Position Battles: Utah Defense vs BYU Offense

Utah's defense will be tasked with stopping a BYU offense led by senior playmakers. Here's how they stack up.

Utah got off to a hot start against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, jumping out to a 35-0 lead in the first quarter largely fueled by the defense. Utah fell asleep after that, allowing BYU to get within a touchdown by the time the game ended. Both teams have changed quite a bit in the past eight months, with BYU turning over virtually the entire coaching staff. There will be an element of unfamiliarity when the two schools meet for the 97th time on Saturday, September 10.

BYU Offense

BYU’s offense has undergone a dramatic change under new offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, eschewing the shotgun spread for a more traditional under-center offense featuring multiple backs and/or tight ends. Detmer will still use the shotgun and some of the zone-read elements that quarterback Taysom Hill runs well, but for the most part the Cougars are a drop-back, West Coast offense.
The running game didn’t show much against Arizona outside of basic inside/outside zones, with a little zone read and power plays mixed in. The inside zone fits running back Jamal Williams well, as it features his strengths. Williams is a back with good vision and power, but he is not going to outrun defenders or make them miss in space. He is at his best when he is able to read the blocking, make a cut and run through the defense, which is what the zone running game requires. Though Williams isn’t elusive, he is able to adjust his body and avoid taking big hits, and is often able to not just deflect the blow, but use it to break the tackle and keep moving forward.
Williams will take the majority of the snaps as the lead back. Squally Canada is Williams’ primary backup. Canada is small, faster, and more elusive, but he hasn’t shown anything in limited snaps—he has 7 yards in 4 career carries. Algie Brown will take most of the reps at fullback when BYU goes to a two-back set, and will be the lead back in certain short-yardage formations. Brown is a solid between-the-tackles runner and a capable receiver.
Hill did not look good running the ball against Arizona, as he was slow and unable to make any moves in space. He is strong enough to break some arm tackles, but the explosiveness he displayed prior to his injuries was gone. A career 5.6-yard per carry runner coming into this season, Hill gained just 37 yards on 11 carries against a weak Arizona defensive front. Hopefully for BYU, it was just Hill working through not having played a game in nearly a year.
As a passer, Hill was decisive and efficient in the quick-hitting West Coast scheme. He generally put the ball in good spots for the receivers, though he struggled on 3rd downs (two conversions in eight attempts) and trying to push the ball down field. It was by far the best Hill has looked throwing the ball against a P5 defense. It used to be said that backup Tanner Mangum was not the runner Hill was, but after watching Hill labor to get positive yards, the two might be closer than was once thought. Mangum has a stronger arm, but he struggled against P5 defenses and too often forced the ball into coverage, resulting in far too many turnovers. As with Hill, the quick-hitting passing game might be an efficient fit for Mangum, should the need arise for him to take snaps against Utah. Mangum can stretch the field more than Hill, bringing an added dimension to the passing game.
At wide receivers, the Cougars have good size on the outside in listed starters Nick Kurtz (6-foot-6, 215) and Moroni Laulu-Pututau (6-foot-3, 220). Neither are particularly fast, but Kurtz especially has a knack for getting enough separation on deep routes to produce big plays. Highly-touted junior college transfer Jonah Trinnaman will see a great deal of playing time at receiver. Trinnaman has excellent speed and provides BYU with an explosive element to the passing game that the team has lacked. Colby Pearson and Mitchell Juergens will also rotate in, mainly playing as slot receivers in three-receiver sets. Both are more quick than fast, but they can get open in the middle of the field.
The tight end position will be more involved in the passing game after essentially being ignored the past three seasons. BYU will at times feature two tight end sets with both Tanner Balderree and Hunter Marshall on the field at the same time. Balderree and Marshall were the only tight ends on the roster to play against Arizona. Neither have any attributes that stand out. Balderree showed some nice hands against Arizona while Marshall showed some ability to stretch the seam, catching a 19-yard pass, the longest of the game. Marshall also showed some ability as a run blocker, doing a nice job setting and holding the edge. BYU will run a lot of play-action passes featuring the tight ends running a release route, where they will block for a short time before releasing into a short route.
BYU’s offensive line had a decent showing in the run game but struggled against the Arizona pass rush, as Hill was forced to scramble far too often despite taking just one sack. SUU transfer and starting left tackle Andrew Eide did not look like an FBS-caliber lineman as he was often slow off the snap and forced to reach to slow down the outside speed rush. He struggled to disengage from blocks and had a hard time picking up second-level defenders when run blocking. When he was able to stay in front and engage a defender, he showed good strength. Right tackle Ului Lapuaho is a solid player, combining decent athleticism, size, and technique. He can be beat by speed, and he has a tendency to grab and hold at times, but overall he is a solid player both as a run blocker and pass protector. Left guard Keyan Norman had similar struggles as Eide, as he did not move his feet well and was too often leaning to engage defenders, giving up balance and leverage. BYU rotated two players in a right guard in Parker Dawe and Tuni Kanuch. Neither player showed much as both struggled. Fortunately for BYU Tejan Koroma is a quality center and he was able to help out both Norman and whomever was at right guard. Koroma is a good athlete for the position with excellent footwork. He has good strength and is able to make the correct calls at the line-of-scrimmage. Koroma does have one noticeable flaw, as he telegraphed the play call against Arizona: if the play was going to be a pass, his butt was low and his head was high while when the play was a run, his head was lower and his butt higher, with his back almost parallel with the ground. It will be interesting to see if he continues to show a run/pass tell with his posture.

