BYU vs. Arizona: A Defensive Preview

Quinn Gooch

Last season, the Cougars were among the worst defensive teams in the nation statistically, and the Wildcats were at the bottom of the list on offense, so both teams have nowhere to go but up. This Saturday, fans will see which team made the longest strides toward turning a negative into a positive.

The Cougars will bring new faces and a new defense to Tucson this weekend in what many BYU fans hope will not become shootout. Both BYU coaches and players are confident that the new look defense will be able to hold opponents to less than the 269.3 yards passing, 147.8 yards rushing and 29.2 points per game that they put up last year.

The improvement from last year will have to come from a group of young but talented linemen up front. The defensive line will feature 6-foot-1, 275-pound Ian Dulan who will be starting his first collegiate football game as a 17-year-old. Behind Dulan will be another true freshman, 6-foot-3, 288-pound Matangi Tonga. 6-foot-1, 301-pound true freshman Romney Fuga will be the backup nose tackle.

"I've just been really impressed with these young guys coming in," Cameron Jensen said. "I never thought I would ever see a freshman come in and start the first game, but we're going to see it this first week. I think the depth we have there and just the confidence that these young guys have has been great so far.

"It all starts up front. We've got to stop the run, which leads into play action and then we need to stop that. Then we'll go into the drop back passing so it really starts up front with stopping the run. They do have really good receivers that are fast and quick and they do a lot of bubble screens. Just having a couple of linebackers out there that can get there quick and just the scheme I think will fit us much better."

What the BYU defense gains in speed and quickness they give up in experience. Rookie excitement can cause a player to play outside the defensive assignment. Discipline with assignments is something Cameron "The General" Jensen will be sure to enforce from his middle linebacker position.

"Those first couple of series you want to do something big, and you want to make plays, and you forget about assignment first," Jensen said. "That is something we're telling some of these younger guys is to just play within the defense and everything is going to be fine."

Jensen is confident that even though these young guys will be playing in their first Division I football game, they will be able to perform at a high level among the big crowds, big lights and T.V excitement of game day college football.

"They're just so confident out there, and that's one thing that I feel is different than last year," said Jensen. "I don't have to worry about those kinds of things and can just concentrate on my own game, but we'll see. I think those first couple of plays we'll all be a little like that, but them especially going from high school to the college level. I think these new guys will respond well."

BYU free safety Quinn Gooch is another who is not too worried by the youth of the D-linemen starting in their first college football game.

"They're defensive linemen so I would just let them loose," Gooch said. "Just turn them loose and let them play and you'll fix the mistakes on the sidelines in what they need to do. Just pin their ears back when it's a pass and when it's run just block reaction and find the ball. I think they'll do a good job."

However, BYU is not the only team with freshman manning the front trenches. Arizona will have a few redshirt freshman offensive linemen playing in their first ever college football game. One is 6-foot-6, 285-pound right tackle Eben Britton who will have the responsibility of containing BYU's true freshmen sensations Dulan and Tonga.

"It does make a big difference, but they've had a year to get their technique and to get their footwork right," said Gooch about the experience of some of Arizona's linemen. "When you get an offensive linemen that isn't technically sound a defensive lineman can use that to their advantage. If their offensive line is checking off and they might mix up a call which can leave openings in the offensive line."

Like Jensen, who will be commanding the defensive from the middle, Gooch will also be barking out orders to make sure the defensive backs are where they should be.

"My roll for the secondary and for the team is to get guys in the right places to ensure that they're able to make the plays that they need to," said Gooch. "If I see something wrong in the secondary or with a linebacker who is not in his coverage responsibility, I need to make sure I put him in his right spot. I have to make sure that I know everything mentally that I need to know going into the game. You definitely have to communicate a lot more in this defense to make sure everyone is in their right spot and knows what they're doing."

While BYU's defense held opponents to a 4.2-yard per rush average and 2,066 total yards rushing in the 2005 season, it is good speculation that this year's quicker linebackers and D-linemen will help bring down those averages.

Last year the BYU defense was challenged 411 times and allowed 259 completions while picking off 9 interceptions. Opponents averaged 7.9 yards per pass and had 12.5 yard average per catch. The total passing yards racked up against BYU's defense was 3,232. Jensen feels these numbers will improve this year with the added talent and experience in the secondary.

