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BYU defense among nation's best in takeaways

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Kai Nacua (12) returns an interception in Phoenix on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. BYU leads 9-0 at half. BYU won 18-16.
Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Kai Nacua (12) returns an interception in Phoenix on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. BYU leads 9-0 at half. BYU won 18-16.
Jeffrey D. Allred,

BYU (4-4) at Cincinnati (4-4)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT Nippert Stadium

Cincinnati, Ohio

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

PROVO — When it comes to coaching and evaluating his defense, BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki focuses on two statistics — points allowed and turnovers gained.

The Cougars give up an average of 25.5 points per game, which is No. 48 in the country. But BYU is No. 2 nationally in turnovers gained with 21. The Cougars trail only Utah, which has a nation-best 23 takeaways this season.

BYU’s next opponent, Cincinnati, is tied at No. 4 nationally with 19 takeaways. The Cougars and Bearcats meet Saturday (1:30 p.m., MDT, CBSSN) at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

As a team, BYU is tied for fourth in the country in interceptions with 14 (along with Cincinnati, Troy and SMU) and have two picks returned for touchdowns. Individually, safety Kai Nacua is tied for No. 2 in the nation in interceptions with five.

Tuiaki’s goal is for his defense to get three turnovers per game and it’s averaging 2.6 so far this season. In BYU’s last outing, during a 28-27 loss at Boise State, the Cougars forced five turnovers.

To what does BYU attribute its success with takeaways?

“Good players. That’s it,” Tuiaki said. “I haven’t talked much about it besides our goals. We want to get three takeaways a game. After that, the kids just go out and do it — nothing that has to do with coaching. It’s just them being good players, ball hawks. Guys like Kai, Francis (Bernard), Fred (Warner) and the corners stepping up, too.”

“Well, one of the big things is we have a guy named Kai Nacua. He helps a ton,” linebacker Butch Pau’u explained. “It’s so nice to know that in the fourth quarter, we’re like, ‘Kai, when are you going to get (an interception)?’ He’ll get one and save us. Coach continually during practice will let us know that we have to get three turnovers at practice. We’re constantly trying to knock out the ball, rip it out, do whatever we can to get those three turnovers every practice, so that shows up in the game.”

BYU was trailing Boise State, 14-3, early in the second quarter when linebacker Fred Warner picked off a pass and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown in highlight-worthy fashion.

“I was running with a drag route and I turned around at the last second and caught it,” Warner said. “After that, I can’t really explain what happened. I’m looking at blue jerseys and white jerseys and I’m sifting through and I happened to make it into the end zone.”

Later in the quarter, cornerback Dayan Lake returned an interception 50 yards for another Cougar TD that gave BYU a 17-14 advantage.

“The coaches put us in a situation to be successful,” Warner said of the turnovers gained this season. “They keep the playbook simple. We have a lot of great athletes on the field. It’s guys going after the football and being active.”

While the Cougars are among the best in the country in interceptions, paradoxically, they are near the bottom when it comes to defending the pass. BYU is No. 119 in pass defense (292.1 yards per game) and No. 111 in pass efficiency defense (144.85).

“We’re oriented toward making big plays and turnovers. That’s what we focus on statistically as a defense,” Tuiaki said. “We could give up five million yards, and if you hold them to zero points, I’d be happy with that still. The Toledo game, we gave up tons of yards and we gave up tons of points. We really got beat down on that one. Good offenses are going to move the ball. If you can keep them out of the end zone and get a couple of takeaways and give the offense a couple of possessions, you’re better off that way. The way we’re oriented, they’re going to get big plays and we want to get more big plays and we want to get takeaways.”