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UCLA Week 3 Opponent Preview: BYU

Taking a closer look at UCLA’s final nonconference opponent, the BYU Cougars.

BYU Quarterback Taysom Hill
Taysom Hill poses a big threat to a shaky UCLA run defense.
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

In 2008, Josh Rosen was 11 years old, and Jim Mora was coaching defensive backs for the Seattle Seahawks. Both were still far away from Westwood, and for them and the rest of the Bruins, Saturday’s trip to Provo will be just another game on the schedule. Only defensive line coach Angus McClure was there the last time UCLA went to Provo 8 years ago.

In 2008, I was 15 years old and brought to tears watching UCLA play BYU in Provo. In what was one of the darkest days in UCLA football history, Max Hall and company ran the hapless Rick Neuheisel-led Bruins off the field in a 59-0 romp. Of all the terrible things about the game, the saddest and most laughable is that UCLA ran for 12 yards. 12!!! That’s 36 feet of pure sadness.

So you’ll have to forgive me for seeing this game as a revenge game for no one other than myself and my wanting long, deep-standing and petty revenge. I’ve never gotten over 2008, and not even UCLA’s win over BYU last year has exorcised those demons for me. Only a win in Provo can truly heal that wound and help me get over one of the worst games I’ve ever watched.

With my petty venting out of the way, let’s get to the preview of who UCLA will be lining up against on Saturday night in Provo.

BYU Coaching Staff

Head Coach: Kalani Sitake, 1st year, 1-1 overall record

Offensive Coordinator: Ty Detmer, 1st year

Defensive Coordinator: Ilaisa Tuiaki, 1st year

What is old still feels new in Provo. After a decade of continued success, including 99 wins, 6 bowl wins and two Mountain West championships, Bronco Mendenhall rode off to the east to take the head coaching job at Virginia. In stepped in Kalani Sitake, a former Cougar player under LaVell Edwards and a familiar face to Pac-12 fans after spending the 2015 season as the defensive coordinator at Oregon State and the decade before that on the defensive staff in Utah under Kyle Whittingham. It’s already evident after two games that Sitake’s BYU squad will take after his predecessor’s and play hard-nosed football that will leave the opponents feeling sore the following day.

Another familiar face heads the offense for BYU, as Sitake tapped 1990 Heisman winner and all-time BYU leader in just about every quarterbacking category Ty Detmer as his offensive coordinator. This is Detmer’s first collegiate coaching gig after spending the last 5 seasons at the high school level. Two games in, the BYU offense has struggled to get going, having not yet cracked 20 points against two Pac-12 defenses, but it’s far too early to tell if it’s a reflection on Detmer as a schemer and playcaller. In any case, I have to imagine it’s a thrill for BYU fans to see Detmer back in Provo, and they hope he can bring them the same excitement as a coach that he did as a player.

On the other side of the ball, Sitake brought with him from Corvallis linebackers coach Ilaisa Tuiaki to be his defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in Provo. Like Detmer, this is Tuiaki’s first time as a coordinator, having spent 3 seasons as the defensive line coach at Utah before joining Sitake in Corvallis last season. Tuiaki is a respected defensive mind, having won the 2013 Broyles Award as the nation’s best assistant coach and being the only non-coordinator to do so. Two games in, there are encouraging signs for the BYU defense, having held both Arizona and Utah to under 20 points, and given Tuiaki’s pedigree, it wouldn’t shock me to see BYU’s defense ranked in the upper tiers by season’s end.

Overall, the BYU coaching staff is new and unproven, so it’s too early to make judgments on its strengths and its weaknesses. However, Sitake didn’t seem to make wholesale changes to the Mendenhall style, so the 2016 BYU shouldn’t look too different from the 2015 BYU UCLA fans saw at the Rose Bowl.

BYU Offense

In what feels like his 15th year of eligibility, redshirt senior Taysom Hill will start at quarterback for the Cougars. Last season, Hill missed the UCLA game and all of 2015 after breaking his foot in the season opener, so he will be a new face to the Bruin defense. However, his running ability poses a big problem for a defense that allowed 5 yards a rush to both Texas A&M and UNLV. While Hill is an average passer at best– he has only completed 57% of his passes for fewer than 7 yards per attempt – he is exactly the kind of quarterback that has given the Bruins fits. It would not shock me to see UCLA struggle to contain Hill.

