Utah and BYU face off for the 100th time on August 29th, with Utah currently enjoying an eight-game win streak that was prolonged after a dramatic second half comeback orchestrated primarily by the second-string talent from Utah’s offense, which proved one thing; BYU (especially defensively) is still a good team, but the talent gap is most obvious the deeper down the depth chart you look. The 2019 Cougars likely won’t be any different.
Utes fans shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that head coach Kalai Sitake (along with defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki) is capable of fielding an impressive defensive unit. Ranking 33rdlast season, BYU’s defense allowed an average of 21.38 points per game in 2018. Linebacker Sione Takitaki, lineman Corbin Kaufusi were a big part of that defensive production, combing for 18.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and 31.5 stuffed runs, however both are now signed to NFL rosters, leaving a noticeable lack of experience on the Cougars roster.
Replacing Takitaki at inside linebacker will be a combination of redshirt junior Kavika Fonua and redshirt freshman Payton Wilgar. Fonua has been something of a liability for BYU, joining the team in 2014 before leaving on his LDS mission and returning in 2016, playing in all thirteen games and posting 24 total tackles in the secondary. The 2017 season saw Fonua switch to running back, playing in four games and collecting a total of 87 (59 came against FCS opponent, Portland State) before suffering a season-ending injury that carried into 2018, when he missed the whole season. Wilgar, on the other hand is a 6’3’, 235 lb unknown out of Dixie High School in Saint George, Utah. The freshman recorded three interceptions, along with four forced fumbles and 15 tackles for loss in his senior season at DHS before enrolling with BYU as a preferred walk-on and earning a scholarship last spring.
On the defensive line, redshirt junior Zac Dawe will be tasked with replacing the production of Corbin Kaufusi, however unlike the inside linebacker situation, Dawe has somegame experience to draw from, compiling 12 solo tackles, four assisted tackles and a sack last season. Though Dawe played in all thirteen games last season, he only started in one, though his limited time showed the 6’4”, 270 lb product out of Pleasant Grove High School is an effective edge rusher.
Unfortunately for Utah, BYU’s defense isn’t totally lacking experience. Junior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi returns after making six tackles for loss last season, third most on the 2018 roster, and the secondary is loaded with talented seniors, including corner Chris Wilcox, and safety Troy Warner (though it seems likely both will miss the opening game against Utah while combating prolonged injuries sustained last season), though it’s senior linebacker Zayne Anderson who could be the most dangerous individual in BYU’s defense early in the season.
At 6’2”, 222 lbs, Anderson is a threat at the linebacker position, recording 36 total tackles and an interception against Wisconsin through just four games last season before sitting out the remainder of the year to rehab a shoulder injury that occurred in week one against Arizona. Anderson is a proven commodity that will surely be a disruptive force come Thursday.
Fans will likely remember Utah struggling against BYU’s defense through at least the first half of last season’s dramatic come-from-behind victory, however with Zack Moss and Tyler Huntley both healthy this time around, it’s hard to envision a situation where the Cougars are able to completely stymie Utah’s offense again this time around.