You may remember the Irish played against this same Cougar defense just two games ago (11/15/03) and handily thumped BYU by 33-14. It was apparent Irish coaches and players understandably expected the same type of result since they returned four of five starting offensive linemen and their entire defensive front seven was the unquestioned strength of the team.
This is the same, yet completely different, Cougar defense Stanford also faced last season and the Cardinal would be wise not to make the same mistake. The BYU team that arrives in Palo Alto, Calif., on Friday is better on defense – and offense – than they were last season.
Second team junior signal caller Matt Berry will likely start Saturday because of a shoulder injury that sidelined sophomore starter John Beck during the Notre Dame game. That's a break for Stanford because Beck's mobility, arm strength and vastly improved quarterback "smarts" make him a far more dangerous quarterback threat. He demonstrated this on the first two series' last Saturday when he scampered for first downs on third-down situations.
Berry, a two-year Cougar quarterback starter before he broke a bone in his throwing hand last season, is an accurate passer and reads defenses better than anyone among the Cougar quarterbacks. His biggest weakness is his lack of mobility – also evidenced by four sacks last Saturday in two-and-a-half quarters.
However, Berry's 45-yard touchdown bomb to true freshman Austin Collie last Saturday is proof enough he can get the job done when he has the time to throw. Stanford's best bet to win is to apply as much pressure on Berry as possible and disrupt the Cougars' offensive game plan. Obviously, that is easier read/said than done.
JC transfer Jason Beck and Jackson Brown, the scout team quarterback, are the third and fourth options. If the Cougars are forced to play them, they are in big trouble.
Notre Dame's dominating front seven did to BYU's running game what the Cougars' defense did to the Fighting Irish potent rushing attack – they stuffed them good. Junior tailback starter Naufahi Tahi looked good scoring a touchdown, but revived concerns about his tendency to fumble the ball. Tahi is more of a power runner and his decided strength and added value is as an excellent backfield pass blocker.
Sophomore Curtis Brown and true freshman Raymond Hudson are probably BYU's best game-breaking running threats at the position. Brown will likely see as many game snaps as Tahi and he possesses better speed. Converted freshman wide receiver Bryce Mahuika shores up the running back ranks, but is clearly more valuable as a kick returner on special teams.
Only one 2003 starter, sophomore Jake Kuresa at right tackle, is confirmed to start. The other preseason starter, sophomore Eddie Keele at left tackle, played only the first series' of the Notre Dame game. He left the game because of concerns about chest pains and the possibility it might be related to a pre-existing heart condition.
Scott Young, the only senior lineman, starts at right guard, but is inexperienced. A converted defensive lineman, the Notre Dame game was the first time Young had ever played on the offensive line.
Brian Sanders, a junior left guard, started his first game last week replacing sophomore Ofa Mohetau, who is redshirting this season to focus on academics.
The least experienced starter on BYU's offensive line is junior center Lance Reynolds, Jr., a converted linebacker who ate himself out of the position. Lingering fall camp problems about bad center-QB snaps reared his ugly head last week during the Fighting Irish game.
Sophomore Daniel Coats heads a young tight end group with true freshman Dennis Pitta and sophomore Jeremy Gillespie as his immediate backups. Coats' has game-breaking abilities with excellent pass-catching skills and his blocking has improved considerably. Highly regarded freshman Phil Niu from 2003 is redshirting because of injury.
Unquestionably the biggest upgrade in the entire BYU team was at wide receiver where coaches signed seven outstanding wideouts from the JC and high school ranks. The top two among them played prominent roles in BYU's upset win over Notre Dame – JC All-American transfer Todd Watkins and Austin Collie, the local Northern California star who picked the Cougars over Stanford in a hard-fought recruiting war.
Of the returning veterans, only senior Jason Kukahiko started last week. Collie is a co-starter with junior Chris Hale and 2003 starter Rod Wilkerson backs up Watkins.
