When first-year BYU head coach Kalani Sitake was hired last December, much was made about his background as a defensive coach in a program best historically known for offense. But it was a pattern the school's administration has followed over their last two hires. Current Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall spent 13 seasons on the sidelines in Provo, 11 as the head coach. And that was after stints at Oregon State, Louisiana Tech and New Mexico, all on the defensive side. In addition to being a defensive coordinator, Mendenhall worked with the line and secondary - and that was after a collegiate career as a defensive back.
Sitake started on the other side of the ball, playing fullback at BYU before coaching everything from defensive backs and linebackers to running backs, tight ends and the offensive line. In 2005, Sitake settled for good on the defensive side, taking a position as linebackers coach at Utah before being named coordinator four years later. He quickly ascended from there, taking the DC spot at Oregon State for one season before the alma mater came calling. The background of both coaches is worth mentioning, because it appears BYU's approach is to make that side as strong as possible, figuring its typical talent levels and history of offensive prowess could carry it.
It worked beautifully under Mendenhall - the Cougars won 10 games five times in his tenure, and routinely had offenses averaging 35-plus points - but has hit a snag under Sitake. The biggest issue of now is that first-year offensive coordinator Ty Detmer is showing his youth. Detmer made his name at BYU, winning the Davey O'Brien, Maxwell and Sammy Baugh awards as well as the Heisman trophy, among others. After his professional career ended in 2005, Detmer was out of football for four seasons before coaching St. Andrews Episcopal School in Austin from 2009-15. The son of a noted high school coach, Detmer's football IQ was evident as a player, and he fit perfectly into BYU's wide open offense in the late 1980s.
But the transition from player to coach can be difficult, and thus far Detmer is trying to find the identity of himself as a coach on the collegiate level and translate that into the offense. Detmer has taken a sort of jack-of-all-trades approach through the first three games, mixing in power runs behind a stout line, lining up with a tight end, going to more of a spread look. Detmer has tagged the offense as pro style, and that's much of what he was more familiar with later in his career at the NFL level. But of now it's best described as multiple, and that's caused the master-of-none issue to arise.
Detmer has a pair of capable quarterbacks in starter Taysom Hill and back-up Tanner Mangum. But Hill, the more mobile of the two, has never fully recovered from a ligament tear in his right foot in September of last year. He lacks the elusiveness he once possessed, and that's caused a drop in the number of plays made via his ability to either extend the play or run for solid yardage. It's put a sizable dent in the offensive abilities, because that security blanket is now gone. BYU is protecting adequately, and it has the size - at nearly an average of 6-4 and 300-plus pounds - to perform at the Power Five level. And it has a running back in Jamaal Williams with great durability and good speed and vision.
It also has a pair of wideouts on the outside who measure 6-6 and 6-4 in Nick Kurtz and Moroni Laula-Pututau. On paper, it reads like an offense which should put up far more than its average of 17 points per game. And it will. But until Detmer can truly establish what it is BYU will do, it's caught in a middling ground. The Cougars could ride Williams 30 times a game. It could use the receivers in a series of intermediate and deep routes to back off defenses. But it's mixed up the play calling so much it hasn't truly tested much of anything.
The main worry for West Virginia on this side is the passing game. The Mountaineers also have yet to be truly tested, and perhaps the security in that allowed the coaching staff to back off the corners. But that's essentially bated opposing offenses from taking the wide open slants, and though Missouri's timing and execution lacked, and Youngstown State didn't secure catches as needed, BYU will eat up that real estate immediately. It won't be a surprise to see the Mountaineers test that theory early, and make the Cougars prove it.
Take a look at the corners and how far off the ball the play, also relative to where WVU has the safeties positioned. It's odd to write, but with all the height the Cougars possess at receiver, neither Kurtz nor Laula-Pututau is truly a vertical threat. Both average more than 10 yards per catch - but their longest receptions have been 23 and 17 yards, respectively. Neither has top end speed, and though they are dependable, it's nowhere near what the Mountaineers face daily against Shelton Gibson. But the slants, or out patterns in either man coverage or against the zone underneath after sending one wideout deep as a clear out is a major part of BYU's offense, and thus far Hill and the receivers have shown the needed timing and chemistry to exploit that area.
The other issue is the disciplined play of Brigham Young. It won't often bury itself with negative yardage plays, or get behind the chains because of penalty. And Detmer has proven patient enough to take the yardage in chunks, rather than force a big play. That's been fine when the offense can establish itself a bit, and it'd work beautifully if BYU had the needed chemistry and development across the board. But that lack of big plays has forced a consistency to drive eight-plus plays to score, and the Cougs have thus far been unable to accomplish the feat routinely.
