Putting a finger on the struggles

In the Cougars' three games, BYU's offense has struggled. Some points of offensive criticism have been placed directly on the shoulders of an experienced offensive line in possession of an All-American, two Outland Trophy candidates and one Remington Trophy candidate. However, supplementary factors, rather than a sudden digression in ability, are more likely the cause for the woes.

It's difficult to understand why a talented and experienced offensive line has all of a sudden digressed.

"I think a lot of it is in the offense as a whole," Braden Hansen said. "We're having a lot of mistakes. Us making mistakes as an offense has hurt us as a whole, but we're trying to put that in the past and move forward with UCF and run the ball like we know we can."

Did the local media get it wrong? What about the Football Writers Association of America when they named three members of BYU's offensive line to their prestigious award watch lists? Sure, there have been some offensive line mistakes, but enough to heap upon them the blame for a lack of offensive performance in both the run and passing game? Well, probably not.

"You know, last year we basically had the same offensive line as this year and we still have the same running backs," Hansen said. "The question is, why all of a sudden have things changed? Did we all of a sudden forget how to block or do our assignments? The answer is no. But there are some things that we need to work out, I think, that have given our offense some struggles as a whole. I think we need to get back to some of those fundamentals and not make so many mistakes [and] we'll turn it around."

Having basically the same offensive line as last year is one reason why so many have become disappointed. So what's the problem, or what are the issues with the fundamentals? Well, for starters, BYU hasn't had the same type of running backs at its disposal like the program enjoyed under Coach Anae. Players like Harvey Unga, Fui Vakapuna and Manase Tonga lining up in a power I-formation has become extinct, and Kariya hasn't been much of a factor in that fundamental set either.

"Yeah, the fullback is like a sixth offensive lineman and in fall camp we lost our starting two," said Hansen. "Iona [Pritchard] went down and then Zed [Mendenhall] got hurt, so the first two games we're playing [Austin] Heder, who just barely got here and was quickly thrown in the mix. He did a great job for the amount of time he had to get reps.

"You know, when that's part of your base offense like it was in years past and then that part is taken away from you, it definitely hurts your offense. Now you have to try and do things that don't play into your strengths and I think that's hurt us a little. We're getting there and Zed is getting healthy and Heder is doing a better job, and I think some of our former strengths will show better in the next couple of weeks."

During his tenure, former BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae had a seasoned quarterback first in John Beck – who had two years under his belt before Anae took the job – and then a redshirt sophomore in Max Hall, who spent a year on the scout team before ever seeing the field under Anae's command. Sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps, with no power run game, has taken a lot of pressure this year.

"Yeah, I totally understand that and there are a lot of factors that kind of go into it," Hansen said. "Some of that is we're doing things a little differently this year with a new offense as far as scheme. Sure, there are some things similar as far as scheme, but there are some things that are different also – trying to establish a run game and pass and do play action – and I don't think we've hit our groove yet with some of the things we're now doing within our offense. I think once we hit our groove with some of the little things, and not have seven turnovers, we'll see a better performance."

"I think teams see Jake being a young quarterback, and if they can get pressure on him he'll have trouble getting the balls out," said J.J. Di Luigi. "We've had troubles picking up the blitzes and really a lot of that is on us as running backs. We've made some key mistakes picking up blitzes with some of the new things we're trying to do."

During one point in the Utah game, Ute linebacker Trevor Reilly lined up on the left side of the left defensive tackle. On the snap of the ball, the tackle shot the two-gap and was immediately picked up by Hansen. Center Terence Brown came over and chip-shot the tackle just as Reilly stunted across on a blitz up the middle. Unfortunately, the blitz wasn't picked up in time by Kariya, and Heaps was hit, causing a fumble.

"We need to get our protections worked out to where we're giving Jake enough time to get the ball out and not get hit," Di Luigi said. "To this point in the season, I think he's been hit way too much and we need stop that."

Until BYU hits its grove in the passing game, and gives more reasons for defenses to respect them downfield, teams will continue to pressure up front with safeties and linebackers knowing there is no threat of a run game.

"The teams that we played, like Ole Miss and Texas, love to stack the box," Hansen said. "That's what they do. They believe if they can stack the box and stop the run, they can win. Then they play man coverage on the outside with their cornerbacks to lock down the passing game. That's what they do, so it makes it that much harder to run to the ball."

Not respecting BYU's passing game on the edges, defenses have pinned their ears back and crashed the middle of the line in an effort to put pressure on Heaps.

"I think these first three teams have thrown different blitzes at us, knowing there's a part of our offense that we're still trying to get going," Di Luigi said. "Then they've kind of dropped safeties in certain areas where you normally wouldn't. With Texas, they stacked the box pretty well.

"It was the same with Ole Miss. They stacked the box with safeties and linebackers to prevent the run while playing man coverage on the outside, and that puts more pressure on the middle of our o-line. Ole Miss and Texas did a really good job of that and just pinned their ears back.

"You know, when you're struggling to get your passing game going, they stack the box, just pin their ears back and come at you. Playing against defenses like that, it's hard to run the ball, but we'll get there and it doesn't make things easier on the o-line. I think teams saw that and followed their strategy."

After BYU's embarrassing loss to Utah, the offensive line took a lot of heat. However, after Coach Weber went back and reviewed the film, the line received a higher grade than it did in the previous two games.

"As an offensive line, you know, we graded out pretty good in the Utah game," Hansen said. "It was our best game as an offensive line this year, so I don't think as an offensive line it [was] our worst game by any means. We were very physical up front against a very good defensive line and we were dominating them.

"In the first half of the Utah game they don't know if we were running or passing and we're doing play action, but in the second half it was tough for us because now they pinned their ears back and rush with different blitzes.

"The second half you go down by a couple of touchdowns because we had so many turnovers, and then we have to start passing the ball. That's when we became less predictable by going to the pass which, quite honestly, we haven't fully found our groove with yet. It makes it tough and puts a lot of pressure on the offense as a whole, but we'll get there."

However, the Cougar passing game did yield some success last week against Utah. Heaps had his first 300-yard game. If the Cougar offense can show they are able to have success in the passing game, Di Luigi feels it will help take pressure off the rest of the offense.

"After how our receiving game turned out in the Utah game, I think that will kind of push some of the safeties on these next few defenses that we face back a little bit," Di Luigi said. "I think as long as we have that passing game being as effective as it was, they have to respect it and that will take some pressure off certain parts of our offense.

"You know, it will take pressure off of our offensive line and our run game. Our offensive line is so good and so talented and a lot of things have been placed on them, but as running backs we have to step up and a lot of those sacks were because we were supposed to step up and pick up those blocks, like when Jake got his on the 5-yard line and Utah picked up that fumble for a touchdown. We should have picked up that blitz and didn't. We'll get things sorted out and with a better passing game I think we'll see more production all the way around from our offense."

Against UCF, which ranks first in every defensive category in C-USA and among the top 13 nationally, it's not going to be a cakewalk for the Cougar offense by any stretch of the imagination.

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