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Texas-BYU Preview: Scouting The Cougar Defense

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Our offense against their defense is the key to the game and will be an excellent proving ground for a young Texas team. I'm glad we didn't see them in Week 1. The Cougars make up for a lack of team speed with size, physicality, scheme, and experience and we're going to see a brand of football from them that owes less to Lavell Edwards and more to Chuck Bednarik. At least on defense. The Cougs are sound. I'm curious to see if the O blinks when they get punched in the mouth.

BYU physically and statistically dominated the Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford for four quarters (knocked out three Ole Miss skill players, 316-208 yardage advantage) but had to win 14-13 on a defensive touchdown. Though they come into Austin with arch-rival Utah looming the following weekend, beating Texas on national television is motivation enough.

Defense

BYU wants to play this game in a broom closet and our offense wants to play it in an auditorium. And Mendenhall is probably concerned about the volume of stuff we showed against Rice that he has to prepare his team for. Whichever coordinator is best able to impose their game plan will carry the day.

The difference is that BYU's defense is a direct extension of Bronco's will (he serves as his own DC after firing Jaime Hill last year mid-season) while our offensive coordinators use a shaky QB as their conduit.

The Cougars play a 3-4 defense, but it's far from pure and they hybridize a number of elements to give you multiple looks to get pressure without exposing an athletically limited secondary. They're fairly ingenious in narrowing the field of play to play into their strengths with simple alignment games, but they can be schooled if you isolate them in one-on-one match ups.

DL

The Cougar front goes 280, 320, 295 and could easily be pictured beating Captain Cook to death in Kealakekua Bay with lava rocks wearing leis and human skull loincloths. They play with great leverage, they're tough to root out in the running game, and their primary focus is keeping the Cougar linebacker corps clean. From my viewing, Manumaleuna is their most active DL and NT Romney Fuga is 6-2 320 pounds of Tongan bad intentions. Dominic Espinosa better pack three lunches and a side of poi. They rotate several guys through and though you won't find a Marcel Dareus in the bunch, running straight at them early is not particularly bright.

LB

The identity of the Cougar defense. They're physical and they tackle well. ILBs Kaveinga and Ogletree are "undersized" at 5-11, 230/235 but they're squatty, strong, and one of them is usually unblocked. Kaveinga is a VHT USC transfer who forced a fumble against Ole Miss and lost 20 pounds in the offseason. OLBs Kyle Van Noy and Jordan Pendleton are prototype OLBs (6-3 240) and solid pass rushers, but they play the run with discipline. Their OLBs squeeze well on running downs and, when combined with their interior leverage, it's tough sledding between the tackles - a big reason why the Rebels managed 64 yards rushing (aside from the fact that the Rebels suck on offense). Van Noy scored the game winning fumble return against Ole Miss, but Pendleton may be the better talent. Once they get you in longer downs and distance, they bring various combinations of LBs to manufacture pressure.

DB

The Cougars are average here, but they use a variety of looks, linebacker drops, and zone/help coverages to prevent opponents from making the game a series of one-on-one secondary match ups in which they might be exploited. Note: the Cougars like to bring corner blitzes and given Gilbert's historical field awareness issues, Mendenhall will have that call in his back pocket on a key 3rd and 8. Their best cover corner is diminutive 5-8 175 Corby Eason. Boundary corner and former JUCO Preston Hadley has better size, but isn't all that experienced. Both safeties go about 6-2, 200 and can cover some ground laterally, but neither wants to be singled up on a quality wide receiver running deep. Get these guys isolated with Mike Davis, DJ Monroe, Jaxon Shipley and we've got a one play scoring drive. However, BYU knows that. That's why they layer their coverages. If football games were won solely by the fastest 40 time, the Oakland Raiders would be the dynasty of the 2000s while the Patriots would be an also-ran.

Overall

Football is a contextual game. BYU's defense is very exploitable against a quality offense with athletic WRs, a solid OL, and a good QB, but potentially dominating against more conventional attacks or inexperience. So here's what I expect:

1. More spread looks (collective Greg Davis flashback) and a greater reliance on Garrett Gilbert in the passing game. Yes, really.

2. A running game built off of the wildcat, exterior running, and misdirection.

3. (A hope for) scoring on special teams and big plays, a traditional BYU deficiency.

That's where games within games begin. BYU can respond to being spread out by backing their LBs off of the ball to assist in coverage, taking a linebacker or DL off the field and replacing them with lesser DBs, or going all in on pressure to arbitrage the risk of big plays with punishing hits on Garrett Gilbert. In either event, BYU's response to our threatening their average secondary forces Texas put the game on young WRs and a QB we don't fully trust yet.

If I'm Mendenhall, I like that bet. I try to keep my LBs in the game, but play them with deeper alignment, go disguised zone coverage, and force Gilbert to make reads, throw accurate balls, and then light up our pass catchers underneath. Smells like turnovers to me. However, if Texas can go 6 of 8 for 70 yards passing marching down the field exploiting my LBs and safeties with well thrown intermediate balls, I'll tip my cap and know I'm in for a severe ass-kicking. And Texas fans will know that Gilbert has turned a corner.

Likely? No.

Alternatively, Texas can go Wildcat or attack the edges with Monroe and Whittaker and force the Cougs to tackle better athletes out on the edge with less turnover exposure. Get them off balance and then the rest of the offense opens up. That means an expanded role for David Ash and our various Wildcat QBs (Shipley, Whittaker, Hales, Ash, Harris, Ashcraft).

I think we're going to throw the kitchen sink at BYU and ride whatever tactic wins out. Getting a lead on them early would be very helpful.

My final point is straightforward enough. If the kick return personnel will block well, DJ will house one. You can't hide speed or depth on kick returns.

Thoughts?