This is an area that needs a lot of improvement after Utah State was able to limit the Cougars to minimal gains, leading to some more offensive futility. Defenses are beginning to key on BYU's lone proven offensive playmaker by shadowing J.J. Di Luigi, and it's yet to be seen how the offense will respond.
The Aztecs have been able to hold their opponents to just under 100 yards per game on the ground through their first four games this season. They'll operate out of the same 3-3-5 defensive system that Rocky Long developed at New Mexico.
"They're a defense designed to confuse and to bring a lot of pressure on an offense," explained quarterback Jake Heaps. "Their first goal is always to stop the run, but then they really aim to [disguise] their coverages, confuse our pass protection and to keep the quarterback guessing and to throw off the timing with everything."
As a refresher, the Aztec defense will present three safeties, with the so-called "Aztec" position being their primary playmaker up the middle of the defense. The Aztec position will be flanked by two so-called "Warriors."
The Aztec position will be manned by senior Andrew Preston (6-1, 210), who leads the team in tackles so far this season, which is often the case in a 3-3-5 system. It's a defense that relies on its linebackers and three safeties to make the majority of the plays while consistently selling out to one spot to stop a play, much like Utah State did to BYU last week.
Their best rush defense performance may have been against a potent Missouri offense, holding the Tigers to 89 yards and a meager 3.3 yards per rush.
The Cougars will have their work cut out for them against a very uncommon defensive alignment that could work to limit them once again. The Cougars simply have to limit how many times true freshman Jake Heaps throws the football in order to be successful.
Fans can expect Di Luigi to be more effective in this game, but it's still difficult to predict more than 100 yards rushing for a struggling Cougar ground game.
BYU passing attack vs. San Diego State
The Cougar passing attack has shown improvement in one area, as Heaps proved to be much more accurate against Utah State than he has been in past games. Fans can expect that to continue and for him to steadily improve with every game.
The receivers have a lot to improve on, as 10 dropped passes isn't even close to be acceptable. It's hard to imagine the receiving corps showing much worse than they did last week, but the passing attack is going to need to see a lot of improvement if they hope to be productive.
The Aztecs will disguise their coverages, which could wreak havoc on a true freshman quarterback seeing the scheme for the first time. Heaps is no average freshman, however, and he has been coached well on how to attack their 3-3-5 system this week during practice.
"What they do is a high-risk system which can leave a lot of holes behind it," noted Heaps. "If we're able to catch them with what they're doing, then it will be an opportunity to get some good execution going and maybe some big plays."
It's not good timing for an offense trying to find its offensive identity to go against a very uncommon defense. Fans can expect Heaps to have some opportunities deep, but the overall rhythm of the passing attack should be hampered a bit, limiting overall production through the air.
BYU rush defense vs. San Diego State
The Cougars have struggled to stop the run up the middle, and with Romney Fuga shelved, it's questionable whether it will get better. The inside linebackers have struggled as a unit but are looking to improve.
The outside may be vulnerable, as the Cougars will have to make do without Jordan Pendleton, who has been effective in limiting runs to the strong side of the field. It could be a perfect storm for an Aztec offense that has been very productive in running the ball so far this season.
They'll be led by running back Ronnie Hillman (5-10, 185), who as a true freshman has accounted for a 133-yard average per game, as well as eight touchdowns and an average of 6.4 yards per carry. He'll be a load to be sure, but at least BYU won't have to account for a running quarterback for the first time this season.
The Cougars could be in trouble here. They're sure to show forth a better effort with Bronco Mendenhall taking the reins of the defense again, but with SDSU looking much improved with their line play and with one of the best freshman running backs in the nation, BYU fans can expect the Aztecs to run for well over 100 yards.
BYU pass defense vs. San Diego State
The gaffes in the pass defense against Utah State can well be attributed to the secondary inching closer to the line of scrimmage to defend the run. That could very well happen again against the Aztecs if they're not able to limit Hillman.
The Aztec passing attack, engineered by junior Ryan Lindley (6-4, 220), has been prolific. His main targets are Vincent Brown (6-0, 185 Sr.) and DeMarco Sampson (6-2, 205 Sr.), who have 20 and 19 receptions on the year, respectively.
"Both of their wideouts are probably the best guys we've seen so far this year," commented cornerback Brian Logan. "We all know what Brown can do, but their other guy [Sampson], he's been making a lot of plays too, so we're going to have to be very disciplined in our coverage to limit them."
There should be little question that the Cougar defense will show better effort and hopefully execution against the Aztecs due to Mendenhall taking the defensive coordinator reins. What they won't have is three of their starters. Additionally, their best defensive player is ailing.
Fans are sure to see a better all-around effort on both sides of the football, but they'll be facing a very good Aztec team that has had two weeks to prepare for BYU. It's not the kind of matchup a struggling team needs at this point of the season.
Final Score Prediction: San Diego State 28, BYU 23