Arizona vs. BYU: The Breakdown

The G-man weighs in on what Cougar fans can expect Saturday as BYU kicks off the season against Arizona. He breaks down every position group on the football field, and by comparing the two teams, one can readily assume a close ball game will unfold much like it did last season. But, will a different team be on top this time?

Quarterback

Arizona: Willie Tuitama (6-3, 220 Jr.) will be calling signals for the Wildcats as he has done for the previous two seasons. He is a pocket passer who many believe will benefit a lot from Arizona's new wide-open offensive scheme that is said to be patterned after Texas Tech. Tuitama has struggled with accuracy in the past, but has good experience, having started each of the past two seasons.

Tuitama is coming off of what could readily be defined as a mediocre season at best. In 10 games Tuitama completed just 55 percent of his passes for 1,335 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Those aren't stats that would necessarily strike fear in any defensive coordinator.

BYU: Max Hall (6-1, 200 So.) will be playing in his first Division I football game, and his first football game since 2004, when BYU kicks off on Saturday. Fans, media, coaches and players alike are very much interested in what Hall can accomplish in his first college game, as he's very much an unknown commodity entering the 2007 season.

What Hall has shown is solid practice play, which started with him running what coaches felt was one of the better scout team offenses a season ago. Hall has practiced well and has the confidence of his teammates.

Conclusion: While Tuitama certainly isn't a world-beater or even necessarily a good quarterback, nobody knows what Hall will prove to be. That said, I've seen Hall practice and have come to know how much Hall's teammates believe in him. While it wouldn't seem warranted to do so, I believe that Hall will prove to edge out Tuitama's play for the first game of the season.

Edge: BYU

Running Backs

Arizona: The Wildcats primary RB will be Chris Jennings (5-10, 218 Sr.). Jennings spilt the carries with Chris Henry last season, much like Fui Vakapuna did with Curtis Brown, with Henry getting about 60 more touches. Jennings is a solid back who may see his role decreased somewhat this year with the new wide-open offensive scheme that will debut on Saturday.

BYU: The Cougars suffered a blow with starting fullback Manase Tonga being suspended for the first game. In his place, the coaching staff will use both Harvey Unga (6-2, 221 Fr.) and Joe Semanoff (5-11, 220 Sr.). Both players will rotate and lead-block for Vakapuna (6-1, 234 Sr.).

Vakapuna has been working his way back slowly and hopes to debut 2007 like he did in 2006 and sustain the exciting and often eye-popping play he demonstrated until he got hurt. Unga meanwhile has been the talk of fall camp, as he's proven to be the MVP in both preseason scrimmages.

Conclusion: It will be interesting to see how Arizona uses its running back. On their depth chart they note a running back with an alternatively so-call "H-back" and "small H-back." The H-back looks to be a fullback who won't do much beyond lead-blocking for Jennings.

Meanwhile, BYU's backs are set in their system, and have proven effective, although the loss of Tonga for this game hurts in many areas.

Edge: BYU

Wide Receivers

Arizona: The Wildcats return Mike Thomas (5-8, 165 Sr.) and not much else at the wide receiver position. Outside of Thomas, only Terrell Turner (6-2, 198 So.) shows up on the stat sheet, with only one catch from a year ago. Thomas, however, is a proven game-breaker and could readily be assumed as the primary playmaker for the Wildcats this season.

BYU: The plan was to rotate three wide receivers, but that was before Matt Allen broke his finger, which could hold him out of Saturday's game. In his stead will be Michael Reed (6-1, 202 Jr.) and Austin Collie (6-2, 212 So.), who will see the majority of reps on the outside. Reed is proven from a year ago, while Collie feels and looks even better than he showed to be as a true freshman before his mission.

Conclusion: The edge grows slighter if Allen can't go, but the proven play-makers BYU has on the outside trump what Thomas brings to the table with his 50 catches and two touchdowns from a year ago.

Edge: BYU

Tight Ends

Arizona: The Wildcats list both a regular tight end and a so-called "small tight end" on their roster. The regular tight ends are tight end-sized at around 250 pounds, while the "small tight ends" simply appear to be bigger WRs.

Anthony Johnson (6-2, 210 Sr.) appears to be the go-to guy here, as he caught 26 passes a season ago. Watch out for true freshman Ron Gronkowski (6-6, 250), who had a very promising fall camp.

BYU: The Cougars will rotate three sophomore tight ends with Dennis Pitta (6-5, 230), Vic So'oto (6-3, 233) and Andrew George (6-5, 240) looking to replace Jonny Harline and Daniel Coats.

Conclusion: While the current Cougar tight ends didn't see much production collectively from a season ago, they all look very able and promising in a system that features the tight end. Meanwhile, Arizona returns some experience, although it's hard to consider Johnson as a true tight end considering his weight and the fact that he played as a wide receiver last season.

