"Usually we're facing guys that are 6'5", 320 pounds," said BYU defensive end Brett Denney. "These guys are all around 6'3", 270 pounds, and they stay very low. They're fast and they use their pad level to block you below the waist. They come at you straight sometimes like that and then they come at you from the side like that. That's why it's so hard, because it's not just one thing; it's everything."
A legal cut block occurs when an offensive lineman blocks a defensive lineman below the knees with his helmet in front of the player. The defensive lineman has a chance to defend himself by using his hands or by jumping over the opposing player.
"How you defend against [the cut block] is you have to stay low to the ground because those guys are way down there," said Denney. "You have to use your hands a lot and keep them out in front of you. If they're diving at your legs you try and take them down or jump over them. I guarantee you see [David] Nixon flying through the air, which is something he's good at, and he likes to jump over those types of blocks."
The chop block occurs when the offensive lineman's block comes from the side and hits the defender's leg, or when the player hits the backside of the defender's legs while he's engaged with another lineman. The defensive lineman becomes more vulnerable to injury simply because he can't defend himself.
"They have rules against that to try and protect us," Denney said. "There's the cut block, where they dive in front of you at your legs, and then there's the chop block, where they try and take your knee out from the side or hit the back of your legs. If you're locked up on one guy and his teammates come at you from the side, technically that's illegal and a penalty. It really just depends on how much the refs see and call it."
The Air Force coaches teach and develop the technique of cut blocking, using it as an effective tool for blocking with their offensive linemen since the size and strength advantage is generally not in their favor.
"They use that to their advantage in a great way and are very well coached," said BYU assistant coach Paul Tidwell. "They play with a very low pad level, and if it's a run they're coming off the ball very hard and low. They're very quick and explosive off the ball, so they're going to be a little different than most of the offensive lines that we've faced that are 6'5", 320 pounds. These guys are going to be quick, athletic and will try and cut you every chance they get. We're going to have to play fast and we're going to have to use our hands well. We're going to have to match their pad level and quickness."
"It's just something that they do that gets us worried and is another thing that keeps us on our toes," said Denney. "It kind of gets us off balance and it becomes another thing to deal with. For the type of guys they've got, it's the perfect thing they can do. They're guys that are disciplined and they work hard, and this is an offense that suits them best for the type of athletes they have. Their coaches do a good job of using what they have and teaching techniques to help them become more effective within their offensive schemes."
One disadvantage teams like BYU have with facing Air Force is the inability to simulate the cut block technique during practice at the speed and level of effectiveness they'll see on game day. Regardless, the Cougar coaching staff does not have the scout team to run the cut block against their first-string defense. Most of the learning comes from watching film, understanding what the cut block is and establishing a mental preparation of how to defend against it prior to game day.
"We talk to them, and they have to watch a lot of film and understand that we're not going to cut them in practice," Tidwell said. "When we're watching film and studying together with them - for example when I'm watching film with my linebackers - I'll say, ‘Okay, see this block here in practice? That's going to be a cut block in the game, so just be ready and prepare for it.' They try to visualize it during practice and get their hands down. In individual work we work on a lot of cut drills to help them be better prepared. You can't simulate it in practice and hopefully after a drive or two or [the] first two or three looks at how fast they are coming off the ball and how low they are coming off they ball, they'll get a feel for it and be able to defend against it."
"We try to get an understanding of it with our individual practice," Denney said. "We don't have our guys come out and cut block us during practice because it's just so dangerous. We don't need any more injuries here. It's just something we prepare for on the side and get in our mind. You can prepare for it all week and usually what happens is you get chopped once when you're not expecting it. Then you learn and start changing things to help defend against it. It's kind of a live-and-learn situation."