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Why BYU’s offense and defense both need to step up at Toledo

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson fires a pass during the Utah-BYU football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson fires a pass during the Utah-BYU football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

PROVO — Whose reputation is more on the line when BYU meets Toledo on Saturday, the Cougar defense or offense?

Both.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes sat across from his polite and knowledgeable inquisitor Greg Wrubell for his weekly “Coordinator’s Corner” broadcast following a loss to Washington.

Grimes knew it was coming, a bevy of statistical illuminations and data points about his offense that Wrubell had found and extrapolated in fine Albert Schweitzer fashion. Be it red-zone scoring, third-down conversions or yards gained on short, medium or long-yard third-down plays, or the length of his headset wires, Grimes handled it with his usual professional aplomb.

Quite often in this week’s segment, Grimes put his chin in his hands or rested his face on his hands as he sat facing a microphone, the camera and Wrubell.

Body language scientists might theorize Grimes was hiding something, being protective, less than open or candid. But I’d disagree. I thought his answers, as always, were frank and honest. He may have just been tired or framing his mustache for the camera.

The real fact is, BYU is 2-2, and in the two wins over Tennessee and USC, Grimes’ offense had no turnovers. In the losses to Utah and Washington, there were a combined six miscues, three of them returned for touchdowns.

“Some may say, that’s your story,” said the interviewer.

“You could make that point and be done with it,” said the coach.

This week BYU does not play a Power Five team for the first time this season. BYU’s strength of schedule is ranked 10th nationally by Jeff Sagarin. If you do that, and not schedule cupcake wins, all kinds of stuff can happen, like turnovers that turn into points.

If you take 35 statistical NCAA football categories, Toledo has a better ranking in 24 of them, an average of 63. BYU wins 11 of those and the average rank is 81. But Toledo has lost to Kentucky from the SEC and beat Murray State and Colorado State, teams with a 41.7% win percentage, while BYU’s opponents have a 66.7% win record.

Toledo’s schedule is a salad bar, one Power Five, one FBS and one FCS.

BYU has a far tougher record with .a 500 success rate. BYU’s offense won’t face a tougher defensive line than it experienced against Utah and Washington or a better offensive line than it saw against the Huskies. No team remaining on the Cougars’ schedule has higher recruiting rankings than USC, Tennessee and Washington. And no coaching staff they will face is paid more than those in the rearview mirror.

BYU should probably be 0-4 but for some lucky breaks and plays in a pair of overtime games. Being 1-3 would be understandable. Standing 2-2 today should be considered a very good record after facing three ranked teams in four weeks.

Now comes a different season.

Toledo deserves respect. This is a trap game. BYU cannot afford to believe this late-September game is a respite. It’s just the opposite. Sagarin has Toledo ranked 57th and BYU 78th. The Rockets are ranked higher in Sagarin than one-third of the Pac-12 (Arizona 59th, Colorado 64th, UCLA 68th and Oregon State 86th).

Grimes will need to utilize BYU’s size, experience and age advantage in the trenches against a Toledo front that is not Washington or Utah. Zach Wilson and his receivers have to play clean. Toledo is giving up 482.3 yards a game and 6.2 yards per play. Red-zone scoring is at a premium.

Toledo’s defense is ranked 119th in total defense and just allowed Colorado State nearly 700 yards, but still won. Grimes needs a clean game with solid execution and drives that end up in touchdowns, not field goals.

Defensively, Grimes’ counterpart Ilaisa Tuiaki has his hands full. Against four Power Five teams this season, his defense has been shaky against the run, which is Toledo’s strength. He’s lost safety/flash linebacker Zayne Anderson for the season. He may still be without starting outside linebacker Keenan Pili. But his constant platooning of players against the Trojans, Volunteers, Utes and Huskies has given him depth and experience.

BYU ranks 93rd in total defense, allowing 428.8 yards a game.

Toledo QB Mitchell Guadagni is a dual-threat, a 59% passer with 4 TDs and an efficiency rating of 165. He’s averaging 6.6 yards a carry on 30 rushes for 199 yards. His leading back, Bryant Koback has 47 carries for 363 yards and a 7.7 yard per-tote average.

So, the pressure is on BYU’s defense to make more stops. If it’s a three-man front or simply loading the box to stop Toledo’s run game, it has to be effective. Forcing some turnovers would help.

This is a break from Power Five football, but it’s a tough stop.

Fortunately for Kalani Sitake, his team really, really likes playing on the road.