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BYU Defense Faces Improved Utah Offense

18 September 2013 Brett Richins
Alani Fua and Kyle Van Noy celebrate a big play vs. Texas. (BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)

Alani Fua and Kyle Van Noy celebrate a big play vs. Texas. (BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)

When the Utah Utes invade LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday night, they’ll bring with them a much improved offense compared to the one they put on the field last season.

After lackluster performances at quarterback the past few of years, it looks like Kyle Whittingham may have found an answer at the position in sophomore Travis Wilson.

In the first three games of the 2013 season, Wilson has averaged 363 yards of total offense and has been the key to the Utah offense averaging 49 points and 539 yards per game.

In 2012, the Utes averaged just 26.7 points and 324 yards, with the true freshman taking over as the starter in the final seven games.

In addition to Wilson’s 282 yards passing per game this year, he’s also averaging 81 yards rushing. Last week, he gashed Oregon State for 142 yards on the ground and scored three touchdowns, while also completing 19 of 33 passes for 279 yards and two scores.

If Utah is to win its fourth straight game against the Cougars, they will likely need to ride the big arm of their 6-7, 240-pound signal caller. The Utes have averaged 248 yards rushing thus far, but they’re not going to get anywhere near that number against the stingy BYU run defense.

The Cougars aren’t Weber State, or Oregon State, which gave up 49 points to Eastern Washington in the first game of the season.

Few teams in the country could expect to have success running right at the Cougar front seven. A big reason for that is the play of nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna, who has been spectacular in the first two games against Virgina and Texas. The fifth-year senior has been virtually unblockable so far and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t continue to dominate against the Utah offensive line.

Wilson isn’t likely to have anywhere near the kind of success running the ball in the read option that he enjoyed against Oregon State, either. The Cougars defenders are too good and too disciplined to allow him to run wild like he did last Saturday.

While the Beavers entered last week’s game with injury issues at linebacker, BYU has one of the nation’s best group of linebackers, even without suspended buck linebacker Spencer Hadley. Bronco Mendenhall can plug and play in the middle with talented guys like Manoa Pikula, Tyler Beck and Austen Jorgensen.

But it’s the guys on the outside, mainly Kyle Van Noy and Alani Fua, who posses the kind of speed and athleticism necessary to limit Wilson’s effectiveness as a runner. Van Noy just may be the nation’s best defensive player, while Fua has burst on the scene this year with 15 tackles and two sacks. Both of them could see some time as a spy on Wilson, and both of them have the ability to run him down.

Utah’s best game plan may be to utilize the arm of its quarterback and the fleet feet of wide receiver Dres Anderson early in the game in an effort to loosen up the BYU defense from the get go.

Anderson, who had four catches for 101 yards and a score last week,  has a definite speed advantage against the Cougar cornerbacks and Wilson certainly has the ability to stretch defenses vertically. If the Utes can hit some shots deep down the field early, it could open up opportunities for the rest of their offense.

However, when Utah goes to the air, expect the Cougar defense to look to bring the heat.

In the first two games, Bronco Mendenhall’s crew have recorded 15 tackles for loss, four sacks and five quarterback hurries. They battered Texas quarterback David Ash, eventually knocking him out of the game. Wilson is bigger and stronger than Ash, but if BYU can force him into making mistakes, like the three interceptions he threw against OSU, it could go a long way toward determining the outcome in this heated rivalry.

Oregon State had success putting pressure on Wilson early in the game last week, until Utah offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson dialed up a screen pass for a big gain. That play changed the game, slowing down the Beavers’ pass rush for the remainder of the evening and allowing the Utes to get on track offensively.

However, the screen may not be as effective against BYU. The Cougars were able to get pressure on Ash by rushing just three or four defenders. If they’re as successful against the Utes, the linebackers will be freed up to help take away the screen play.

While it’s true that the Utah offense is improved, facing the BYU defense in Provo will provide a much stiffer test than they’ve seen so far. The Utah offense is good, but the BYU defense is among the nation’s best, and it should prove to be the deciding factor in the outcome of the game.

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