The Holy War is headed to Sin City this week. Utah and BYU will meet on Saturday, December 19th in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Both schools are familiar with the destination. Utah is returning for a second consecutive year after beating Colorado State 45-10 in last year's game, and BYU will be making their fifth Las Vegas Bowl appearence in the last ten years. As we look ahead to Saturday's matchup, let's take a look at the Cougar defense and what Utah should expect.
The BYU defense is led by outgoing coach Bronco Mendenhall, who recently accepted the head coaching position at Virginia. In a fitting end to his tenure at BYU, Mendenhall will stay on to coach the Cougars against the Utes in one last rivalry game in Las Vegas. The BYU defense has always been a tough , hard nosed unit under Mendenhall's guidance and this season has been no different.
The BYU defense ranks 36th nationally, five spots ahead of Utah, in total defense, allowing 358.1 yards per game. In yards allowed per play, BYU ranks 29th nationally, ten spots ahead of Utah, allowing 5.08 yards per play. Against the pass,the Cougar defense is rated 42nd nationally, having surrendered 2553 total passing yards, allowing 12 passing touchdowns, but coming away with 15 interceptions. Opponents are completing 55.5% of their passes and averaging 212.8 pass yards per game.
BYU's run defense is the strength of it's defense. Though not as stout as Utah's run defense, the Cougars rank in the top third of the country, yielding 3.76 yards per carry and allowing 19 rushing touchdowns. In comparison, Utah allows 3.31 yard per carry and has allowed only 9 rushing touchdowns. The Cougar defense allows 145.33 rushing yards per game, ranking them 42nd in the country.
In scoring, BYU and Utah are tied at 31st in the country, both allowing 21.8 points per game. BYU may give up more yards than Utah, but they are able to keep teams out of the end zone at the same rate as Utah. BYU is actually better defensively in the red zone than Utah. BYU has the 17th rated red zone defense, allowing opponents to score 75% of the time. In comparison, Utah allows opponents to score in the red zone 80.95% of the time. In third down defense the Cougars and Utes are similar, with BYU allowing opponents to convert 38.59% of the time as opposed to Utah allowing conversions 38.64% of the time.
The Defensive line is the strength of the Cougar defense. Senior Bronson Kafusi is the leader of the group at the left end position with 54 tackles and leads the team with 10.5 sacks. Kafusi is arguably BYU's best player and is a force to be reckoned with on the defensive line. Being a senior, this is Kafusi's final shot to knock off Utah and he will surely be an impact player in the game.
At the other end position Logan Taele has 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks and in the middle of the defensive line, Travis Tuiloma has 21 tackles and three sacks. BYU's line is deep and Mendenhall will rotate in a vaieity of guys throughout the game to keep the unit fresh. Watch for names like Tomasi Laulille, Graham Rowley and Kesni Tausinga to get plenty of playing time as well.
Utah will see the a former Ute in Harvey Langi starting at middle linebacker for the Cougars. Langi the former touted running back for Utah made the switch to defense after transferring to BYU and has thrived in his new position. Langi is third on the team with 62 tackles, second on the team with 4.5 sacks, and has 6.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions
Sophomore linebacker Fred Warner is second on the team with 63 tackles and has 10.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions as well. Together, Warner and Langi anchor a very good linebacking crew for BYU. Seniors Manoa Pikula and Jherremya Leuta-Douyere add a veteran presence to the group and consistent production. Sophomore weakside linebacker, Sae Tautu adds 38 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss and four sacks. For a Utah offense that likes to run the ball, the BYU linebackers will provide a formidable challenge for Joe Williams and company on Saturday.
BYU has some talented players in their secondary. Senior free safety Michael Wadsworth leads the team in tackles with 79 for the season and has had five double digit tackle performances this season.Sophomore Micah Hanneman has 29 tackles and two interceptions and junior Michael Davis has 25 tackles and 9 pass breakups.
Junior Kai Nacu is maybe best known for being captured on camera sucker punching two Memphis players in last year's Miami Beach Bowl. The junior defensive back is also a pretty good football player however, having tied BYU's single game interception record earlier this season against Boise State, when he had three interceptions including a game sealing pick six. Nacua has six interceptions on the season including two pick sixes and was named National defensive player of the week in the second week of September.
BYU's defense is very similar to Utah in style of play, however not quite as good as Utah's defense. That might not matter however, as Utah's offense struggled through the final two games of the regular season without Devontae Booker on the field. The Cougars have the front seven to make running the ball a difficult task for Joe Williams, and Travis Wilson has been ineffective throwing the ball in recent games.
A big part of BYU's success on defense has come from turnovers. Wilson has struggled with interceptions at times this season and Joe Williams has shown a penchant for putting the ball in the turf through two games as a starter. Utah must avoid costly turnovers if they are to have success against BYU. Wilson needs to make smart decisions passing the ball and avoid throwing the ball into coverage, especially when Nacua is in the area.
While Utah has struggled offensively to close out the regular season, we've seen what Kyle Whittingham and his coaching staff can do when given a few weeks to prepare for a bowl game. Just last year with a similarly offensively challeged team, Utah exploded for 45 points in the Las Vegas bowl, including Travis Wilson winning the MVP award. BYU has a very good defense, but Utah has beaten Michigan, Utah State and Washington this season, all teams with better defenses than BYU. Joe Williams has rushed for well over 100 yards in both his starts this season and appears capable of fulfilling the roll of feature back in this offense.
The offense probably won't light up the scoreboard like they did last year against Colorado State, but the coaching staff should be able to put together a game plan that will allow Utah to score some points. Look for a few trick plays designed to catch the BYU defense off guard and a heavy dose of Wilson and Williams on the read option. It won't be an easy day for the offense, but if they can manage 20+ points, Utah has a good shot winning a second consecutive Las Vegas bowl.