The Cougar ground game enters Saturday's matchup humming. Harvey Unga is as healthy as ever, the offensive line is firing on all cylinders and the backups are providing effective reps. But maybe more significant than anything, Manase Tonga is looking more and more like his old self with every week of play.
"It's going good, real good for us right now," commented Tonga. "It didn't feel quite right out there at first after being away for so long, but now, yeah, it feels right and I feel like I'm doing better with every week, especially in blocking and in running the football."
Tonga has been key to the resurgence of the Cougar ground game, but he's quick to credit the big uglies in front of him.
"With the push they're getting up front, they're allowing me to take on guys three-four yards downfield, which really opens it up for Harvey," he said. "I'm able to run clear on most plays and pick off just linebackers and sometimes defensive backs up field, which really helps. I give all the credit to the offensive line, those guys are doing a great job."
UNLV has struggled mightily in defending the run against productive ground games so far this season. Perhaps their best effort came against Wyoming a few weeks back, but it's well known to most how badly they got ran over last week by Nevada.
"Yeah, you look at what Nevada did against them and for sure you're licking your chops a bit," said Tonga about a defense that gave up 559 yards rushing a week ago. "But they've been better than that against other teams and they'll for sure be better than that against us. They'll bring their best game, but yeah, for sure, we feel like we can run on them, but we feel like we can run on anyone."
The Rebels operate out of a man-heavy 4-3 defensive system that features quite a bit of experience up front, especially so in their linebacker ranks. They'll be lead by four-year starting weakside linebacker Jason Beauchamp (6-3, 240), while strongside linebacker and former BYU recruit Starr Fuimaono (6-0, 210 Jr.) may not play due to injury.
Nevada's success on the ground is a bit misleading when given their unique pistol-formation offense that features one of the best running quarterbacks in the nation, which obviously gave the Rebels fits. Nevertheless, it would be hard to describe UNLV's defense as anything but extremely exploitable against the run.
The Cougar ground game has been humming against defenses more capable than that of the Rebels, so Cougar fans should expect Unga to run for well over 100 yards and the Cougar ground game as a whole to have similar production to what they had last week against Utah State.
BYU passing attack vs. UNLV
With McKay Jacobson lost for at least three more weeks, Max Hall and company will have to adjust to not having a deep threat that can stretch a defense. The coverage gaps will likely be closed up a bit as a result, causing Hall to be that more precise in his reads and throws. Replacing Jacobson will be Luke Ashworth, who is coming off his best game as a Cougar.
"That game last week gave me a lot of confidence for sure," said Ashworth, who led the team in receptions and yards against Utah State. "It's not easy replacing a guy like McKay, but I feel I did well, but I do need to improve this week against UNLV and in every week."
While Ashworth had already been a part of the regular rotation, his reps will obviously increase as the starter at the ZR position. Moving up in the rotation to replace the reps Ashworth had previously been providing will be true freshman Brett Thompson, who shined during preseason practices.
The given on the Cougar passing tree will obviously be Dennis Pitta, who is as consistent as they come in performing well week-in and week-out. Hall still will have plenty of options even without his top deep-threat in the lineup.
The Rebels have fared better against the pass than the run so far this season, although they haven't been all that impressive. As teams have fared well on the ground against the Rebels, the need to throw hasn't been all that great. But, the Rebels haven't fared all that well against pass-first teams such as Hawaii.
They gave up 477 yards through the air to Hawaii while not yielding more than 300 passing yards to any other team on their schedule. When given the success those teams have had on the ground, however, the statistic looks less impressive.
The Rebels run a lot of man-coverage on first and second downs, while going cover-two and cover-three during third-down or long-yardage situations. The Rebels are very inexperienced in their secondary; they start two sophomores, and have only one returning starter in their ranks. That returning starter is Quinton Porter, who has started in each of his first three seasons.
BYU presents the best passing offense UNLV will have faced so far this season. While Hawaii is given to throw more than the Cougars, it's arguable that they present quite the challenge that the Cougars do. Look for Hall to have a much better game than he did last week, as he'll do well in exploiting UNLV's man-heavy coverage system.
