BYU’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
It’s fairly certain that BYU’s offense at this point of the season looks nothing like what Cougar fans would have expected a little over a month ago.
A month ago, BYU thought it would have a potential star at running back in Jamaal Williams, who has run for over 2500 yards in his three-year college career.
A month ago, BYU thought it would have a Heisman hopeful at quarterback in Taysom Hill, who has thrown for 31 touchdowns in his four-year career and rushed for over 2200 yards.
A month ago, BYU thought it had a traditional tight end in Steven Richards who could add dimensions to both the pass and run game.
Now, BYU has none of those guys. It was announced at the beginning of August that Williams would miss the season due to an undisclosed rules violations. At the end of August, Richards went down with a knee injury that will sideline him for the entire year. And then, in the worst hit of all, Hill broke his foot in the first game of the season and will miss the year, which gives him a second consecutive year lost to injury.
Still, despite the injuries, the Cougars have been fairly productive offensively so far this season, against two quality defenses in Nebraska and Boise State. The Cougars are averaging the exact same yards per play (6.1) as UCLA, but against significantly better competition. The offense has had to change somewhat, with the losses of Hill, Williams, and Richards, moving away from the dual-threat running game to emphasize the pass, and so far the results have been fairly good.
Leading the charge for BYU, actually, has been Hill’s backup and the new starter at quarterback, freshman Tanner Mangum (6’3, 210). As many have pointed out, Mangum isn’t a traditional freshman, and, in fact, just celebrated his 22nd birthday last week. So far this year, he also hasn’t played like a freshman, looking poised and confident against both Nebraska and Boise State. Mangum is a good athlete who has the ability to buy time and roll out. He’s adept throwing on the run, but also can quickly set his feet to throw long bombs after roll outs. He has a strong arm, which he has showed off to great effect in back-to-back games, winning the Nebraska game on a Hail Mary and then beating BYU on a 35-yard touchdown pass in closing minutes of the 4th quarter. He’s completed several long passes in the first two games, and it’s a fair bet that BYU will try to continue to exploit his ability to throw deep.
Mangum isn’t much of a downfield running threat, but he is a good athlete. He forced a couple of throws during the Boise State game for interceptions, but the expectation is that he’ll get more comfortable and reduce his mistakes over time. He has also benefitted from a strong receiving corps, which has helped to turn some of his jump balls into perfect lasers in the box score.
The group has actually been led through two games by junior Mitchell Juergens (5’10, 182), who was actually a walk-on as recently as a month ago. He exploded for 172 yards and two touchdowns against Boise State, including catching the go-ahead touchdown late. He plays bigger than his size indicates, and is strong after the catch. He’s effectively an H-back, which means he’ll line up all over the field, oftentimes out of the backfield or in the slot. The rest of the receiving corps is full of big guys who are simply tough to cover due to their size. Aside from senior Devon Blackmon (6’0, 187), the rest of the main group of receivers runs well north of 6’1. Blackmon is probably the fastest receiver and currently leads the team in catches with 11. Senior receiver Mitch Mathews (6’6, 215) has been a big target, particularly in the red zone this year, and is an excellent possession receiver. Blackmon’s backup, junior Nick Kurtz (6’6, 205), is another huge target who has five catches so far this year including a long 53 yards. Senior inside receiver Tereen Houk (6’5, 225) is another huge target who can be utilized in the red zone or short yardage situations. It’s just a big, big group of guys, and will present a matchup challenge for any teams they face this year. Having that kind of size has helped give Mangum a little bit more of a safety net on some of his more contested throws.
The running game hasn’t been particularly good with the loss of Williams. Senior Adam Hine (6’1, 216) has gotten the most work, and he’s been OK so far, rushing for 130 yards on 23 carries through two games. There’s a significant drop off behind him, though, with junior backup Algernon Brown (6’1, 235) rushing for just 23 yards on eight carries. Heck, the third string running back, senior Nate Carter (5’9, 189), has run for -9 yards on six carries. It’s a poor rushing attack, without a ton of individual talent, which has put even more of the onus on Mangum and the passing game.
The offensive line has been just OK so far this year, and has looked a lot better than it’s been because Mangum is good at avoiding the rush. So far this season, the offensive line has already given up seven sacks. Coupled with the poor rushing attack, that smacks of an offensive line that is largely underperforming. It’s a relatively young offensive line for BYU, at least by class standing, with three sophomores, one junior, and one senior in the starting lineup. First, the good part is that from center to left tackle, BYU has some quality players. Senior left tackle Ryker Mathews (6’6, 320) is the most experienced of the group, having started 13 games a freshman and having played in a combined 20 games over the last injury-riddled two years. He was on various watch lists heading into the season, and is a massive lineman who could cause UCLA some issues on the edge rush. Next to him, junior Kyle Johnson (6’4, 303) is probably the next most experienced in the unit, with two years of starting under his belt. Sophomore center Tejan Koroma (6’0, 290) started every game last year as a true freshman and actually beat out a returning senior starter to win the job, which says something about his talent and ability.
