BYU 101: A passing team turns to the run?

TRYING TO peg BYU is a challenge. They managed a 10-win season in 2011, their first as an independent, but they finished unranked in the Coaches Poll -- punished for playing a weak schedule. The core of that team returns in 2012 and the schedule is stronger. BYU will have depth and experience on their side plus a rowdy home crowd when WSU visits Thursday, but the edge is in no way insurmountable.

It looks daunting on paper. Coach Bronco Mendenhall enters his eighth season at the helm of BYU, sporting the nation's fifteenth highest winning percentage (.733) over that span. And his 2012 team is widely considered to be his most talented team to date – in Mendenhall's estimation as well – and expectations in Provo are sky high.

But recruiting to a parochial school is not easy and BYU has struggled at times when facing BCS level talent. They are 10-11 in the Mendenhall era against that level of competition.

Cougars (0-0) vs BYU (0-0)
7:15 pm Pacific Time

LaVell Edwards Stadium (64,045)

ESPN, National

The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

BYU by 13

BYU won in Provo in 1990, 50-36.

BYU has a 1-2 edge in the series.

Cougs 43, BYU 40


Players to Know
Riley Nelson QB: At 6-0, 199 pounds, Nelson is something of a ‘Tim Tebow Light' -- an athletic scrambler with a somewhat weak arm. But he more than makes up for it with moxie and toughness. He can buy time with his feet and is quick to run for cheap yards (392 rushing yards last season) when plays break down – something that has killed WSU in recent years. Nelson will look to the deep ball when his team needs a spark (8.5 yards per attempt and 19 touchdowns last year). He led his team to six wins in seven starts last season, plus an epic fourth quarter comeback against Utah State (Nelson's former alma mater) after taking over for a struggling Jake Heaps (now at Kansas.) Not a prototypical BYU passer, Nelson is a savvy veteran leader who embodies the overall team attitude.
Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo, WR: At 6-4 and 6-3, BYU has a pair of huge targets tailor-made to Nelson's playmaking style. Nelson tends to lob mid-to-long range passes and these two are quick to make space and pluck them out of the air. The junior, Hoffman, is the more seasoned of the two, finishing with just under 1,000 receiving yards last season.
Michael Alisa, RB: BYU is not overly hyped about their running back situation, they've been hinting at a running back by committee approach, but they are jacked about their offensive line -- so a productive day from Alisa is certainly a possibility. He ran for only 544 yards as a backup last year, but averaged a very respectable 5.4 yards per carry.

The current offense is the design of former BYU quarterbacks Brandon Doman (OC) and Max Hall (QB coach), so they will hardly forget their pass-happy legacy, but Nelson's skills and the strength on the line has led Doman to structure a simpler, more ball-controlled attack for 2012. The offensive line itself even underwent an offseason transformation to better suit Nelson's scrambling and improvisational style. Mendenhall instituted a new nutrition program and increased emphasis on speed and stamina. The line dropped a ton of fat and looks lean and mean, with no lineman weighing over 300 pounds.

The young WSU defense should expect to face a tenacious and sophisticated running attack, backed by regular doses of BYU's big receivers. The WSU linebackers will essentially bear a triple responsibility -- run stopping, pass defense and still accounting for Nelson when the pass plays break down. This will not likely be a game where the opponent runs over an undersized Cougar defense, but WSU could certainly get worn down as the game does go along (the way Oregon State was last year against BYU.) WSU's best scenario would be in protecting a lead, where BYU has to throw more than they want to, so safety Deone Bucannon and the veteran secondary can be free to shag any soft passes and BUCK Travis Long and crew can maintain their focus on pass rushing.


Players to Know
Kyle Van Noy, WLB: The lead playmaker in what looks to be a very good linebacker corps. He plays off the weakside like a 235-pound guided missile and led the team in sacks (7); tackles for a loss (15); and interceptions (3) while finishing second in tackles (68); and forced fumbles (3).
Romney Fuga, NT: BYU features three huge, senior Polynesians on their defensive line. The biggest is Fuga at 321 pounds. They should be fairly impenetrable against the run.

BYU runs a base 3-4 with seven seniors in the starting lineup. The front seven is likely among the strongest WSU will face all season. The secondary is a question mark and the defensive line could have trouble getting a pass rush on its own, but the linebackers hold it all together and make it a solid, productive defense.

It is intriguing that the BYU defense's primary area of concern (secondary) matches up with WSU's primary area of strength (receivers), assuming of course that the offensive line can give their quarterback enough time for the routes to develop. It is also interesting that the thing that BYU does best (run defense) is something WSU probably will not contest at all. It would seem probable that WSU would focus their attack directly on the secondary, but that simply is not a sustainable game plan for four quarters of football. WSU may actually focus most of their offensive firepower up front. BYU expects to control the line of scrimmage, but WSU can control how big that line of scrimmage actually is. Stretching the field horizontally creates a much bigger zone for the front seven to try and control than merely the space between the tackles – and over four quarters of football, it forces the defense to cover a lot more ground over the course of a game. It figures the Cougs will throw a good amount of swing passes and bubble screens, blended with a ton of mesh passing plays to wear down the front seven and keep them running all over the field. Andrei Lintz could be a key factor, especially early. The three down linemen are great at plugging the gaps, but the BYU linebackers are their key playmakers. WSU needs to manipulate and tangle those linebackers. BYU will try put maximum pressure on Jeff Tuel with edge and gap blitzing. Mike Leach will try to ensure that any area Van Noy and Co. attack is merely empty real estate. When the BYU D begins to show signs of being off-balanced and confused, look for Tuel, Gabe Marks and Marquess Wilson to deliver the kill shot.


This is where things get even more interesting. WSU's special teams situation has changed substantially from years past. And BYU placekicker Justin Sorenson was thought to be a strong point, but a surgically repaired back has been very problematic this August. He attempted his first kick at the tail end of fall camp and sounded confident he would play, but his status for the game remains questionable. Punter Justin Stephenson has assumed the kicking duties at this point but is a wild card as to what kind of accuracy and distance he brings to the table. Expect Sorenson to play but for BYU coaches to keep it quiet until the last minute. Still, in event of a shootout, BYU does not want to be the team needing a late game, long distance field goal.

-The best scenario has WSU building a good-sized early lead and BYU starting to press. But if BYU races out early, don't despair. The Air Raid stresses a defense over time, making defenders run wide and far, and it makes opponents more susceptible in the second half to give up points in bunches.

-BYU has a much more experienced football team, but the maturity gap goes beyond the number of starts and letter winners. Because of the LDS mission program, the majority of their team is a year or two older than their eligibility indicates. Quite a few players like QB Riley Nelson (24) are already in their mid-twenties. As a result, BYU does play with impressive amount of control and maturity. The disciplined and detail oriented coach Bronco Mendenhall only enhances that.

-This series has a limited but epic history. BYU has a 2-1 edge, but virtually all of the games have been shootouts dating back to the first meeting in the thrilling 1981 Holiday Bowl. The average score in the three game series is 43-40 BYU.

-Coug fans will be glad to know Leach tends to have his teams ready to rock right out of the gate. In 10 seasons at Texas Tech his teams were 9-1 on opening day, averaging 40 points per game on offense. The only loss was to eventual national champion Ohio State in 2002.

Cougfan Top Stories