"I just think we have more talent out there," Jensen said. "We also have players that have improved upon last year with more experience like Quinn Gooch and Dustin Gabriel in the secondary. They were out there last year, and out on the corners, we have Buchanan and we have Justin Robinson who played last year and we have Ben Criddle. I think there's just more confidence overall on the defense and it seems much better. It's a different feel out there."

The first quarterback to test the new BYU defense and their secondary will be Samoan sophomore Willie Tuitama. Last season, Tuitama passed for 1,070 yards (for a 214 yards per game passing average) and had negative 35 rushing yards in 158 plays.

"He's just like any other quarterback," said BYU inside linebacker Cameron Jensen. "The team responds to him well, but he's just like any other quarterback, and we've faced a lot of quarterbacks in the past. We're just going to treat it like that but he is a good quarterback and he can make plays, especially having the whole off-season to prepare. We know he'll be much improved from last year."

Last season, the Wildcat offense managed an average of 6.9 yards per passing attempt and 12 yards per catch. The Arizona offense scored 19 passing touchdowns on the season and rushed for 11 more. Despite the statistical skew towards the pass, the Wildcats will look to establish their game plan by rushing the ball first and passing second.

"They have very good speed at the wide out positions," said Jensen. "You know they're a running team first and want to run the ball, and they've had a lot of success doing that in the past so we have to stop the run. We have to stop the play action as well. They do run trick plays, and we know we'll see some of those, but we'll treat them like any other offense."

Safety Quinn Gooch feels the defense is ready for both the running and passing attack of Arizona.

"We have something to prove when we go out there, like we're stout against the run and when they drop back to throw the ball, they'll find problems there too," said Gooch. "We're going into this game confident and we're going into this game well prepared. We'll be ready for what ever they've got.

"Their receiver core is quick and they can make you miss in the open field. They do well at catching the ball and their quarterback can make the hard throws as well as the easy throws. He does have the tendencies to make a few mistakes, but a simple way of putting it is they're a good team."

The off-season shift in defensive scheme and addition of secondary coach Jaime Hill gives BYU a bit on an advantage as they head into their first match up with the Wildcats since 1977. Arizona will have not game film on this version of the Cougar defense.

"With our four linebackers, [the 3-4] fits well in the areas where we have the best players out there on the field. It's just been great this fall just to implement it more, to understand it and to just really be a student of this defense to see the transformation over this fall."

"One thing that I've seen is they definitely have a game plan going into each game that is different for each team," said Gooch. "In the games that we've watched they've been consistent with what was planned for that team. Their coaches really use game planning to try and figure out the weaknesses of the defense. We might have a little advantage being that they haven't seen us play a 3-4-4 defense yet, but other teams in the Pac-10 use this scheme and this type of defense."

Arizona is familiar with the scheme, but it is not familiar with the personnel running it.

"I feel it's definitely an advantage for us," said Gooch, "but after around four series or so, their coaching staff will get a feel and figure out what a defense can do and what players can do. They'll then start calling different plays and play off of that aspect."

With Tuitama having rushed for a negative 35 yards on the season last year and gaining a few added pounds over the season, BYU defenders are not as worried about to worried about the Arizona quarterbacks scrambling ability as his rocket arm.

"I think they're going to keep him in the pocket," said Gooch. "If they want to run the ball and that's in their game plan, then we'll adjust, and he can go out and try and run around with all that weight. I don't think they will need him to run the ball. They've got quick guys back there that can run the ball and make a guy miss. I think that's what they'll prefer to do."

In watching film of their offense and making a comparison, Gooch reached back within the recesses of mind to figure out what teams BYU has played in the past that resemble the Arizona offense.

"Oh lets see, who ran a lot of zone," wondered Gooch while mulling over the many offenses he's faced. "They want to be a rushing team and they want to beat you up physically first, and then they're going to go to play action. Then they're going to go into drop back passes, so they could be kind of like Colorado State. I think that could be a good comparison because Colorado State does a lot of one back. They do a lot of the tight end being the lead back so that could be a good comparison."

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