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What’s ailing BYU’s once-stout defense? The answer is obvious, the remedy isn’t

Cougars haven’t been the same since star linebacker Keenan Pili sustained a season-ending injury in 27-17 win over Arizona State

BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar makes a tackle during the Cougars’ loss to Baylor in Waco, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar makes a tackle during the Cougars’ loss to Baylor in Waco, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. BYU’s inability to stop the run in losses to the Bears and Boise State has become a concern for BYU coaches.

Almost suddenly, a BYU defense that mostly shut down the Utah and Arizona State offenses and held a Utah State attack that was averaging 213 rushing yards per game to 22 yards on 35 attempts can’t stop the run.

What’s up with that?

It is a question that Cougar fans have mulled over incessantly the past two weeks, as losses to a mediocre Boise State squad and now No. 20 Baylor have derailed a season that had a chance to be special but is now in danger of going an entirely different direction.

Coming off that 38-24 loss to the Bears in which it gave up a whopping 303 rushing yards, BYU (5-2) hopes to rebound Saturday afternoon (1:30 p.m. MDT, FS1) at Washington State (4-3), which has garnered worldwide headlines recently because head coach Nick Rolovich and four assistants — including former BYU offensive line coach Mark Weber — were fired Monday for refusing to comply with a government vaccine mandate for state employees.

“Obviously there is a lot of drama going on up there with their coaching and stuff, but we are not worried about that. It is out of our control. We are trying to focus on what we can do as a defense and show up on Saturday and do our thing,” BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar said Tuesday.

What BYU can do as a defense is get better, quickly, or be subjected to the team’s first three-game losing streak since 2019.

Specifically, safeties coach and assistant head coach Ed Lamb said, is get better at stopping the run. Even after holding USU to about a half-yard a carry, BYU has fallen to 77th in the country in rushing defense, giving up 154.3 yards per game.

“Good solid defense always starts with shutting down the opponent’s running game, no matter how much the running game is the feature of the offense’s style,” Lamb said. “We want them to have to play one-handed, so to speak. It all starts with playing sound and solid up front and taking away the run game.”

Cougar coaches are careful to not use the loss of star middle linebacker Keenan Pili to a season-ending ACL injury in the second half of the Arizona State game as an excuse, but clearly that’s where the issues stopping the run started. One-win South Florida rushed for 181 yards the following week, laying down a blueprint of how to play keep-away with the Cougars, and more misery has followed.

“To underplay the loss of Keenan Pili would be a mistake. I want to start with that. That is a huge loss. He was on the field a lot for us, and in a critical role for a reason. That reason is he was one of our very best players with a bright future in front of him, still,” Lamb said.

Pili is fifth on the team in tackles (31), even though he hasn’t played since Sept. 18.

“Yeah, you take it for granted, having a player that good, and having that much impact,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said on the “Coordinators’ Corner” show Monday.

Imagine Utah suddenly having to play without probable NFL first-round draft pick Devin Lloyd, a linebacker who is on four midseason All-America lists. Pili isn’t as talented as Lloyd, but he was just as vital to BYU as Lloyd is to Utah.

And now Pili is on the sidelines, helplessly watching as coaches have shuffled positions in an attempt to compensate for the loss.

“It is really hard losing a guy like that, a difference-maker, a leader, a playmaker,” Tuiaki said. “Just the upside that Keenan had, getting him back next year will be huge for us. We have to have guys step up. We have got to do a better job as coaches putting players into positions to make plays, and try to replace him.”

The most noticeable adjustment coaches have made is to move safety Chaz Ah You to linebacker, where the junior listed at 212 pounds is a bit undersized.

“Not necessarily fair to Chaz, what we have asked him to do, but we are just trying to patch things up and move guys around,” Tuiaki said. “As we talked as a coaching staff, we feel like we are a beaten-up defense that is kind of surviving.

“We need to get back to playing with swag, get back to completing takeaways and just taking more pride in getting off the field and just playing better defense, because we can do that. That is the expectation for us. We have got to demand more.”

Added Lamb: “I think our players on the field are capable of playing what we consider elite defense, shutdown defense, and until we do that, we as coaches need to put the burden on ourselves.”

First-year starter Ben Bywater has filled in admirably, and now leads the Cougars with 58 tackles. But he’s more suited to playing outside linebacker, a position the Cougars call “rover,” although he is about 15 pounds heavier than Ah You.

“Obviously, with Keenan going down, those are big shoes to fill. He has always produced. He is physical, strong and fast,” Bywater said.

When it is not turning the ball over — the malady that cost the Cougars a chance to beat Boise State — BYU’s offense is improving, especially in the passing game as Washington transfer Puka Nacua is coming into his own as a big-play threat.

But when the defense can’t stop the run, and therefore can’t get off the field, the offense doesn’t get as many chances. Opposing offenses have ran 70 more plays than BYU’s offense the past four games.

The Cougars are 113th in the country in first-down defense, having allowed 153 first downs. They are 99th in time of possession, averaging 28 minutes per game.

“There is no doubt about it. Saturday, we needed to be more stout,” Bywater said. “I am not just going to sit here and sugarcoat it that we did what we needed to do. Because we didn’t. Being more stout this week, it is a mindset thing, throwing your body out there and being prepared and being confident.”

The Cougars are giving up too many yards on first down, which leads to teams being ahead of the chains on third down. BYU is 96th in third-down conversion defense (45 of 106) and 102nd in fourth-down conversion defense (11 of 17).

Switching positions “has been a selfless decision on Chaz’s part, and we are really proud of the way he has approached the game,” Lamb said. “He is constantly trying to get better. I would say he is in the same position as our whole defense right now. We believe in ourselves, we believe in our ability, and the results have been unacceptable.”