Squeezing the Cougar Defense

Following the Cougars' 42-35 point victory over UNLV, Coach Mendenhall stated he is still working with the defense to find the "right identity" and discovering who they are as a defense. Despite winning football games, the challenge of meeting expectations in what could be deemed as a defensive rebuilding year has proven to be difficult.

Sure, the UNLV game may not have been what BYU fans were looking for in regards to a defensive performance, but the BYU coaching staff knew exactly what they were getting into before either team stepped out onto the football field. Concerning his defense, Coach Mendenhall said, "We didn't think we could run with [UNLV's] wide receivers, and we thought basically their receiving corps was more talented than our secondary."

Translation: BYU didn't have the talent to match up against UNLV's skill sets, and schemed in such a way as to help defend against those defensive weaknesses. The result was a tit-for-tat scoring game that left many Cougar fans frustrated.

"UNLV had great athletes and had a good game plan and worked hard," said Cougar safety Andrew Rich. "They had guys that could make plays, and when you've got guys that can make plays and are good athletes it becomes a dogfight."

"They did a good job at executing methodical drives," said cornerback Scott Johnson. "They didn't have any huge plays. I think [they had] maybe one or two over 20 or 25 yards. They had to convert on third downs, which they were able to do at times. A lot of it was trying to spread us out and create seams with a quarterback that had the ability to run. Even though he didn't run that much, the fact that he could was still there against us. I think that is what they tried to do. They tried to spread us out and create match problems for us with the spread and option ride."

As the chess match continues, Cougar fans can expect there to be more dogfights like the one they saw against UNLV at LaVell Edwards Stadium last Saturday. Coach Mendenhall expects there to be more tough games ahead, saying that he was "not sure … how pretty it is going to be from this end" following the game.

"But I do think they are capable of helping us win games," said Mendenhall regarding the Cougar defenders. "And there might be more [games] like [Saturday]."

With a completely new secondary and revamped linebacker group, the coaching staff has done a masterful job at limiting the defense's weaknesses and playing to their strengths. However, as the season has worn on it is becoming more difficult as opposing coaches begin to figure out those strengths and weaknesses.

"And if that is the case, that is this team, and we will work as hard as we can to help them reach their goals and potential," Mendenhall said following the UNLV game. "But as I get to know them better, I have to start shaping coaching decisions, and managing games based on strengths and weaknesses, and so now that we have seen eight games, we know that we are vulnerable against these styles of offenses. I will be more calculated with our risks, and the pressure comes to the coaches to be more prepared in giving them the right answers."

"We weren't content with how things were during the UNLV game," Rich said. "I think we were aware of their big play capability, and of course we don't want to give them any yards. I think it is important that we stay aggressive, and if we could go back I think there would be things we would do differently. When it was all said and done we got the victory and that's what was more important to us despite what the score said."

UNLV quarterback Omar Clayton threw for 321 yards against a defense that held UCLA to 230 passing yards and TCU to 170. UNLV's skill sets may have been the best BYU's secondary has faced all year.

"I thought UNLV's quarterback did an awesome job," said Johnson. "He's much improved over last year and he was very accurate with his passes, and when you have someone that accurate throwing to some very good receivers, it makes it very tough. We weren't able to put a lot of pressure on him, and that's not anything against our defensive front, but it put a lot of pressure on the defensive backfield to cover for so long."

As Johnson noted, the lack of pressure applied to Clayton made it difficult for a defense facing Rebel receivers that could arguably end up being some of the best in the history of UNLV's program.

"And we weren't able to get to the quarterback effectively or fast enough to take away underneath throws," said Mendenhall. "And we certainly didn't want to give away throws over the top, and at some point our execution had to hold, and even though it took quite a while, it actually did hold, and that's what I am going to highlight."

"[Clayton] was able to move around and roll out and create plays and allow for more time for his guys to get open," Johnson said. "When we did have good coverage their receivers made great plays. We tried to take away the quick passing plays while not letting anything go over our head. When we reviewed the film for the most part we had pretty good coverage, but the only thing is they made great athletic catches that we needed to take away by making great plays ourselves."

So what does this Cougar defense need to improve upon? Obviously a greater physical presence on the field could help with some deficiencies as the defense continues to develop. The next time the Cougars face a team that plays a similar offensive scheme as UNLV will be against Utah at Rice Eccles Stadium.

"I don't think it's necessary to change the [defensive] scheme," said Johnson. "I think it's about being more physical and establishing a greater presence no matter what kind of a defense we are playing. What that does is it throws a little bit of the timing off, a little bit of the confidence off, and receivers are looking for defenders rather than just running through a zone. I think it's more about being physical and making plays early."

"As you know, our emphasis has been, up until the last two games, to limit points," Mendenhall said. "And we [ran into] two teams [TCU and UNLV] that had really good athleticism, and were gaining momentum offensively, and we will continue to work on it, and continue to improve with players that are determined to help us win games."

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