If West Virginia can cover well enough on the outside - its safeties should be able to at least mitigate the intermediate routes in the middle of the field - it can control the BYU offense enough that the Mountaineers should be well in the game, as long as there's not a repeat performance of the lackadaisical play and 18 missed tackles, a la Youngstown State. This defense has been solid in assignments and gap control, and its defensive line should be able to stalemate the BYU offensive front enough to keep the linebackers and hybrid safeties free to make plays in the run game. What is must do is win the one-on-one match-ups on the outside, and that's the primary concern heading into this game.
Note: The tight end is often listed as a concern against the odd stack, but it wasn't until the ninth game last season that BYU's TEs even made a catch, and the Cougars have rarely used them over the first three games. It's a possibility against WVU, but not a probability.
With the above offensive shortcomings, BYU has had to rely on its defense, and that's nearly worked. The Cougars have allowed just 17.7 points per game, ranking 30th in the FBS (WVU is 20th at 16 ppg). Sitake has installed a 4-3 look that can morph into an odd front, and there's even been a handful of downs in which Brigham Young has lined up in a 5-2 by bringing a pair of linebackers up to match the ends. BYU did this especially against UCLA's run-based formations out of the Bruins' pro set style.
But as noted in a Silver Lot post, West Virginia, because of its nature, isn't going to see that look much. BYU will mix it up with three and four down, and as it has in past games, at times stand up as many as nine players in an effort to confuse as to who will drop into coverage and who will pressure. There's nothing flashy about this defense. But it's the best top to bottom that West Virginia has faced. The Cougars are sure tacklers, and play the kind of fundamentally sound assignment football that puts them in a league with Kansas State. What both these cats have in common is the ability to be in the correct gaps, use the right techniques, and not allow offenses any easily exploited areas in terms of open grass or leverage. Add in sure wrap tackling, and offenses have to bring the lunch pail.
A quick film review would show that BYU lacks the athleticism WVU has at the skill slots. It's linebackers are solid, hard-nosed kids who play physically every down. Middle 'backer Butch Pau'u averages nine tackles per game, and has 5.5 for loss this season. The sophomore made a career-high 19 stops versus UCLA, with the line keeping the Bruins' front from getting into the second level. But otherwise, is a collection of good-not-great talent which can't run with Gibson or Ka'Raun White or Jovon Durante - if WVU can get him both involved in and able to hold on balls on crossing routes - or Justin Crawford out of the backfield. The Mountaineers have an advantage on the outside, and Sitake knows it.
For similar reasons, BYU didn't like to man up against UCLA. Man-to-man isn't something the Cougars use a lot of anyway, and that makes sense when they're often playing incredibly skilled Power Five foes. What Brigham Young seems to most want to do is to sit in a two-deep shell and match-up on the receivers with help over the top. It could do that against UCLA, but found itself stretched against Arizona, like it will versus WVU. Look for a two deep against sets with no more than three receivers. Any four and five wide and BYU is nearly forced to go to one deep safety or risk such a light box (4-5 players) that it dares teams to run at will.
The Cougars will mix and match fronts with an eye to WVU's formations. The preference is four down, but there will be a lot more three down against the Mountaineers, with a nickel. That should leave at least one wideout in the slot matched against a linebacker. Often, BYU will try to negate passes to the outside, where they are weakest, by flanking out the linebackers. But that, in turn, leaves the middle of the field open, and that area could be rip for the picking for Daikiel Shorts, Durante and Skyler Howard. BYU's problem here is that it knows it has a speed deficiency, even more so than it did over its first three games.
It could match-up and play power against UCLA without fear of a more wide open style presenting gaps. But West Virginia will spread horizontally and vertically, and present max stress on BYU while also using a pace the Cougars haven't seen. Arizona tried to play fast, but first-game issues and self-inflicted mistakes like penalties kept their pace down. What Brigham Young is likely to do is hoe its linebackers can make enough plays in space to at least limit the run and pass game, which will allow for more help against WVU's receivers in terms of protection over the top and in eliminating the big play.
BYU knows West Virginia bogs down at times in the red zone, and it will use the sidelines and back of the end zone as added defenders, hoping to force the Mountaineers to settle for three. It's the primary reason the line play is critical. West Virginia must be able to play power football in the red zone to win. The Mountaineer front five has to push BYU off the ball and create some lanes for routine gains, then be able to create a new line of scrimmage near the goal line. It's a blend of assignments, technique and brute force, and at least in the first two, WVU will be matched. This one comes down to the more primal aspect of who can impose the will. West Virginia does that, it should be able to score enough to win.
Overall, defensively BYU wants to force WVU into the same methodical game they play, betting their matured athletes can sustain that longer and with few mistakes than can the Mountaineers. Brigham Young wants to make this a game of patience and bet that West Virginia can't both put together extended drives, then also capitalize in the red zone. That will limit the Mountaineers to field goals, BYU thinking their offense can muster enough in the ground game and on the outside to have a shot late. Don't throw multiple picks, or put the ball on the carpet, and WVU has a very solid chance in this one.