Utah Defense

The Utes pitched a shutout in their opener, one of just five FBS teams to do so (all against FCS competition, though Utah’s opponent was the only reigning FCS conference champion). The defense got off to a bit of a slow start, allowing 32 yards on SUU’s first two plays from scrimmage before allowing just 126 yards on the other 48 plays.
Utah’s defensive line played well once SUU stopped using the quarterback as a lead blocker, recording 3 sacks and giving up just 3.6 yards per carry. It was a team effort up front with no particular lineman standing out, though Kylie Fitts lead the line with 4 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Utah has a decisive edge on the line-of-scrimmage, as they have the strength and the speed to win every matchup in the trenches.
Linebacker play could be a problem for the Utes facing the BYU offense. Sunia Tauteoli and Cody Barton had solid debuts, but at times they were caught out of position against the run and in coverage. Utah’s linebackers will have to tackle better, and they need to stick with the tight ends on the line, not allowing Balderree or Marshall a free release on their delayed pass routes. Look for Kavika Luafatasaga to be more involved this week as Utah could play more base 4-3 defense than they will in any other game this season.
Utah’s corners are coming off the best game they played in quite a while, blanketing SUU’s receivers and allowing just 42 yards through the air; no SUU player catching more than one pass against Utah’s secondary. Brian Allen had an outstanding game starting for Dominique Hatfield, smothering receivers at the line-of-scrimmage with his length and strength. Reginald Porter was almost as strong opposite Allen, allowing little room for completed passes. Marcus Williams showed his range and ball-hawking skills, coming from the middle of the field to intercept a deep pass near the sideline and forcing a fumble on SUU’s second play, which he also recovered. Chase Hansen and Andre Godfrey rotated at strong safety, with both players having solid games.
It is doubtful that Utah will hold BYU to 160 total yards, but Utah’s defense should outclass the Cougars across the board. If the linebackers fit their gaps against the inside zone, BYU will have a difficult time consistently moving the ball.
Edge: Utah

Special Teams

Jonny Linehan is an excellent directional punter with great touch on his punts. Due to little more than bad luck—and poor coverage—he had three punts roll into the endzone for touchbacks against Arizona. Linehan doesn’t have a huge leg, but he gets the ball far enough, and usually with enough hang time to prevent a return. He is BYU’s best specialist.
BYU’s kicking game could be far more interesting than the punting game, as neither kicker has much experience. Both Rhett Almond and Jake Oldroyd converted a field goal attempt while Almond missed BYU’s only PAT kick. Neither showed much of anything to go on, though Oldroyd deserves credit for making a relatively short game-winning field goal on his first collegiate kick. Due to that kick, Oldroyd took the top spot on the depth chart.
Trinnaman tops the depth chart as kick returner, and he has the top-end speed to be a threat provided he can pick up good blocking, something BYU struggled with in the opener. Garrett Juergens handles punt returns. He has the ability to make the first defender miss and pick up decent yardage. He had a 27-yard return against Arizona.
BYU’s coverage teams were average at best against the Wildcats, giving up 21.7 yards per kick return while missing on several chances to down punts inside the 10-yard line that resulted in touchbacks.
Mitch Wishnowsky had an outstanding debut, setting a Utah record for punt average in a game (55.5) and was named the Ray Guy Award punter of the week. Wishnowsky did have a pair of punts find their way into the endzone, but overall he had an excellent game.
Andy Phillips struggled through injury and missed what for him was a chip shot, 36-yard field goal attempt. Phillips is dealing with an injury that was noticeably bothering him throughout the game and is likely the reason why he did not handle kickoffs. When healthy Phillips is one of the better kickers in the country.
Utah’s return game didn’t get a chance to show their stuff, as SUU’s lone kickoff went out of the endzone for a touchback. Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon can be dangerous in the return game if given a chance. Boobie Hobbs had an excellent game returning punts, gaining 55 yards on 5 returns with a long of 35 yards. Hobbs might have been too aggressive, as there were a couple of times he should have called for a fair catch.
Utah’s coverage teams weren’t really tested by the Thunderbirds, but they did well when given a change, allowing an average of just 18 yards on kick returns and 6 yards on punt returns.
Edge: Utah
Utah has better athletes at every position on offense and defense, and on talent alone this game should not be close. Combined with an inexperienced BYU coaching staff and this game could get ugly. That being said, this is a rivalry game with two teams and coaching staffs that know each other very well. Utah is the better team, possesses better depth, and is at home. The Utes will not allow themselves to get complacent should they build an early lead in this game.
Final Score Prediction: Utah 31 BYU 10

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