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Pressuring Willie is focus of BYU strategy

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LAS VEGAS — Willie Tuitama poised. Willie Tuitama rattled.

Those states of mind of Arizona's fifth-year senior quarterback are a huge part of BYU's defensive game plan this week in preparing for its fourth-straight Las Vegas Bowl appearance in Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday.

If the Cougars fail to make Tuitama uncomfortable, their secondary could pay a price. If they apply pressure to Tuitama and get him to second-guess himself or doubt what he does in delivering the football, BYU likes its chances.

"That's what it always comes down to with a quarterback," said corner Scott Johnson.

But can BYU's defense — one that has struggled to pressure quarterbacks like Utah's Brandon Johnson, UNLV's Omar Clayton and CSU's Billy Farris — get heat on the Wildcat star?

"I think we can," said BYU defensive coordinator Jaime Hill. "We did before."

Last season, the Cougars had Kelly Poppinga and Bryan Kehl playing linebacker which freed 2007 MWC sack leader Jan Jorgensen to make more plays from his defensive end spot.

Still, Hill said he has pregame hopes, if the Cougars play their best.

"We'll have to bring our 'A' game," said senior linebacker David Nixon. "If we don't, they have big play capability."

Nixon sees Arizona's offense as explosive, talented and good.

"Their offense is similar to the previous times we played them except now they execute better," he said.

Arizona ranked third in the Pac-10 in passing offense behind Oregon State and USC. The Wildcats were also third in scoring offense in the league, averaging 21.33 points per game.

In the Wildcats, the Cougars will face a spread offense and over the past season, that kind of offense has given the Cougars fits.

Is this another dreaded spread?

"It's really not," said head coach Bronco Mendenhall. "The spread offense, so to speak, misses one component and that's a running quarterback."

Tuitama isn't known to take off like Utah's Johnson or TCU's Andy Dalton.

Said Mendenhall, "If the quarterback isn't part of the run game then you are running more of a conventional offense. Their offense is more similar to ours. It doesn't mean they'll be easy to stop. They've been very productive."

How long has it been since the Cougars chased down quarterbacks?

They got a little heat in the third quarter on Utah's Johnson. They did pressure AFA's freshman Tim Jefferson and they even got after Washington's Jake Locker a few times and even forced a fumble.

So, can BYU's defense handle this important key to the game?

Oddsmakers here say no, the Cougar defense has too many warts. That in part, is why the Cougars are three-point underdogs.

"Their passing game is similar to Utah except their check down is an out route to the wide out," Nixon said. "You have to focus on that because they have great team speed. We have a great scheme going in. They have a huge O-line and we have to deal with that aspect."

Hill said his troops must get to Tuitama, but this version of the Wildcats is more capable of hurting a defense with the run game.

"The thing about their offense is this: If you look at their offense in 2006 and things they did with their run game and then take what they did in 2007 with their pass game, they've combined the two in 2008.

"That makes them a better offense and team," Hill said.

UA scored nine rushing TDs last year and 31 this year.

"So they've been very consistent in running the ball," Hill said. "The offensive coordinator (Sonny Dykes) wants to pass it; the head coach (Mike Stoops) wants to run it. So they've kind of meshed the two together."

Like any defensive plan, the Cougars would like to render the Wildcats one-dimensional on offense.

That gets back to Willie.

Can the Wildcat pass protection free Willie?

"He's very good.

He's extremely good when he's in a rhythm," Hill said.

"If he stays in rhythm, he's good. If he's out of rhythm and has to adjust his feet; he's not as good."

Pressure? BYU's game plan? What's the capability of the Cougars' defense, which at times, has struggled to make stops and force fourth downs?

"I feel very good about it," Hill said. "There's not a game we don't go into that I don't feel good about it. Whatever happens, happens. We will play hard and represent ourselves in a good manner."

But will the "good manner" be good enough?

E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com