The right side of the line has been somewhat problematic, and BYU is still trying to find the right combination there. Sophomore Tuni Kanuch (6’3, 330) will likely start on Saturday at right guard, but he didn’t start the opener and has had issues in both run blocking and pass protection. The very controversial sophomore Ului Lapuaho (6’7, 330) was made famous after the Boise State game for punching a Broncos player in the crotch and he’ll likely start at right tackle after playing left tackle most of last year. If there’s an overall issue with the offensive line it’s that it trends toward big and powerful rather than agile and quick, which doesn’t work quite as well when the offense is now geared more toward the pass.
On the UCLA side, the Bruins have had, statistically, two very good defensive showings to start the season. The Bruins have allowed just 4.2 yards per play through two games, which is good enough for 24th in the country, and allowed a minuscule .14 points per play, which is good for 11th in the country. It’s a small sample size, of course, against two not very good offenses, but still, it’s a positive sign for a UCLA defense that underperformed a year ago.
The Bruins have been led, largely, by excellent play up front. Despite the loss of Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA’s defensive line performed very well against UNLV last week, with a combination of Eli Ankou and Matt Dickerson taking on more of the responsibility. Ankou in particular had a really good day, generating two tackles for loss and looking stout against the run. Dickerson was brought in on passing downs and looked very good as an interior rusher, and that feature of the defense is probably something UCLA will use more of as the Bruins get into Pac-12 play. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley also played really well, pressuring UNLV’s quarterback into an interception and looking stout against the run. All of that is without even mentioning Kenneth Clark, who might be one of UCLA’s top two or three pro prospects regardless of class and who has had long strings of dominance at different points of the first two games.
The linebacker corps didn’t have a great first game, but looked better in game two. Kenny Young seemed to settle down some in the middle linebacker role, and Myles Jack seemed to have a bigger positive impact on the game, particularly on the perimeter. Deon Hollins was exceptional in the game, oftentimes successfully defending the zone read all by himself. His awareness and lateral mobility have come a long way in the last two years, and so far he’s looked very good. UCLA went to more of a 4-3 type look in this last game, with Young manning the middle spot, Jack playing an almost weak side linebacker role, and Jayon Brown coming in to play significantly in place of Aaron Wallace. It’ll be interesting to see how much UCLA uses that formation going forward.
The secondary went mostly untested last week against UNLV, since the Rebels’ starting quarterback went down in the first half. This will probably be the toughest test of the early season for cornerbacks Fabian Moreau and Marcus Rios, who will be asked to defend players significantly bigger than them at times. Overall, the best player in the secondary so far this season has probably been sophomore safety Jaleel Wadood, who has been effective in the run game and also good in coverage.
So far, we haven’t seen much pressure from defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Admittedly, the Bruins haven’t needed to pressure much to have effective games against UNLV and Virginia, but it will be interesting to see if the defense gets a little more exotic heading into tougher games over the next few weeks.
This BYU offense will, without a doubt, be the toughest one UCLA has faced this season. It’s a fairly one-dimensional attack, but BYU does that one dimension better than Virginia or UNLV do anything. The Cougars’ strength and size at the skill positions will present some matchup difficulties against UCLA’s relatively small secondary, and could almost cause UCLA’s defenders some Stanford-like issues. BYU actually resembles Stanford in several ways, but certainly in overall size and strength.
The big key for UCLA will be handling Mangum. The Bruins’ job is two-fold: first, they have to get pressure on Mangum to keep him from getting too many free looks downfield. Second, and this is the hard part to couple with the first, they also have to keep him contained to the pocket, where he can’t use his feet and mobility to find open space from which to plant and throw. He’s completed several passes through just two games where he’s been able to roll out and hit deep throws, and those sorts of plays seem to be well within his comfort zone.
UCLA’s edge defenders have been fairly good at containing quarterbacks so far this season, so we’d bet on their ability to keep Mangum mostly contained to the pocket. Then, from what we saw last week against UNLV, we think UCLA might have the makings of an interior pass rush in some combination of Dickerson, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and Ankou. If UCLA’s interior rush can somewhat consistently get in Mangum’s face, and the edge guys can keep him fairly contained to the pocket, UCLA should be able to stifle BYU’s offense.
We’d also anticipate this being a game where Jack is used quite a bit in coverage. He has the size and strength to handle BYU’s bigger receivers while also being a far better athlete. Odds are, Mangum hasn’t seen a defender like Jack before, and Jack could be used to single-handedly take away Mathews or one of the other bigger receivers Mangum likes to throw to.
BYU is probably going to make some downfield plays. We’re not completely sold on UCLA’s secondary through two games, and we could see BYU’s size causing UCLA’s safeties and corners some issues. But overall, we think UCLA’s defensive line will do a good enough job of keeping Mangum in the pocket and under fire that he won’t have time to make too many of the dazzling plays he’s made through two games.