era is 58, held by Colorado State, earned in the misery of that most forgettable of years, 2003.

Utah State was on its way to approaching that mark, having scored 28 points in the first half alone last night in Provo. Fortunately for the Cougars, the BYU offense went inept from the 2nd quarter on -- the carting off of our best quarterback in half a decade had something to do with that -- and the need to continue the bombardiering no longer remained critical to the Aggies. In a different world, one where Taysom Hill didn't go down with injury, where BYU actually made a game of things, I wonder if the offensive output from Utah State might have swollen to that record mark of 58, and maybe more, because that BYU defense was beyond helpless.

This against a team sporting a 2nd stringer at quarterback and a linebacker at running back.

This against a team that scored only 14 against Arkansas State … in five quarters of play.

This against a team that had scored 9 offensive touchdowns all year in their four prior games, with one of those games coming against a FCS opponent.

Let that sink in for a moment. BYU gave up more offensive touchdowns to USU in one half … than Idaho State did in an entire game. It’s worth noting that Idaho State wasn't playing at home either, in front of a sellout crowd, honoring one of the greatest players in all of college football. It’s also worth noting that Idaho State is not good.

Was this the worst defensive performance in BYU football history? Probably not. But it has to rank up there somewhere. And while it was nice of defensive coordinator Nick Howell to remind us that nothing good comes from Ogden, it was unfortunate that the reminder had to come during a season showing actual promise. In an ideal world Howell would face a fate equivalent to his predecessor, Jaime Hill, who met the firing squad the day after a comparable defensive disaster versus Utah State four years ago. Don't let the door hit you on the way out bro, because we don’t want any additional traces of your DNA on this campus.11.  This is the first time I've stooped to calling for someone to be fired online. Wow, it really does help you feel better.  

Unfortunately, firing a person five games into their tenure is a drastic measure, a risky proposition, and BYU does not do drastic or risky - not off the field, and most certainly not on the field. It is very simply my least favorite thing about the team I love.

BYU's refusal to gamble, fearing that running a trick play or blitzing six guys is a sign of weakness -- "We will out-execute you without the use of shenanigans" -- leads to some of the most predictable straight up play you’ll ever see. The plan on defense is simple: we'll back off your receivers, avoid pressuring your quarterback, and protect against big plays. In order to beat us you'll have to string together small play after small play for a sustained amount of time, and we bet you can't do it. You want to know how easy it is to play quarterback against a defense that plays that way? Here, let me show you.

Yes, it deserves to be said: BYU went full James Harden on Friday night.

Here's the problem with BYU's defensive philosophy: it ignores the concept of rhythm. The idea of protecting against the big play in exchange for surrendering the small stuff isn't terrible in theory, but allowing a quarterback all day to throw simple routes is going to make that quarterback very comfortable and confident. By the time BYU gets desperate and decides to bring blitzes or vary coverages later in the game, it's too late! Any QB with a brain and an arm will be on fire at that point.

Imagine using this defensive strategy in a game of basketball. "Alright guys, here's the plan. We're going to lag off the opposing team's most critical offensive player and just let him shoot. Give him all the space he needs. For at least the first half I don't want anyone getting up in his face or trying to block his shot, do you understand me? Let's just let him shoot and hope for the best. Then if he's hot going into the second half we'll start to consider closing in on him. Alright guys? BREAK!! "

Anyone who’s played sports at even the lowest  levels knows that if a player gets hot early, no degree of increased defense is going to slow that player going forward. You’re much better off preventing Player X from heating up in the first place.

What’s crazy is that this passive approach wasn’t always the BYU way. 11 years ago, when Bronco Mendenhall was initially hired as defensive coordinator, he brought a defense founded on the principles of pressuring and confusing the quarterback. The entire premise was to make things as hard as possible for the offense to have even the smallest of successes. Listen to some of these BYU quotes I pulled from the DesNews archives, in describing the original Bronco Mendenhall defense:

“It's very disruptive. This team will blitz, they'll drop everybody off. They'll have three, four or five down linemen or no down linemen. You've got to be on your toes."

"When (this defense) was with New Mexico, they had guys coming from everywhere. It was like (they were) dropping them out of the sky."

“The best part is, you just get after it. It's not like we're going to let the offense set the tone. We want to take it to them and have them adjust to us, not us adjusting to them."

That last quote makes me cringe when I think of the BYU defense of today. How and when did things change so much? When did Mendenhall decide to completely reverse his philosophy and go from doing the acting to being acted upon?22.  I don't know; that's a blog for another day.  

Here’s the most shocking thing about this whole defensive discussion. BYU saw firsthand just five years ago how impactful a pressuring defense could be on opposing offenses. It was BYU versus #3 Oklahoma, back in 2009, when the BYU defensive brain trust realized that to sit back and hope for the best would not work against reigning Heisman trophy winner Sam Bradford. (Ya think?!?) Instead they decided to revert to the early Bronco days and bring the house on Bradford, with the hopes of making him uncomfortable from the get go, knocking him off his game. The short story is that it worked; BYU won the game, earning their biggest upset since 1990. Then the coaches apparently concussed themselves in the post-game celebration and decided, “Hey, let’s never do that again.”

I’m not proposing an all-out blitz on every down. I’m just proposing a little bit of variety, at least to the degree that the enemy QB doesn’t know before the game that he’s going to have so much time and so many passing lanes that he’s in for the game of his life. That’s all. And if that leads to us not running the prevent defense on every play, then that’d be great too. (Especially if we can’t even prevent big plays, as was demonstrated all too well two days ago.)

Of course none of this matters. Not even a single word of it. Not the loss and not the way the team lost either, with balls bouncing off of spines for first downs and through BYU hands for Utah State interceptions. Taysom's gone and that's that for that. It was so fast, so unceremonious. No time spent writhing in pain on the ground, no moment of silence in the stadium, no trainers on the field, no players helping him to the sideline. It took five plays and 76 seconds for Taysom to give BYU the 7-0 lead and it felt like just as quickly he was being carted out of the stadium. The most explosive player we’d seen since Luke Staley, the player who’d rushed for the 3rd highest total in a single BYU season, the guy who was hurdling his way towards being the football team's version of Jimmer won't be seen around these parts for a long time.

That’s all that matters. And that sucks.

1 comment:

  1. Not one word about the missing glasses shows great restraint.

    I like the article.