BYU run defense vs. UNLV
The Cougars are coming off two solid weeks of defending the run after laying a big egg in this department against Florida State. They'll again have to make do with the services of Russell Tialavea, who will have to wait another week before returning to the field of play.
"You're obviously not as strong up front without Russell," said defensive lineman Brett Denney. "Fortunately Romney Fuga has really stepped up and played great and Tevita Hola has done well too. They should do well again this week, although it certainly helps us having Russell in there."
While the Cougars have more times than not defended well against runs up the middle, it's the edges where they saw marked improvement a week ago against Utah State.
"Our linebackers did a great job with containment last week and we have to keep that up this week," said Denney. "We also did very well in containing the quarterback. We executed our gameplan there very well, which we'll have to do again this week with their quarterback who is similar in some ways."
The Rebels can run the ball well and have shown as much so far this season. Their primary ball carrier will be Channing Trotter (5-8, 200 Jr.), who can be a handle around the edges as well as through the middle of the defense.
It's unclear whether or not Rebel quarterback Omar Clayton will play, as he sat out last week due to a shoulder injury. He'll likely be a game-time decision, and if he can't go Mike Clausen will get the call. Both of them can run the football well.
Up front, the Rebel offensive line has some good returning experience with four returning starters.
"They're solid up front from what I've seen on film," commented Denney. "They're big and they make it hard on you to see exactly what is going on in the backfield at times. They'll be a challenge and yeah, they look a bit better than they were last year."
UNLV will run the football out of a true spread formation that will feature a single back with four wideouts on most occasions. The Cougars will have to identify the play quickly and close whatever gaps the spread presents to get to the ball carrier.
Both quarterbacks are pass-first guys, although they won't hesitate to run the football. Look for the Cougars to defend the run well up the middle, although UNLV presents a stiffer challenge up front than the Aggies did a week ago. The key will be defending the runs outside and containing the quarterback.
BYU pass defense vs. UNLV
The Cougars did very well in this area a week ago against Utah State, which enabled some coverage sacks and few opportunities for the Aggies to beat them downfield. The Cougars have struggled however at getting a good pass rush against most teams and this looks to perhaps continue given UNLV's offensive tendencies.
"It can be frustrating for a defensive lineman for sure with their three-step drops," observed Denney. "With how quick they are in getting the ball out, it's impossible to get to him a lot of the time, so you do what you can otherwise. You have to try to get into passing lanes and disrupt their passing in any way you can. That's what you have to do against a spread offense."
What could present the secondary headaches is Ryan Wolfe (6-2, 210 Sr.), who has been giving most defensive units headaches throughout his career. Wolfe presents a big target that UNLV will very well try to exploit against the diminutive Brian Logan, just as they'll look to do with their other receivers. Three of UNLV's starting receivers are all 6 feet 2 inches, while their slot receiver comes in at 5 feet 8 inches.
"That's what I remember about the game last year," said Denney. "They had a lot of tall receivers that beat our guys downfield. Hopefully we can do better to defend those guys this time. For me and the other defensive linemen, we need to make sure he can't get the ball to them as easy as he did last year."
This will be the defense's first true test in regards to defending a true spread offensive system. While Utah State could very well be described as a spread offense, the Aggies don't use four receivers as much as UNLV does and they don't present quite the talent the Rebels do at most positions.
It was assumed by many that the advent of the Cougar nickel package would occur against UNLV, although the dismissal of Shiloah Te'o certainly hampers defensive coordinator Jaime Hill's ability to employ an effective nickel package. So far this season the Cougars have not deviated from their base 3-4 formation and it will be interesting to note what different looks, if any, they may give the Rebels if any.
UNLV should be able to do much of what they did last season in giving the Cougar defense fits. With UNLV using a quick-hitting offense that attacks the flats and individual matchups, the Cougar secondary and the defense as a whole will have their hands full and should yield some good yardage to a potent Rebel attack.
On the flipside, the Rebels look to have little of anything that should stand in Hall and company's way. Look for the Cougar offense to romp and for the game to follow much of the same course of last year's game.
Final Score Prediction: BYU 45, UNLV 37