UCLA's Offense vs. BYU's Defense
For the first time in recent memory, BYU has a new coach, with Bronco Mendenhall moving on to Virginia and Kalani Sitake stepping in as the new head coach in Provo. Sitake, the former defensive coordinator at Utah and then at Oregon State, has seen his star rise quite a bit over the last few years, as he put together excellent defenses in his last two years at Utah before helping take over the rebuild in Corvallis last season. He's never been a head coach before, but the expectation is that, with his recruiting and defensive acumen, he should be able to build a strong program in Provo.
The question is whether that's going to start in earnest this year. This BYU team is, through two games, obviously not one of the top tier teams from years past. Though the low scores in the last two games might give you the indication that BYU's defense has been excellent, it really hasn't -- the Cougars are giving up a very mediocre 5.5 yards per play overall and 4.2 yards per rush attempt. Both are middle-of-the-pack numbers at best, and those two results came against what are turning out to be mediocre offensive teams in Utah and Arizona.
In addition to being worse against the run, the defense has also not been as disruptive as last year, recording just four sacks through two games after totaling 40 during the season last year. So, if you're thinking this is the same team that really stymied UCLA's offense last year, it really is not.
A big reason why the defense has dropped off a bit is the change in personnel on the defensive line, particularly at end. Bronson Kaufusi was probably BYU's best defensive player a year ago, but he's now in the NFL. In his place, junior Tomasi Laulile (6'4, 288) and sophomore Moses Kaumatule (6'2, 280) are trying to replace some of his production, but they're not the same caliber of players. Additionally, somewhat like UCLA, the Cougars are moving to more of a 4-3 from a 3-4, and that has required some adjustments of personnel. The other end spot is manned by the seemingly ageless senior Harvey Langi (6'3, 252), who's going to be 24 years old later this month. Langi started his career at Utah many moons ago as a running back, but has found his place at BYU as effectively a rush end.
The strength of the defensive line has shifted inward, with the two tackles, sophomore Merrill Taliauli (6'2, 305) and senior Logan Taele (6'2, 299) looking solid enough on the interior through two games. This isn't a very strong defensive line, though, and Utah's offensive line (admittedly a pretty darn good one) was able to get a consistent push on the BYU front.
As you move back through the defense, it starts to look more talented. At linebacker, the Cougars start a physical group, with junior Fred Warner (6'4, 230) and sophomore Francis Bernard (6'1, 240) at outside linebacker, and then sophomore Butch Pauu (6'0, 223) at middle linebacker. The three leading tacklers on the team are those three starting linebackers, with Langi, who's effectively a hybrid, coming in fourth, which is usually a sign of good, disciplined linebacker play (when you see a team with a bunch of safeties leading the team in tackles, that's usually a concern). Bernard, for his part, is pretty good in coverage, and we'd imagine UCLA's tight ends will see a lot of him.
The secondary has been a strength of the defense, but this is where it gets sticky for BYU. Arguably BYU's best defensive player, senior safety Kai Nacua (6'2, 215), was called for targeting in the second half of last week's game against Utah and will sit out the first half against UCLA. Losing Nacua for any length of time is a significant issue for the Cougars. Behind him, either junior Matt Hadley (6'0, 205) or senior Eric Takenaka (5'10, 210) will get the start, but it's a pretty big drop-off regardless. Nacua already has three interceptions this season.
In addition to that, BYU was without freshman starting cornerback Troy Warner (6'1, 195) last week due to an undisclosed injury, and there's no word on whether he'll be available on Saturday either. If he's unable to go, there's a pretty good chance that fellow true freshman Dayan Lake (5'11, 200) will start, especially because yet another BYU defensive back, freshman corner Austin McChesney (6'1, 190), was also called for targeting in the second half against Utah and will sit the first half on Saturday. For a little stability, junior Micah Hannemann (6'0, 205) will start at safety, as he has through the first two games, and he's another solid player in that secondary.
UCLA's offense scuffled a little bit in game one against Texas A&M in the face of the Aggies' vaunted pass rush, but last week against UNLV, the offense put together a pretty nice performance. Kennedy Polamalu made some very solid adjustments based on what worked and didn't work against the Aggies, moving the Bruins to much more of a shotgun look to start the game, and then also working in a variety of screens to keep the defense on its heels a bit more. It worked against UNLV, which is good, and now we'll get to see what kinds of adjustments he has for progressively more talented defenses.
Josh Rosen rebounded from a subpar opening game in College Station and looked decidedly more comfortable last week against UNLV. He hasn't had a truly Rosen-esque game yet, but given that BYU's pass rush is pretty average and the Cougars' secondary is fairly depleted, this could be a game for him to open things up a bit.
UCLA's running game has been very good so far, and as we suspected coming out of fall camp, the Bruins really go four or five deep with talented running backs. Last week against UNLV, true freshmen Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks both looked the part of talented Pac-12 level starters, and they're third and fourth-string respectively.
If there are major concerns remaining, they are on the offensive line and at receiver. The offensive line protected well enough against a bad UNLV pass rush, but even against the Rebels, the Bruins weren't able to generate much of a rushing attack between the tackles. That's a definite concern, but there's little UCLA can do to adjust its interior offensive line at this point -- there just aren't great options. At receiver, it's still to be determined whether UCLA has a go-to receiver, but the biggest issue is that the Bruins can't even find someone who can consistently catch the ball. UCLA has had at least five drops in each of the first two games, with culprits throughout the receiving corps. Jordan Lasley showed signs of emerging in this last game, though, so that was encouraging to see. We'd expect we'll see more of talented freshman receiver Theo Howard, who had his first action last week, catching one ball, as the UCLA coaches continue to get him up to speed.
We always think of BYU defenses as big, tough, and physical, but we're having a hard time seeing this one as particularly good. Last year's unit was solid, and it rushed the passer particularly well, but this one seems decidedly more average in that department. The only reason that game with Utah was even very close was due to a wild amount of unforced errors by the Utes. In the first half, Utah moved the ball pretty darn well, but turned it over on fumbles or interceptions an astounding four times.
UCLA's offense, on the other hand, looks like it's going to be pretty good -- maybe not an elite unit, due to the issues on the offensive line and at receiver, but the early returns on Polamalu are good, and Rosen and the running backs give UCLA some weapons. It's hard to judge too much yet, especially when one of the data points is against a UNLV defense that lacks talent, but we're relatively optimistic.
The Bruins should be able to hit some deep throws against this BYU secondary in the first half. UCLA has shown a willingness to do that, but so far, Rosen hasn't been able to connect. Looking at it, UCLA could take multiple shots in the first half -- without Nacua, and with the youth at corner, there's some obvious weakness there.
Running the ball might be a bit more difficult. BYU's linebackers are pretty good, and until we see otherwise, we're going to assume UCLA's interior offensive line won't get much of a push up the middle. Still, though it might sound counter-intuitive, UCLA's best bet is probably to run right at this defense -- the Cougar linebackers are pretty good in pursuit sideline to sideline.
Sitake absolutely could have something up his sleeve for UCLA -- he's familiar with the Bruins after going against them as a coordinator each of the last few years, and he famously coordinated the Utes to a 10-sack game of UCLA in 2014. Still, with the lack of speed and overall talent on the defensive line for BYU, it's hard to see the Cougars winning this end of the matchup.