Edge: BYU

Offensive Line

Arizona: The Wildcats return four starters from a year ago. Right tackle Eben Britton (6-6, 310 So.) is widely considered the best of the bunch. Arizona's offensive front saw some production last season, but Arizona's offense proved to be inconsistent throughout the year.

BYU: Meanwhile, four of BYU's starters were starters last season, and the fifth starter this season started the bowl game last year against Oregon. The Cougar offensive line saw solid production last season and has worked hard over the offseason to improve its collective run-blocking.

Conclusion: The offensive line is one of the main - if not the main - catalysts for any overall offensive production. Comparing the respective production on both teams last season, with both OLs returning pretty much intact, the edge goes to BYU.

Edge: BYU

Defensive Line

Arizona: Arizona returns a very experienced and talented defensive line led by defensive end Louis Holmes (6-6, 265 Sr.) and defensive tackle Yaniv Barnett (6-1, 315 Sr.). The Wildcats play from a 4-3 system that proved very effective a year ago.

BYU: BYU should be solid at the end with returning starters Ian Dulan (6-1, 270 So.) and Jan Jorgensen (6-3, 260 So.) manning the two defensive end positions. It's in the middle where the question marks are, as three nose tackles with no Division I experience will vie for the majority of the reps.

Conclusion: There are no question marks surrounding Arizona's defensive front, while there certainly are question marks with BYU's, although BYU looks solid on the outside coming in.

Edge: Arizona

Linebackers

Arizona: Arizona returns its linebacking corps as well, led by Ronnie Palmer (6-3, 245 Jr.) in the middle and Spencer Larsen (6-1, 240 Sr.) at one of the outside linebacking positions. Both led the team in tackles last season and will work to lead the team again this year.

BYU: BYU meanwhile returns four linebackers with starting experience, led by stud outside linebackers Bryan Kehl (6-3, 231 Sr.) and David Nixon (6-3, 223 Jr.). BYU is also solid on the inside, with Kelly Poppinga (6-2, 240 Sr.) and Markell Staffieri (6-3, 232 Sr.) manning the two inside spots.

Conclusion: There's little apparent difference between the two linebacker units. Both are coming off successful campaigns last season in which they return their LB corps virtually intact.

Edge: Push

Secondary

Arizona: The Wildcats present a lot of problems for Max Hall and company with what is one of the top cornerback duos in the country, with Antoine Cason (6-1, 185 Sr.) and Wilfrey Fontenot (5-9, 174) on the outside coverage.

Inside, they return Dominick Patrick (6-1, 210 Sr.) at the free safety position, and he'll team with strong safety Cam Nelson (6-2, 200 So.) in forming a solid middle and help coverage.

BYU: The Cougars return some good experience, with all four starters having good game and starting experience. Ben Criddle (6-0, 185 Sr.) and Kayle Buchanan (6-1, 191 Sr.) are manning the corner positions, while Quinn Gooch (6-0, 196 Sr.) and Corby Hodgkiss (5-11, 211 Sr.) are at the safety positions.

Conclusion: While BYU's secondary unit is much improved and are coming off a very successful 2006 season, Arizona's CBs are up there with the top units in the country, and the Wildcats also have good experience returning at safety.

Edge: Arizona

Five Things

1. Run the ball: BYU will have to improve drastically upon their mere 32 rushing yards against Arizona a year ago if they want to win this game. Run-blocking has seen great improvement since offensive line coach Bruce Weber took the reigns.

If BYU can rush for over 100 yards, look for them to win the game by a comfortable margin. Keeping the pressure off Max Hall in his first game, while creating good play-action opportunities by making Arizona's secondary bite, will be key in this game.

2. Win the turnover battle: It's a point that has became somewhat a cliché with every game's key points, but it's of great importance once again this week. Hall is not John Beck and will likely make some ill-advised reads and take more chances than Beck did last season. Hall needs to limit his interceptions and the running backs need to hang on to the football in what looks to be a defensive struggle.

3. Kick effectively: The collective punting and kicking game has the potential to give headaches this coming year, as inconsistency on both fronts have plagued fall practices thus far.

As mentioned, this game is shaping up to be a defensive struggle where field position will play a huge role. If BYU can manage 35 yards net punting or more, they'll be in good shape. On the other front, a field goal may prove to be the difference, so Mitch Payne needs to prove to be more consistent and accurate.

4. Force Arizona to make plays: With the home field advantage, it's important for BYU to start strong and force the suspect Tuitama and his brand new offense to work somewhat outside itself in trying to make big plays. It's a formula that worked throughout last season, and hopefully it will prove effective once again if the offense comes out fast.

5. Get pressure on the quarterback: Word is out that BYU will be blitzing more, which can be a risky proposition. With Tuitama being a pocket passer, and max-protection likely not a big part of Arizona's playbook considering their wide-open new offensive system, BYU needs to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.

Final Score: BYU 24 - Arizona 13


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