BYU Young Guns Prepare for Option Attack

When the BYU travels to Colorado Springs this weekend, several of the Cougar freshman defenders will get their first taste of the Air Force triple option. With freshmen making up half of the two-deep for BYU's defensive line, the Cougar newcomers will have to grow up fast. The BYU rookies are not worried, however. They are supremely confident in their coaches' game plan.

Since the series began in 1956, BYU has beaten the Air Force Academy 20 games to 6. This weekend, BYU's new look defense with three freshmen (two true freshmen) will be in charge of the front line defense against a pesky, undersized, yet well disciplined team running a tricky option attack.

"It's a very different offense that we are facing," said true freshman D-tackle Romney Fuga. "Our coaches have told us that Air Force runs their offense really well. They're physical and they hustle and they're going to fight no matter what. They never give up and it's going to be a battle especially on the line. We're just going to try and focus on our assignments and we should be fine. If one of us fails to do one of our assignments, they could get a big play off of that."

"They're a straight forward type of team and will come right at you and play football," said true freshman defensive end Matangi Tonga. "The thing that they do well is they have really good timing. Their fullback hitting the middle, their O-line exploding off the line, everything is fast so the technique for this week is fast twitch and our reads have to be fast and accurate. That's something that as a freshman you know you would be facing, so you have to come out and perform and do your best."

"Their collective execution is what their program thrives on," said Coach Mendenhall on "If you look at Air Force everything they do has a unique twist and challenge and makes it very difficult to prepare for. I was listening to Coach Anae talk about some of their defensive schemes and our offense is having to work extra long to attack some of the things that they do. The number of hours spent to prepare for Air Force is like preparing for a game that is on Thursday night even though it is Saturday. The unique nature of what they do and how well they do it is exceptional."

One aspect BYU's young defensive line will have to watch for is the infamous cut back block, a specialty of Air Force linemen. BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi has been busy preparing his young linemen to defend against the chop block by focusing on hand techniques.

"They do a lot of cuts and come out really fast and low," said senior defensive tackle Hala Paongo. "What is really important for us is that we keep our pad level really low to match up with them. Right now the coaches are working with us on our hand fundamentals to help us with getting our hands down quickly to help shed those low blocks."

"They do cut a lot, and they're very quick," said Fuga. "We've watched film on them a lot, so we know what's coming at us. We have to use our hands more and make sure we get low. They're a very disciplined and physical team with good technique too."

BYU's defensive linemen are not the only ones that have to worry about Air Force's notorious cut blocks.

"If that triple option does come to us with the pitch, we have to be able to come up and defeat the cut block," said Criddle. "We've been working on our cut blocks a lot today and yesterday. The wing backs will usually come out on the triple option and try to cut block us corners on that angle when we come up to make the tackle, and then we'll get a crack block from our responsibility receivers. So we need to defend against once we see that triple option pitch. We have to come up and defeat the cut block and then be able to take the pitch man on.

"We've already faced a lot of teams where the wide receivers like to cut block down field to get you out of the way to allow the running back to cut up field, but this is especially true against Air Force with those wings that come out on a diagonal angle out to us. Their wide outs will crack block down on one of our linebackers or safeties, and then the wing will come out to try cut block the cornerbacks. They'll be running the ball a lot but they also do the play action pass, so we have to read our keys from the offensive line and then be able to make a play once the ball is thrown."

So how do cornerbacks beat the cut block?

"You have to come up and make contact with them first before he makes contact with you and then push his helmet and pads down," said Criddle. "You have to keep him down and in control, come off the block and then make the tackle. It's a difficult thing to do and you have to practice it a lot to get to the point, because he's coming at you full speed, to where you feel comfortable in beating that block."

Air Force may not possess the big time high school recruits on which many Division I college programs thrive. However, Coach Fisher DeBerry fields a team year in and year out that is both disciplined, athletic and, as Tennessee found out earlier this year, can surprise you if you let your guard down.

"Right now the coaches are telling us this is a very important game," said Paongo. "I think it's going to be one of the harder games for us as far as execution. If we fail to execute we won't be able to hold them down."

BYU's young defensive line will have to remain focused at all times in order to read and react quickly to determine if quarterback Shaun Carney has handed the ball off to fullback or kept the ball to either run or pitch to the wing back.

"Their offense isn't really simple but their game plan is simple," said Tonga. "Knowing that we are a young defensive line, they're going to try and catch us off our guard and stuff, but Coach Mendenhall is doing a good job in keeping us fundamentally sound and getting our assignments down. It's tough but it's something that we have to do."

