On paper, the BYU Cougars’ defense is pretty good, ranking 23rd nationally in total defense, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to Kalani Sitake’s career prior to assuming the head coaching position at BYU. However, when it comes to on the field results, the Cougars defense is a highly vulnerable unit, made even more susceptible in the last few weeks after injuries have sidelined some of their best players. Regardless, there’s still plenty about this BYU defense that should worry Utah fans.
Despite being statistically efficient on the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars have struggled to keep opposing offenses from entering the end zone, giving up an average of 20.4 points per game, however seven of their eleven opponents this season were able to score over three touchdowns, with their best defensive performances coming against FCS foe McNeese, Northern Illinois, who ranks 124th nationally in total offense, and New Mexico State, whose offense ranks 100th in the nation. To their credit, the Cougars have managed a 4-3 record against teams whose offenses rank in the upper half of total offense, with losses coming to 11th ranked Utah State, 19th ranked Boise St and 56th ranked Washington.
Hindering the Cougars defense is the loss of one of the nation’s top defensive ends, senior Corbin Kaufusi, who suffered a foot injury prior to last week’s matchup, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. With 8.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss, Kaufusi’s absence greatly alters the effectiveness of the Cougars pass rush. Filling in for the sidelined star is his younger brother, true freshman Devin Kaufusi, whose stat line includes 3.5 total tackles on the season and one sack. In his first start last week, the younger Kaufusi managed two solo tackles and a single sack against New Mexico State.
With Kaufusi sidelined, the most threatening player BYU’s defense has to offer is senior linebacker Sione Takitaki. At 6’2”, 230 lbs, Takitaki is a formidable presence on the defensive side of the ball, accumulating a team leading 89 total tackles on the season, nine tackles for loss and three sacks. Further polishing his already impressive stat sheet, Takitaki leads the Cougars in a three-way tie with three defended passes (matching Isaiah Kaufusi and Michael Shelton) and is one of eight BYU defenders to force a fumble in 2018.
Utah’s Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne have stepped into their newly appointed starting roles nicely, going 2-0 since taking over and recording zero turnovers in that time. That same ball security will be crucial against a BYU defense that has recorded 16 total turnovers this season, three of which have come from sophomore linebacker Isiah Kaufusi, who leads the team with two interceptions and one forced fumble.
As an -11.5 point favorite at time of press, if the Utes are able to cover, it would be the most dominating victory for the Utes since 2011’s 54-10 drubbing in Provo. If the BYU defense has anything to say about it, another nail biter is a very real possibility.