If Ilaisa Tuiaki can get BYU’s defense to end 2016 like it began back in September against Arizona and Utah, the Cougars should give Wyoming all it can handle in the San Diego Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Wednesday at Qualcomm Stadium.
Tuiaki began his first major college defensive coordinator job at BYU by making it very difficult for Ty Detmer’s offense to operate back when two-a-days began back in August.
And that defense has rarely let up since.
On Monday before BYU’s practice session at Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista, south of San Diego, Tuiaki said this December bowl prep has been emotional for his defense, mainly because of the departing seniors.
It’s their last practices. It’s their last game prep. It’s their last team weight room lifts. It’s their last suit up; their last college football game.
“I think the football game in itself has taken a back seat to just being with the players, having the seniors go through things for the last time. It’s been fun to be around them and be a part of.”
Tuiaki said that “feeling” hovers around his defensive players and it is something tangible. “You can feel their love for each other, you feel it in the underclassmen who want to play hard for the guys who are going to be done soon.
“Some of them get it, that it might be their last rodeo and some of them might have an opportunity but it might just be an opportunity and it ends up all there is so they are just soaking it all up and taking advantage of it.”
Tuiaki said Wyoming reminds him “scheme wise” of BYU. “They’re a team that is well coached. You see it on film. You see it in the way they play. They are disciplined, they play hard. The fact their coaching staff has taken them this far in three years? Well, you heard early that some wanted to get rid of them and that is just dumb. You look at what's happened at Colorado when you give a coaching staff some time, I’m happy for them.
The BYU coach said before he knew the Cougars would meet Wyoming in a bowl game, he was cheering for them all year long. “They do things the right way.”
Tuiaki deflected his success as a defensive coordinator to his players and coaches whom he said have done all the work. He singled out D-line coach Steve Kaufusi, cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford and said he didn’t know what he would have done without Ed Lamb because of his experience as a coordinator and head coach.
“I credit the kids for buying in and playing hard. The weight room has been a big part of it and the defensive line, where it all starts, has done a great job.”
Sophomore linebacker Butch Pau’u had high praise for Tuiaki and his first year at BYU.
“Oh, man, you see our record before us and he does a great job helping us scheme for offenses and you saw that against Arizona and Utah,” said Pau’u. “He puts us in a position to make plays and win games.”
The most impressive thing about Tuiaki’s defense is he fit in the pieces. He worked with players he did not recruit. He used talent like pieces on a chessboard, trying to make what BYU had work in a setting that called or aggression and big plays.
They delivered in 2016.
On Monday, a San Diego TV station showed up to do a piece on the Warner Brothers, corner Troy, a freshman, and Fred, a junior linebacker.
Asked how it was to coach a set of brothers who started, Tuiaki responded, “Usually you have brothers where one is Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other is Danny DeVito. It’s nice to have both be Schwarzeneggers.”
In Wyoming, the Cougars will face an offense similar to Toledo in pass-run explosiveness. The Cowboys have an exceptional run-passer QB in Josh Allen, an all-time star ball carrier in Brian Hill and a big-time playmaking receiver Tanner Gentry.
Since allowing Toledo 53 points, Tuiaki’s defense has allowed opponents an average of 13.1 points per game. Of all points allowed by the Cougar defense this season, 23 percent came against Toledo (53 of 233).
In the month of November, BYU’s defense allowed 3, 7, 9 and 10 points, or 29 points. In the final quarter against Utah State, the Cougar defense allowed the Aggies just six plays for zero yards.
In November, BYU’s defense ranked No. 1 in run defense, No. 3 in total defense and No. 3 nationally in scoring defense.
BYU’s defense has held eight opponents to 20 points or less (16, 20, 17, 14, 3, 7, 9 and 10). In 2010, BYU held teams to 20 or less six times.
The Cougars rank 32nd in total defense, No. 2 nationally in forced turnovers (29), including No. 4 in interceptions (19) and No. 6 in defensive touchdowns scored (4). The defense ranks No. 8 against the run (108.4 ypg) and No. 15 in scoring defense (19.4).
Tuiaki said he’d sum up his first year as “just having fun.” He said he didn’t come in with all the answers but “threw everything into a pot” and his coaches have come up with the answers.
“The staff is humble, a great group of guys to work with.”
This is a defense Wyoming meets come Wednesday.
Will it be good enough?
We shall see.