"I would say we're faster, especially in the secondary," said middle linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "We're faster, but I don't think we're as physical yet as we could be."
Ogletree said there is another area the defense could improve.
"I also don't think we're as good at preparing yet as we could be," said Ogletree. "Last year we just had some veteran dudes that really led the way. We just kind of had a system where our preparation was on point all week long. I think once we learn how to do that, this defense will be really dominant. I don't think we've reached that level yet."
Preparation will be a challenge not only this week, but next week when the Cougars have a short week as they get ready to play Boise State on the road on Thursday.
"Yeah, if we can prepare well enough during the week and know what they're going to do, we have answers for it," said quarterback Riley Nelson. "Then it just becomes one-on-one battles, and you don't have to win every one. We just have to win a majority of them and put ourselves in a position to win the game."
One area where the Cougar offense needs to get better at is the interior of the offensive line. The struggles Utah has had sort of mirrors the issues BYU has had along the line. BYU's line needs to step up so that Utah can't get pressure while just rushing four and dropping the rest into coverage.
"It's very important," Nelson said. "Football, as much as it's become a passing game – and you see the kind of passing numbers that you see – it starts up front. It starts up front … with a psychological edge because it's a physical game. If you're running the ball well, then that means you're most likely being more physical than the other team. It's very important."
If there ever was a time to be running on all cylinders, it's now, as BYU will face a Utah team that embarrassed the Cougars at home last year. The approach the Cougars are taking is one of learning from their past mistakes.
"I think we have to make sure we don't repeat the mistakes we made last year," Ogletree said. "We have to take a look at the past and learn from it. I think we went into that game with a lot of confidence. You know, to lose the way we did was humbling, embarrassing, and you really reach a low point when that happens. I would say we definitely learned from it and we can still learn from it and hopefully we won't repeat it. We don't want to repeat it."
Nelson feels the same way.
"It's more of a learning tool," said Nelson. "In my experience with this game, there's been way too much emotional and psychological buildup going into this game. I think we need to keep that to a minimum, and we know it's going to happen just because [Utah] is a quality opponent and there is so much history behind it. We can't let last year's game feed that fire. We need to feed the fire of, ‘Okay, these are our mistakes, learn from them and not make them again this Saturday.' Last year's game was more of a learning tool more than anything else."
In a historic rivalry game such as this, emotions can cloud judgment and adrenaline can hamper overall performance.
"I need to [keep my emotions in check], otherwise probably my first four passes will go about 20 rows into the stands, so I need to try and stay as calm, cool and collective as I can," Nelson said. "Yeah, I think that will allow me to direct our offense in a way that it needs to be directed."
Nelson might not have all the physical tools of past BYU quarterback greats, but what he does have is grit, leadership, determination and smarts, and those attributes have allowed him to rise up and become the starter. Nelson must do what he's done to grind out games in the past to come away with a victory against Utah.
"You can't be an ostrich [and bury your head] either, and I recognize it and embrace it," Nelson said about ignoring the emotions that come with the rivalry. "But at the same time it's football and I can't say it enough. It's football against a good quality opponent, so all the years of playing college football has taught that when you go into a situation like that, you can't play outside of character. You have to be you and you have to play the same way you would any given week. That's the approach I'm taking."
The Cougars are in a better position than they've been in recent years heading into this game against Utah. If the opportunity is once again squandered, the sour taste from this year's loss will only add to the pungent taste of last year's debacle.
"I think every year it's a big game that you want to win," said Ogletree, a senior who will be playing his last game against Utah. "If we lose, I'll probably regret it more than any other year because it will stick with me more just because it's the last one, but I don't think that makes it any more important."
Well, Cougar fans more than likely feel that's probably the reason why it should.