Turnovers, blue zone defense have been key

One of the common issues that BYU coaches and players have discussed since the start of the season is consistency. But while the team is looking for improved consistency in a number of areas, one area that has been consistent is forcing turnovers. In addition, the defense has also generally been strong in the blue zone. If not for those two key areas, BYU could be 0-4 right now.

Through four games, BYU has forced nine turnovers, with one of those coming on special teams. Of the 119 other Division I teams, only 17 have forced more turnovers than BYU so far this season.

Outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy has certainly been doing his part to help BYU generate turnovers. As all Cougar fans know, he forced a late fumble against Ole Miss and then recovered it in the end zone for the game-winning score.

Van Noy also had an interception against Utah on a pass he tipped to himself, and the following week he tipped a Central Florida pass late in the game that led to an interception for Joe Sampson.

"It starts in practice," said Van Noy about causing turnovers. "When you practice about [forcing] turnovers and making plays here in practice, it usually translates during a game, and we practice really hard on causing turnovers in practice and hard-running to the ball, and good things happen."

Though still a sophomore with a good portion of the 2011 season ahead of him, Van Noy already has two defensive touchdowns on his resume. The other was a fumble recovery against Colorado State last season.

Nevertheless, when asked whether he planned on having a bunch more defensive touchdowns by the time he graduated, Van Noy said with a slight smile, "No, the goal is just one a year. I'm just lucky if I get one."

One can look at the aforementioned turnovers Van Noy has been involved in and see tremendous effort on his part. That ties in directly with what Coach Mendenhall said about forcing turnovers.

"Most of the turnovers in my opinion in football are tied to effort and then physical play, and I think that's the same no matter what defenses there are," said Mendenhall. "So I think if teams try hard and get a lot of people to the ball and then are physical, then that usually will create turnovers, especially fumbles. Interceptions are a little bit more execution-oriented."

The interception against Central Florida that came after Van Noy got a hand on the ball is a natural segue way into another area that BYU has been strong at defensively: blue zone defense. The interception occurred while the Knights were in the blue zone and looking to tie the game up late.

Prior to that game, UCF had been perfect in the blue zone when it came to getting points, getting 14 touchdowns and five field goals on their previous 19 appearances in the blue zone. However, the Knights had the costly interception and also missed a short field goal prior to that.

Against BYU, opponents this season have had a combined 16 trips into the blue zone – or rather the red zone, but this is BYU, so blue is the preferred color – and have scored on 10 of those occasions (five touchdowns and five field goals). That places BYU at 13th in the nation in blue zone defense, with opponents scoring just 62.5 percent of the time. Those six scoreless trips into the blue zone are the most for any defense in the nation. It should be noted, however, that both Texas and Utah were able to kneel down and run out the clock while in the blue zone, thus bolstering BYU's stats a bit.

It should also be noted that those 16 trips into the blue zone are the most allowed by any of the top 17 teams in terms of blue zone defense. This is due in large part to BYU's own turnovers, which have placed the defense in difficult circumstances. But, numerous times the defense has risen up and either forced field goal attempts (a few of which have been missed), stopped the other team on downs, or forced turnovers.

Forcing Ole Miss to settle for field goals ended up preventing BYU from going down three scores, allowing the Cougars to come back and win with just 14 points (half of which were thanks to Van Noy's aforementioned touchdown). And as noted earlier, Central Florida was unable to tie the score against BYU late because of the defenses buckling down in a couple of different drives that reached the blue zone.

When asked about the defense's success in the blue zone, Van Noy said that like with forcing turnovers, it all starts in practice.

"We practice [blue zone defense] all the time against the scout team and they do a great job giving us a look every week, and Mendenhall's pretty hard on us and the players are hard," Van Noy said, "and I think when we get down there the notch has to be turned up a lot more."

Van Noy noted that when the defense is in the blue zone, players are "just flying around and making plays, and doing the assignment that's needed and paying more attention, and just trying to gut it out basically."

With the defense not having to cover as much space in the blue zone and thus making it tougher to pass the ball – BYU is ranked seventh nationally in blue zone pass efficiency defense, having given up no passing touchdowns within the 20-yard line and having only allowed three completions on 11 attempts – opponents will often look to run the ball. Thus, that places a premium on having a strong rushing defense, something that Van Noy acknowledged.

Also, as Van Noy noted, teams like to run trick plays near the end zone. To combat that, he said "your eyes have to be perfect, and I believe that's been a very key thing for us in the blue zone … our eyes have been pretty well, and I think the more we do that and the more we focus on that in practice, it'll turn out to be more field goals, and then that will lead into maybe a blocked or missed field goal."

Until the Cougar offense finally starts clicking, the defense will have to continue getting turnovers and toughening up in the blue zone in order to keep the Cougars in games.

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