The other big threat for the UCLA defense is running back Jamaal Williams, who left the Utah game with a leg injury and whose status is currently in question for Saturday. Williams had been averaging 5 yards a carry before leaving the game, and he gashed Arizona for 162 yards the week before. If he is healthy, expect Williams to test the shaky UCLA defensive line early and often. If Williams can’t go, Algernon Brown figures to carry the load for the Cougars. He’s been pushed into the backup role after featuring for most of 2015, and at 250 pounds, he is tough to bring down. The BYU passing game has struggled – the longest pass has only gone for 19 yards – so no receiver has emerged quite yet. Three receivers – Mitchell Juergens, Moroni Laulu-Pututau and Jonah Trinnaman – each have over 10 targets, and Juergens figures to be the primary threat. However, UCLA’s secondary is one of the best around and should be quite successful in containing the passing threat.

Overall, this BYU offense has not looked great in two games, but this is frankly a bad matchup for UCLA. A team that can run the ball with its quarterback and has a big offensive line has proven it can maul and push UCLA around, especially without Eddie Vanderdoes and Takk McKinley. This game may well come down to the health of those two. If they are healthy and play most of the snaps, UCLA can do enough to negate the run and stymie the Cougar offense. If they don’t play, barring a major shakeup in the scheme and increases in blitzes, I don’t see how UCLA can stop the Cougars, especially inside the red zone.

BYU Defense

On the other side of the ball, BYU’s defense profiles as an average one on the surface. In their first two games, they have hovered on both sides of the national average when it comes to yards per play (5.33); against Arizona, they struggled and allowed 5.81 yards per play, but they tightened up against Utah to a 4.97 yards per play clip. Against Utah, they surrendered over 8 yards per passing attempt, whereas against Arizona, the Wildcats ran for over 6 yards per rush. The most noteworthy statistic two games in is the 8 turnovers BYU has forced, and 6 came in the Utah game alone.

The linebackers are this defense’s strength, especially sophomore Butch Pau’u. Two games in, and he has already been everywhere, averaging nearly 10 tackles a game with three tackles for a loss and a sack. Joining him at the second level are Fred Warner, Francis Bernard and Harvey Langi, who are 4 of the team’s 5 leading tacklers and combine for over half of the tackles for loss registered. Langi will look to haunt Rosen like he did last year after picking off two passes.

The most notable thing to watch for Saturday will be in the first half, when BYU will almost certainly be without senior defensive back Kai Nacua, who was ejected for targeting against Utah. Nacua is among BYU all-time leaders with 11 interceptions, and were he to lose his appeal, he and Austin McChesney, who was also ejected for targeting, will sit out the first half. Losing Nacua especially is a damaging blow, even for a half, and it will be interesting to see how BYU schemes to account for the loss and if UCLA can take advantage.

On its face, the BYU defense does not pose a huge threat to UCLA’s still retooling offense, but that does not mean there is no cause for concern. In most statistical categories, BYU’s defense hovers at or just below the national average. However, one area where BYU stands out is in havoc % (explainer on havoc here), which is the percentage of plays in which a defense tackles for a loss, forces a fumble or defends a pass (interception or break up). BYU causes havoc on 21.5% of its defensive snaps, good for 27th two games in, and the linebacking corps is 2nd in the country at causing havoc specifically on over 12% of plays (compared to 5% on average). I expect BYU to bring pressure to try to overwhelm a shaky UCLA offensive line and throw off Josh Rosen in the pocket. UCLA has to hope that the running game, which has looked good overall and particularly great getting to the perimeter, can alleviate any pressure and keep the defense off balance.

My Gut Reaction

I think (read: I hope) UCLA can win a nail-biter offensive shootout. I think both offenses will find success, especially both running games, and this game, which will be riddled with penalties with a few turnovers sprinkled in, may just come down to who has the ball last. Hopefully, this is the game where Josh Rosen takes his game to the next level we’ve been waiting for and leads the Bruins to a late win in a hostile environment.

Prediction: UCLA 31 – 28 BYU