Another dynamic true freshman ready to break out is Antwaun Harris, who backs up Kukahiko. Evidence of how deep the Cougars are at this position is the lack of fan and coach's consternation when news broke last week that two outstanding JC receiver transfers – Michael Morris and Joe Griffin – would redshirt because of injuries.
Other excellent receivers to watch for include JC transfer Riley Weber, freshman Matt Allen and sophomore Matt Smith.
BYU's formidable starting trio of senior Shaun Nua (end), junior Daniel Marquardt (nose guard) and junior Manaia Brown (end) should cause Stanford's offensive coordinator to lose some sleep if he believes what he sees on tape. It was no accident that Notre Dame's running game was completely stuffed. If you don't believe it, watch and weep.
This trio is backed up capably by Vince Feula and Hala Paonga at defensive tackle; and John Denney, Justin Carlson-Maddux, Michael Marquardt, Judd Anderton and T.J. Sitake at defensive end.
The vital function of the defensive line is to draw double teams from offensive lineman so Cougar linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks can blitz through wide open gaps without signaling to the Stanford quarterback where they are coming from. Sounds pretty easy to game plan and defend against? Think again.
And should the Cardinal linemen attempt to take on BYU's front three one-on-one, they will lose that battle most of the time and will likely find their quarterback with a painful back-seat, ground-level view of the field.
What was supposed to be the Cougars' most glaring defensive weakness with the departure of all three starters from 2003 is now actually one of the team's strengths. Huh?
Middle linebacker Cameron Jensen, a sophomore, has already been proclaimed by some knowledgeable insiders as one who will emerge as BYU's best-ever middle backer!
Playing alongside him is this week's Mountain West Conference Player of the Week Brady Poppinga, a senior, who single-handedly terrorized Notre Dame's offensive plans last Saturday with a game-high 12 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 3 quarterback hurries. Enough said.
On Jensen's other side is JC First Team All-American transfer Justin Luettgerodt. His impressive no-name backup, freshman Markell Staffieri, recorded one sack last week and was an inch from a second. Both Luettgerodt and Staffieri are sure tacklers.
So much for BYU's defensive weak spot.
Cougarback Aaron Francisco, a four-year starter, is one of BYU's most consistent defensive standouts and the team's most ferocious hitter. He led the team in tackles last season and is to Bronco Mendenhall's secondary what Chicago Bears All-Pro Brian Urlacher was for Mendenhall when he played at New Mexico. Those who challenge him head-on usually pay the price.
Starting katbacks John Burbidge, a senior, and junior Spencer White are solid, particularly Burbidge who was one of the Cougars' defensive stars against the Irish last week.
The bad news for Stanford fans is sixth-year senior Brandon Heaney is as close to a shut-down corner for the Cougars when he is healthy. The good news for the Cougars is he is 100 percent healthy. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn tested him once last week with a would-be touchdown pass and Heaney would have intercepted it if Quinn had not overthrown his receiver.
Heaney's companion on the other side is BYU track star speedster Nathan Soelberg, a junior. He has excellent leaping abilities and no receiver he faces this year will outrun this 4.2/40 speedster.
Simply put, BYU's first team defensive unit is very solid. The Cougars' entire secondary played the Notre Dame game without any substitutions – either an indication of how well conditioned they are or that there's no depth behind him. Not true.
The MVP award for last Saturday's unlikely win in Provo could easily have gone to senior BYU kicker Matt Payne and the special teams unit that performed admirably throughout the Notre Dame game.
Payne's well-placed directional punts consistently pinned the Fighting Irish within their own 20-yard line – and often inside the 10-yard line. Additionally, he was perfect on the night with 53 and 44-yard field goals. Crowton made an unprecedented commitment to significantly upgrade his special teams play during the off-season. It showed.
BOTTOM LINE: Saturday night's matchup between the Cougars and the favored Cardinal will be decided by defense, turnovers and special teams. Whoever wins those critical matchups wins the game.
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