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‘A whole new challenge’: No. 16 Cougars preaching execution and tackling to slow Notre Dame’s improved rushing attack

‘Unacceptable’: BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar and his teammates not happy with how defense performed in wins over Utah State and Wyoming

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Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree runs upfield during game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sept. 24, 2022.

Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree runs upfield during a game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Tyree is part of a potent ground attack that could present problems for the BYU defense.

Chris Seward, Associated Press

As the only known college football coach in the country who has coached at five of Utah’s six Division I football programs, BYU linebackers coach Kevin Clune has seen a thing or two in his 30 or so years in the business.

So as a lot of BYU fans gnash their teeth and wring their hands over the No. 16 Cougars’ struggles to stop running attacks the past few weeks, Clune refuses to hit the panic button, even as one of the BYU defense’s biggest tests of the season lies ahead.

“Yeah, the last couple of weeks it has been unacceptable as a defense to do what we have been doing. So it is important for the leaders and everyone, really, to step up and make sure we get a fast start from here on out, no matter what the opponent is.” — BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar

BYU (4-1) meets Notre Dame (2-2) on Saturday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas knowing it needs to slow down the Irish’s vaunted running game — something North Carolina couldn’t do two weeks ago — if it hopes to pull off the upset as a four-point underdog.

“Every week is different, and sometimes people don’t understand where we are allocating our players,” Clune said Tuesday. “… So no, I am not that worried (about what happened against Oregon, Wyoming and Utah State). This is going to be a whole new challenge.”

A bigger challenge, it would appear. 

The Irish ran for nearly 300 yards on North Carolina, and not only have three outstanding running backs, but an NFL-caliber tight end in Michael Mayer.

“We will see different things,” Clune said. “A team like Utah State (presents) other challenges, like (sometimes) we have to help a corner, or help this, or do other things.”

With Notre Dame, what you see is mostly what you get. Question is: Can the Cougars stop it? Coaches did an admirable job of making adjustments after halftime against Utah State and Wyoming, slowing those rushing attacks considerably. And the Cougars dug their heels in, tackling better in the second halves.

“The scheme is what it is. So we have to, as players and coaches, run it exactly as it is supposed to be run, or else there will be problems,” Clune said. “Every day we are working on our fits, running the scheme how it is supposed to be run (in practice), working on getting off blocks, working on tackling.”

Junior linebacker Payton Wilgar didn’t mince words Monday when he was asked about the veteran defense’s struggles the past few weeks.

“Yeah, the last couple of weeks it has been unacceptable as a defense to do what we have been doing,” Wilgar said. “So it is important for the leaders and everyone, really, to step up and make sure we get a fast start from here on out, no matter what the opponent is. 

“We definitely need to be on our A-game for Notre Dame. They are a great football team,” Wilgar continued. “There is no room for coming out soft and whatnot. We will definitely need to step up as leaders and get everyone fired up until the end of the game.”

Head coach Kalani Sitake said the coaching staff is still trying to find a balance between asking players to play loose and free, and demanding more focus and attention to detail.

“Yeah, there is a fine line. There is a balance between all of it, and there is a responsibility I have as a coach to get these guys to play at their best,” Sitake said. “And if that means playing loose, then great. If that means playing a little bit more focused, that’s when I need to have a good feel for the team.”

Sitake promised a different kind of messaging this week, but didn’t elaborate.

“I think it will really get us focused and get us ready for this week,” he said.

Clune said the entire defensive unit shares responsibility for stopping the run. A lot of the playmaking responsibilities in that regard rest with the linebackers, the group he oversees.

Depending on what front the Cougars employ, Wilgar, Ben Bywater, Max Tooley and Keenan Pili have rotated in and out and have been solid, for the most part.

“I am happy with where we are at, but not ecstatic. We still haven’t played our best game,” Clune said. “We are always looking to be more assignment-sound and more technical and fundamental with what we do. I still think we have our best game out there as a linebacking group as well as a whole defense as well as a whole team.”

There’s an added emphasis to keep the linebackers fresh and healthy this year, so some key backups such as Jackson Kaufusi and Tavita Gagnier are getting meaningful snaps.

“There are a bunch of young guys that you are not going to see for a year or two that I am very excited about to see what they can do,” Clune said.

Safeties coach Ed Lamb said Tuesday that the defense is “playing very tight, expecting to dominate, and then it has been a little bit of a snowball effect, when the other team kinda brings their best shot. And they are playing BYU. We are ranked. And we haven’t responded to that. So I just talked to the whole team about that exact thing. The slow start has not just happened on defense, but on offense as well.”

Lamb said it is up to the coaches to lead the way in promoting an approach that brings confidence and trust.

“We for so long had been the hunter. And so far we haven’t excelled as the team that is being hunted (this year),” he said. “And so we gotta rectify that, make our adjustments, and move forward. … I think we need to be more loose, more aggressive, have more fun. ... I think we are doing that this week.”


Cougars on the air

No. 16 BYU (4-1) 

vs. Notre Dame (2-2)

Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT

Allegiant Stadium

Las Vegas, Nevada

TV: NBC

Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM