Traditionally, Utah has boasted a very good defense. And like last year, the strength of the program lies once again on the defensive side of the ball.
“They have a very physical team,” said David Foote. “They have a great defense, and I remember all the years that I’ve played them their defense is very solid. They have a very solid defensive line and secondary. As far as our approach goes, it’s the same as Washington State and Weber. We just have to get the most out of practice and execute and that’s what we’re looking forward to doing this week.”
With an offense that has struggled at times during the past two years, Coach Whittingham has relied on his defense to help win games. This is the expected approach when the Utes line up against the Cougars this Saturday, and the strength of the Utah defense lies in the trenches.
“Well, a lot of it starts with the defensive line,” said Foote. “You have to see if they are an over or under and whatnot. Then we kind of game plan around that, so obviously coaches do a great job of breaking down coverages that they run and different things. We just have to go out and execute.”
Starting at left defensive end, Utah will field 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound speed rusher Nate Fakahafua. BYU left tackle Ryker Mathews, who struggled at times with Weber State’s 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound left defensive end Dustin Martin, will once again be going up against a smaller defender.
“We need to make sure we have bodies on bodies,” said Riley Nelson said. “I mean, we’re going to lose one-on-one battles and that happens. Just like for a quarterback, you make a bad throw or just for a DB, he drops an interception or something like that. That’s going to happen, but if we can prepare ourselves enough mentally and know our game plan inside and out to be able to at least neutralize those guys at times, it shouldn’t be too big of a deal.”
At the left defensive tackle position will be 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound senior David Kruger. Tenny Palepoi (6 feet 2 inches, 305 pounds) will back him up.
The right tackle position will be manned by 6-foot-4-inch, 320-pound senior Star Lotulelei. Backing up Lotulelei will be 5-foot-11-inch, 294-pound redshirt freshman Viliseni Fauonuku. Star Lotulelei is appropriately named, as he is the star player on the Utah defense.
“He’s a good player, so I just have to get the ball out of my hand,” said Nelson about Lotulelei. “He’s a lot bigger than I am, so hopefully I don’t have to go head up with him or hopefully he doesn’t get a free shot at me. If I can get the ball out of my hand in a quick and efficient manner, it should be able to neutralize that. You know, I’m fully prepared to take hits and all this stuff that comes through playing major college football.”
And at right defensive end, 6-foot-7-inch, 280-pound junior Joe Kruger will play despite being ejected in the fourth quarter of the USU game for apparently throwing a punch. Kruger won’t face an additional suspension for the BYU game because his penalty was considered “striking” rather than “fighting.”
“Obviously, they have a great defensive line over there,” said Foote. “We just have to be physical with them in our blocking schemes. We took away some great things in our previous two games and I think we need to continue to run the ball hard.”
Utah’s utility player is 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound junior Trevor Reilly, who plays backup defensive end and is slated to start at stud linebacker. Reilly will back up Fakahafua at left defensive end and Joe Kruger at right defensive end if needed.
“We shouldn’t shy away and Utah is another opponent for us,” said Foote. “We’re not going to change the way we approach this game because we’re confident we can execute our jobs. There were a few mental errors that we had against Washington State and Weber State. We have to keep the focus up and we have to clean those things up and have 100-percent execution out there.”
It’s a common perception that Nelson isn’t the most prolific passer to come through BYU’s program, so the run game is all that much more important in order to aid Nelson in the passing game. The run sets up the pass, but in the past two games the run game hasn’t been as sharp as was expected.
“It’s always a work in progress,” said Foote. “I don’t think you’re ever there. Every week you have to look at the tape and see things that you can improve upon, but I know as a running back unit [there are] certain cuts and reads we can do a better job. That’s our focus this week is running hard and seeing our reads, and we know the guys up front are going to open up holes for us. We have 100 percent trust in them. Once you get out there it’s just running the ball hard and it’s not focusing on what they do. It’s about executing what we do.”
The Cougar offense will have to get the ground game going against Utah. Against the 3-4 defense of Washington State, BYU rushed the ball 41 times with an average of 3 yards per carry. Against Weber State, the Cougars ran the ball 37 times with an average of 6.1 yards per carry. Utah’s defensive line will be much tougher to run on than both Weber State and Washington State.
“You know, we feel like we can run the football on anyone,” said Foote. “We’re confident with who we have back there. We’re all confident as running backs and in our offensive line and what we do offensively as a unit. So, regardless of who we are playing, it’s not going to change our approach in practice and the way we do things. We just have to go out there and execute, like I said, and run hard.”
During Utah’s contest against Utah State, the Aggie offense played at a fast pace that wore down Utah’s defensive line. BYU’s offense can operate at a fast tempo when needed, and it’s certain the Cougar coaching staff has seen the results on tape.
“I mean, we have run that the past two games and it has worked well for us, and so I’m sure we’ll continue to do so,” said Foote about the up-tempo offense. “It’s great because it kind of spreads things out and moves and kind of puts defenses on their heels a little bit, so I’m sure we’ll see that.”
However, the Cougar offense didn’t employ the faster tempo against Weber State as much. The coaches probably have their reasons for not doing so, but there was a noticeable slow start to that game by the Cougar offense. On the other hand, the Cougar offense seemed to move the ball very well when operating out of a faster pace, much like it did against Washington State.
If Coach Doman does elect to go with a faster offense, it will be vital that the Cougars execute well in the earlier downs so that third downs will be more manageable, and so as to keep the pressure on the strength of Utah’s defense. The up-tempo offense could help get the ground game get going early.
“We just gotta go out and execute, you know?” said Foote. “I think execution-wise against Weber State, especially at the start of the game, we had a slower start than we would have liked toj, but we definitely picked things up. We want to come out running with everything we’ve got, so we’ll put together a game plan and come out and execute it.”