Top 10 defense powering BYU as rivalry game nears
PROVO, Utah (AP)
Mention some of BYU's greatest teams, and star quarterbacks come to mind - Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer.
Yet even with so much focus on the QBs again during rivalry week, what with Riley Nelson playing well and Jordan Wynn's abrupt retirement from the Utes, the Cougars defense could steal the headlines. It certainly is the biggest reason No. 25 BYU has climbed into The Associated Press rankings for the first time since 2009.
BYU (2-0) enters Saturday night's game against Utah (1-1) ranked 10th nationally in total defense, allowing 239 yards per game. That included holding Mike Leach's vaunted Air Raid attack without a touchdown in the opener against Washington State, and limiting the Big Sky's Weber State to 85 yards total offense in the first half before the Cougars began substituting liberally in the blowout win.
''I'll put our defense up against any offense in the country,'' linebacker Brandon Ogletree said after the season-opening win.
The Cougars return seven starters on defense, including linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior from Reno, Nev., has three of BYU's nine sacks on the season - tied for second-most by a team nationally - and has forced a fumble and recorded three tackles for loss.
But it's not just Van Noy. Last week, linebacker Spencer Hadley had a pair of sacks from one of the team's strongest position groups.
''We have more playmakers on the field than we've ever had,'' BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga said.
Regardless of how many playmakers, the most important number as it relates to the Utah rivalry may be 100.
Simply put, when John White rushes for 100 yards, as he did nine times since arriving as a JC transfer last season, the Utes win. When he doesn't, they don't.
Now, with the Utes forced to turn to senior Jon Hays or freshman Travis Wilson at QB, White may be asked to carry a bigger load again - though there are some questions about his health.
That's important considering the Cougars are allowing 93.5 yards rushing since head coach Bronco Mendenhall took over defensive coordinator duties in 2010 - a mark bested by only one other team, Alabama.
Last year, BYU held White in check in the first half, allowing just nine yards on nine carries in a game the Cougars trailed 14-10 at halftime.
In the second half, White went from invisible to invincible, finishing with 174 yards and three touchdowns in Utah's 54-10 victory in Provo.
Ogletree called it the most embarrassing loss of his career, one he thinks about every day.
''It's a tough pill to swallow,'' Ogletree said. ''The losses stick with you. We don't want that to happen again. ... We feel like this is the best team we've had here in a while and want to go up there and get a win.''
That Utah's offensive line is in a bit of disarray may help.
''We didn't get the push we needed to run the ball effectively,'' Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said looking back on their Utah State loss last week, in which the Utes also lost Wynn to a career-ending shoulder injury.
Whittingham's dissatisfaction with the line play is reflected in lineup changes, with Sam Brenner moving from right guard to left tackle and backup center Vyncent Jones now listed as the starting right guard. Senior Miles Mason, who was starting at left tackle, is listed as the backup at right tackle behind either Percy Taumoelau or Kala Friel.
''That's a work in progress, unfortunately,'' Whittingham said. ''That's a place you'd like to have solidified, but we haven't been able to do that. We haven't been able to get the combination and continuity. We thought we had the right combination, but it turns out there were some weak links (against Utah State) and we're trying to get that fixed.''
Ogletree, meanwhile, said the mistakes that allowed White to rip off runs last year of 20, 62 and 35 yards - the last two for TDs- have been fixed.
''In the 3-4 defense, every man owns a gap and if one person is not in their gap, you get gashed. That's what happened,'' Ogletree said. ''I think we've gotten it fixed. We've done a good job the last several games of limiting the rushing attack of opposing teams and hopefully we can keep it going.''