Those manning the front line of defense feel that BYU coaches have a good plan in place to help defend against the Falcon triple option threat.

"There are different plays for the most part for the fullback," said Paongo. "We'll take care of the fullback and the linebackers will take care of everything else, but the main thing for the D-line is we have to take care of the fullback and the quarterback."

"Our coaches have a good plan for us," Fuga said. "As long as we stick to our plan and play assignment football, we'll win."

"Our D-line has to do a good job of filling in the gaps and finish strong," said Tonga. "Our linebackers have to do a good job of flying around and making plays. Our DB's have to stay alert and cover the pass. I think the 3-4-4 defense that we run now is better for us in playing against Air Force. I just think it's a better defense for us because we have an extra linebacker up front to help defense against the run."

Previously when BYU ran the 3-3-5 defense of yester years, Coach Mendenhall would change the defense to reflect more the 3-4-4 defense that BYU is now currently running.

"That's a point that I was asked yesterday, but really strategically what's happened is that we play the option out of a 3-4," Mendenhall said on "We have always put in an extra linebacker to defend it. This will be a more natural and easier adjustment than what we had before. The principles will be similar from what we've played in the past. Last year against Air Force was the one game where we felt we should put in an extra linebacker. So it's been a natural bridge to what we're doing now."

For a look at how well BYU's defense stacks up against Air Force, click below to see the two deep rosters.

BYU Defense vs. Air Force Offense

Playing the role of Air Force quarterback Shaun Carney is Reed White, the son of former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Danny White. Reed is doing a good job in allowing the defense to get a glimpse of what they will see come Saturday.

"The scout team is doing their best to portray what Air Force is going to do," Paongo said. "Air Force is so quick and so fast that it's hard to get an exact look at what they will do during the game, but our scout team is going to try their best so we can get ready for this Saturday."

"Our scout team always does a good job for us every week," said Fuga. "It's a big challenge for them as well because they never have to run the type of offense like Air Force has, but they're doing a good job like they do every week."

Click on the following link to listen to BYU fullback Manase Tonga talk about Air Force:

Year after year, Air Force leads the nation in total rushing yards. In their 19 to 12 loss to San Diego State last week, the Falcons racked up 355 total offensive yards and most of it was on the ground, but not all. Air Force has a way of lulling defensive secondaries to sleep then passing over the top for large gains or touchdowns.

"With the corners, our responsibility is against the pass and so that's what we will guarantee on every play," said cornerback Kayle Buchanan. "They try to catch you sleeping and then do a play action by catching the defensive backs stepping up to play the run and then throw over the top. That's what they want to do. Carney has some experience now, and he's playing better. The big thing for us is being fundamentally sound. Getting our pass run reads first and then securing the pass. Once we know if it's a run we come up for run support as best we can. If not we defense against the pass, but first and foremost the cornerbacks are going to defend against the pass, and that's what we're going to worry about the most."

"It's going to be man coverage," said Criddle. "So we have to do a good job in reading the pass when it is pass and run with it is run. They have Division I wide receivers but I don't think they're of the caliber of TCU or [Arizona] or anything like that, but they make plays and can catch the ball so you treat them like any other receiver. You play tight coverage on them and have to be physical with them. They run good routes and they're good enough athletes for Division I football, so you have to have respect for them and not take them lightly."

"We've already got that part locked down," smiled Tonga. "If you look at what we did last year, we were killing them and then all of a sudden they started passing on us at one point. I heard that we stopped their offense so good that they had to start passing."

The progression that cornerbacks go through first starts with the reaction of the offensive line, then quickly moves to determine if the option play is indeed a run or a play action pass.

"We get our run or pass key first," said Buchanan. "As cornerbacks we always err on the side of the play being a pass if we are unsure of the read. The safeties have a little bit tougher job with run support this week than the cornerbacks do with run support."

"As far as the cornerback's job against Air Force, we're going to be just playing man coverage, and then getting our keys off of the offensive line," said Criddle. "Mostly we're just going to be focusing on the pass."

"I personally think that this year's defense is better than last year's defense," Matangi Tonga said. "That's my opinion, but I believe our defense is better than it was last year. Just everything as a whole, we have a better D-line this year, better line backing core and a better secondary, and last year our coaches did a good job in keeping everyone in the box for the run and the DB's covering the pass. If we execute well, we should have a good chance to winning."


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