For the sixth straight week we have exchanged scouting reports with a blog from the week’s opponent. With BYU in town for the first time since 2005, we swapped insights with Blue Cougar Football.
The BYU offense good off to a good start in 2012. In back-to-back wins, BYU passed for over 300 yards each game and averaged 479 yards per game. Quarterback Riley Nelson was injured during game 2. He fought through the pain for games three and four, but could not finish game four. As would be expected, the offense struggled in those games. Not only was Nelson less than 100 percent, but the defenses for Utah and Boise State were better than those for Washington State and Weber State.
The best defenses, statistically, that BYU has faced were in the last two games against Utah State and Oregon State. In those games, the BYU offense was far more productive than each defenses’ averages. However, mistakes have prevented BYU from scoring more points in each of these games.
Going into the game against Notre Dame, the BYU is averaging 396.6 yards per game (173.6 rushing, 223 passing). The Cougars are converting 43 percent of their third downs (43/119) and 71 percent of fourth downs (10/14). BYU has turned the ball over 14 times (10 interceptions, 4 fumbles).
Senior Riley Nelson will be the starting quarterback (92-160, 1059 yards, 6 TD, 8 Int.). He is good on his feet, which helps to make up for his average arm strength. Typically, he is a good game manager, but when under pressure he can easily be forced into making mistakes.
At running back is true freshman Jamaal Williams. He is just 17-years old since he skipped second grade, but he plays like a 20-year old. He is the teams leading rusher with 65 carries for 345 yards (5.3) and 5 touchdowns. He almost always goes forward. He has only lost 5 yards all season. Williams can be a weapon in the passing game out of the backfield as well. He has 10 receptions for 130 yards.
The only wide receiver who has been productive this year is Cody Hoffman (41 receptions, 534 yards, 2 TD). He has had 100 yards receiving in four of the seven games this season. He is Nelson’s favorite target, and will catch almost anything thrown at him. Many have tried to stop Hoffman, and many have failed. He is both a possession receiver and a big play receiver.
The rest of the receivers have struggled to be involved in the passing game. Ross Apo is big (6-foot-3), but has failed to establish any kind of rapport with Nelson. JD Falslev finished 2011 strong playing in the slot, but has just 16 receptions for only 124 yards this year.
BYU saw Kaneakua Friel emerge as the top tight end in the season opener. He had 6 receptions for 101 yards, and 2 touchdowns. For the season, his totals are now 23 receptions, 266 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Richard Wilson (5 receptions, 85 yards) and Devin Mahina (5 receptions, 61 yards, 2 TD) can also come in at any time and make big grabs.
The offensive line has struggled all year. False start, holding, and illegal blocking penalties have ruined several drives this season, and probably were the biggest reason why BYU lost to Utah. Run blocking is bad. BYU has resorted to running quarterback draws when running on the interior, and the option to be able to effectively run outside. Pass protection has been spotty. The line has given up 18 sacks this season.
During the first half of the season, BYU fans learned to fall in love with defense. After six games, the Cougar D was best in the nation in rush defense. BYU was near the top in the nation in almost every major statistical category. No one could pass or run on BYU. Teams were lucky just to score. Twice, the opposing offense has not scored a single point. Four times, the BYU defense did not allow a touchdown.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive lineman Ezekiel Ansah were making headlines. ESPN commentators were gushing about their NFL potential. The rest of the players were filling their roles nicely. This edition of the Cougar D appeared destined to be the best in school history.
BYU came crashing back to reality when No. 10 Oregon State came to town in game seven. Oregon State found a way to pass for over 300 yards and rush for over 100. Was BYU overconfident, or is Oregon State that good? Was this an aberration, or was the defense truly exposed?
The weakest link in BYU’s defense, both last Saturday and always, is the defensive secondary. BYU has been getting better in recent seasons, but the way Oregon State threw the ball, it was obvious that cornerbacks Jordan Johnson and Preston Hadley aren’t quite there yet. The safeties Joe Sampson and Daniel Sorensen are hard hitters and pretty athletic.
The strength of the BYU defense is the linebackers. Van Noy is a playmaker. He has 11.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 5 pass breakups, 8 quarterback hurries, and 3 forced fumbles. He is fast and very athletic. His trademark had become chasing down quarterbacks from the blindside and drilling them, which usually results in a fumble. Opposite Van Noy is Spencer Hadley. He flies under the radar with Van Noy getting all the headlines, but Hadley is pretty good in his own right. He is third on the team in tackles and has 7.5 TFL, and 3.5 sacks.
In the middle, BYU has Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga. Ogletree is a tackling machine, but very poor in pass coverage. Kaveinga quietly has a good game week in and week out.
In the past, BYU’s philosophy for the defensive line has been to plug up holes and try to draw double teams. In other words, make it as easy as possible for the linebackers to stop the ball carrier or get to the quarterback. That philosophy has changed with the emergence of Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. A native of Ghana, Africa, Ansah had never played football before 2010, but with all the physical gifts necessary to thrive, he has delivered this year on the potential coaches have been promising. Ansah didn’t become the starter until Eathyn Manumaleuna was lost for the season against Boise State (game 4). To go along with 30 tackles, Ansah has 9 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 pass breakups, and 5 quarterback hurries. Two other seniors join Ansah on the line. Both of them have played in over 40 games during their careers.
BYU Special Teams
The punting has been exceptional. Riley Stephenson is one of the nation’s top punters averaging 46.5 yards per punt. He is very good at pinning opponents down near the goal line. It is no longer a big deal for BYU fans to see a punt downed inside the 10-yard line. BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall uses this to his advantage and doesn’t hesitate to play the field position game.
The rest of BYU’s special teams have been unsatisfactory. Placekicking, both field goals and extra points, are unreliable. Placekicker Justin Sorensen needed to have a bone spur fixed in his back during the offseason. It was assumed that he would be ready when fall camp came around. When he wasn’t, BYU scrambled to come up with a contingency plan. That plan has resulted in 5-9 field goal kicking and 3 missed extra points.
BYU has given up some big punt returns this season. The most notable were in the Utah game. Both offensive touchdowns Utah scored were set up by punt returns.
A combination of BYU’s great scoring defense and the new kickoff rules have resulted in BYU having very few kickoff returns this season. JD Falslev has had a few nice punt returns. He isn’t super fast, but he is elusive.
For all of the big games this year, Bronco Mendenhall has been repeating the same thing: If we don’t turn the ball over, we have a pretty good shot. Avoiding turnovers will be key for BYU in this game. Turnovers have been the Cougars’ Achilles heel in big games going all the way back to 2008.
I think it will take more than just avoiding turnovers. Riley Nelson will have to play the best game of his career. The offensive line will have to play their best game of the season. Two or three other players will have to step up and have big days. It could be in the form of a turnover on defense, or one of the wide receivers not named Hoffman getting 100 yards, or a huge momentum changing special teams play.
BYU is a quality team, but the way Brian Kelly has Notre Dame playing, it is going to take more than just executing and playing assignment sound football. BYU needs to take the crowd out of the game, and find a way to shake Notre Dame’s confidence. It will also take a complete game—60 minutes. BYU can’t play well for three quarters, or even 55 minutes. If that is the case, what was a winnable game will end up looking like a blowout.