How Will BYU's 3-3-5 Defensive Version Hold Up?

<b><i>A pre-season Defensive Analysis</i></b> <p> How closely will BYU's defense resemble New Mexico's is the burning question with Bronco Mendenhall now leading the Cougar's defensive charge this year.

BYU has all starters returning on defense and all its linebackers are seniors. BYU generally recruits better athletes. If the Lobos have lesser athletes and still had one of the two toughest defenses in the MWC, it suggests New Mexico got more out of their talent. Credit UNM head coach Rocky Long and Mendenhall.

In years past, it has been reported that BYU's 4-3 defense was the easiest to attack in the conference. A stationary target is easier to hit. The reason for this could be that it was more predictable than other defenses in the conference.

When Bronco brings his new 3-3-5 scheme and motivational approach, how close will BYU's defense come to matching -- or exceeding -- UNM's record as one of the toughest teams to move the ball on?

MWC stats from last year reveal important differences in defensive performance against the same teams. If BYU were to match UNM point by point in key defensive categories, our defense would improve in this way:

- Give up 10 fewer TDs rushing, more than 1 TD less per game

- Pick off 5 more INTs, almost 1 INT per game more

- Reduce yards/carry about 0.5, down to 3.1 yards/carry

- Give up 70 yards less per game

- Allow 44 fewer 1st downs, or about 6 1st downs less per game

- Stop the other team on 3rd down 70% of the time, not 60%

- Sack the QB 3 times per game, not 2 times

Naturally, this is an apples-oranges comparison because UNM has different athletes and is paired with a different offense, so each is dealt a different hand. It is not likely BYU will replicate all aspects of New Mexico's excellence in the first year using the new 3-3-5 system. However, if BYU has better athletes at certain positions, the time for the full impact of the 3-3-5 would be reduced. Only time will tell.

The purpose of this breakdown is to suggest the direction of the changes, not predict when or how.

If BYU does not move to the top spot in all of these categories in one year, it should be noted the Cougars are at the bottom of the league in some of these categories. In other areas, BYU is in the middle of the pack. Anything is better. These comparisons show where they can improve.

Here is how the league's stats for UNM defense vs. BYU defense comparison broke down last year. This also establishes that UNM was the dominant defense in the league by all measures, not Utah as some have suggested:

- UNM's defense led the league in allowing fewest TDs by rushing (7 TDs), edging out Utah (10 TDs). BYU ranked last (17 TDs). They will match UNM in this area if they average less than 1 TD rushing per game in the conference.

- UNM's defense led in allowing the lowest yard/carry on rushing plays (3.1 yards/carry) and rushing yards per game (114.9 yards per game), again barely edging out Utah in both categories (3.3 yards/carry and 123.6 yards per game). BYU's defense was a surprising 3rd at 3.8 yards/carry, which is surprising since certain teams (AFA) seemed to fatten their running average against the Cougars. BYU's defense was 5th in 186.6 yards/game, meaning they gave up 70 yards more per game than UNM and 60 more than Utah. BYU will match UNM and Utah if they give up 0.5 yards/carry rushing LESS and 60 to 70 yards LESS than last year.

- UNM's defense led in giving up the fewest first downs (102 first downs) with Utah coming in second (131 first downs). The conference does not reveal how many "3 and outs" or "6 and outs" stops by a defense, but if UNM gave up only 102 first downs in 7 games, that means the average team gained about 14 to 15 first downs against them, less than 4 per quarter. That means they forced the most "3 and outs" or "6 and outs." Utah gave up between 18 and 19 first downs per game. BYU gave up 146 first downs, ranked 5th. However, BYU had the most turnovers and INTs, indicating the other team played a shorter field against BYU than against any other foe.) BYU will know the 3-3-5 helped if they see more "3 and outs" and "6 and outs" dictated by the Cougar defense.

- UNM's defense led in stopping 3rd down conversion at 31.9% (CSU was second at 34.7%). These are the top two teams in the league. CSU is the top team, with a stronger offense than UNM and a defense that is near the top in forcing other teams to punt. BYU was 5th at 39.4%. One of the "acid tests" of the 3-3-5 at BYU is if they improve their ability to stop 3rd down from about 40% to about 32%. It's not much of a difference, but an important one.

- UNM's defense led the league with 10 INTs. BYU's defense was last with 5 INTs. It looks like the confusion caused by the 3-3-5 may boost the Cougars INT total, especially if BYU has better athletes. If the 3-3-5 requires several years for BYU's defense to master, this increase may not occur overnight this year.

- UNM's defense was 2nd in sacking the QB (20 sacks in 7 games). AFA was first at 21 sacks, or 3 per game. BYU was 4th at 13 sacks. The Cougars should see an improvement in sacks, and would move to the top of the league if they increase our sack average from 2 per game to 3 per game. This stat did not affect CSU's performance, who finished 7th at 9 sacks.

- UNM's defense tied with SDSU in turnovers gained at 17 turnovers in league games. BYU was last is turnovers gained at 12 turnovers, almost 1 less turnover per game. BYU was the league's worst in giving the ball away, coming away empty-handed on 15 4th down conversions, all of which put the Cougar defense in a hole during most games.

Others have pointed out a tougher defense will give the young Cougar offense some breathing room. Mentally, a young QB, WR, RB or TE may not feel as much pressure to make a big play, every play, knowing that if they need to punt, they have a boomer in Payne and their defense will get the ball back. That comfort level could cut down BYU's offensive INTs and fumbles.

Fewer turnovers and lost 4th downs would make Payne an even more awesome weapon, making any improvements BYU actually realize on defense this year even more valuable. Payne can pin them at their end, if we give him a chance. The offense needs to trust the defense and the punter and not try to win the game alone on each play. With improvement in these categories, the Cougars can reverse course and play smart position football in 2003, with a strong defense that will only get stronger.

Mendenhall has brought his game face and game plan with him and Cougar fans will see a more focused and effective defense this year.

This is not your grandpa's BYU defense. A lot of exciting stuff is going to be happening when the Cougar defense takes the field this fall.

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