PROVO — BYU’s rush defense was shredded the first six games of the season, especially in three straight losses to Washington, Toledo and South Florida, and head coach Kalani Sitake had apparently seen enough. So the former defensive coordinator at Utah and Oregon State took a hands-on approach, attending defensive team meetings and getting “really involved,” in the words of current Cougars defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.
The results have been encouraging — BYU allowed fewer than 200 rushing yards in upsets of No. 14 Boise State and recent nemesis Utah State — and is now back on track to get to six or more wins and become bowl eligible. The Cougars (4-4) face another high-powered offense at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday (5:30 p.m., ESPNU) as fellow independent Liberty (6-3) rolls into Provo for the first time.
The Flames are 36th in the country in total offense, averaging 444.6 yards per game, albeit against a much easier schedule than the one BYU has played. Defensively, the Cougars seem better prepared to handle a high-flying offense than they were a few weeks ago.
“We just needed something to spark (the defense) up,” Tuiaki said on his Coordinators’ Corner program Monday, reflecting on a fiery team meeting after the 27-23 loss at South Florida. “It was important to deliver the message of staying aggressive and not hanging it up for the season. Boise State was coming in and they were going to be a tough team, but Kalani was really involved from the defensive side, and we welcomed that, with all the expertise that he brought, different schemes and all that stuff. It has been good for the defense. It has been a good change for us.”
Sitake downplayed that increased involvement with the defense later Monday, saying he has just been coaching football and offering suggestions here and there.
“I think coach Tuiaki and the rest of the coaches do an amazing job,” Sitake said. “We have made some great adjustments, even in this recent game against Utah State, and I oversee the whole team so I am going to be involved in all three phases. And so I trust those guys and whatever I can do to help out and help us win games, I am going to do.”
Defensive end/linebacker Devin Kaufusi said Sitake has “brought a different feeling” to the defense and made more mental and emotional changes to the unit than tactical ones.
“He has a picture in his mind of how he wants it to be done, and he lets us know if we are doing it right or not, and we will do it again and again until we get it right,” Kaufusi said. “It has been really great. I have enjoyed it a lot. He is a great mind when it comes to defense and it is great having him in the defensive room.”
The Cougars still gave up 521 yards to Utah State, but just 127 were on the ground and only 52 of those rushing yards came in the second half. Rushing just three players and dropping eight on 66 of 82 snaps, the Cougars continued the defensive approach that appears conservative to outsiders. But it worked, as a flustered USU quarterback Jordan Love threw three interceptions and struggled to identify coverages.
“Maybe a few wrinkles here and there,” Tuiaki said of the tactical changes. “But I think the message, along with having Kalani a little bit more involved, was good for the boys, was good for us as coaches to just kinda keep us on our toes. … It was really good to have him in the room to talk about things and try some new things, too.”
BYU only sacked Love twice — linebacker Austin Kafentzis and defensive lineman Atunaisa Mahe recorded career firsts — but he gained only 27 yards on nine other carries. The Cougars have just nine sacks in eight games, ranking 120th in the country. However, they are making disruptive plays, which is what Sitake desires.
“I want the defense to have the personality that the head coach wants, especially since he is a defensive (background) guy,” Tuiaki said. “That’s my job, and our relationship is perfect. Our relationship is awesome and I love him, support him and want to do everything that we can to make him successful as a head coach, but also make our team win and give the fans what they want as well as just our boys, those wins.”
Nobody is saying the defense has arrived, though. BYU is 92nd in total defense, allowing 419.8 yards per game — but a respectable 65th in scoring defense at 27.8 points per game. The Cougars are 113th in rush defense, allowing 206 yards per game on the ground.
Sitake said all three phases — offense, defense and special teams — have a long way to go, but progress has been made defensively after Toledo rushed for 242 yards and USF for 243 against the Cougars.
“At times it is not going to look pretty, but the goal is to stop teams from scoring,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘there are so many yards, so many yards.’ Well, when were those yards gained? Look at those last two, last three drives. I thought we were doing the right thing and playing smart football. … I also look at the turnovers we were able to force — five turnovers and one on downs, so basically six turnovers. I like the math in that. It is hard to win games when you only score 14 points.”
Actually, that ability to force turnovers is a big reason why the Cougars knocked off two of the three Mountain West opponents on their 2019 schedule. They finish the season at San Diego State (7-1, 4-1), which leads the league’s West Division. BYU is No. 5 nationally in interceptions with 12, No. 8 nationally in takeaways with 18 and tied for 10th nationally in turnover margin, having gained 18 and lost 11.
“It is a disruptive group,” Tuiaki said.
With a heavily involved head coach.
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Cougars on the air
Liberty (6-3) at BYU (4-4)
At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Radio: KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM