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Buoyed by a solid effort against BSU, BYU’s much-maligned defense preps for Utah Tech’s ‘high-powered’ offense

A couple key stops on defense helped Cougars (5-5) upset Broncos, but Utah Tech’s offense features one of the top receivers in the country, Joey Hobert

SHARE Buoyed by a solid effort against BSU, BYU’s much-maligned defense preps for Utah Tech’s ‘high-powered’ offense
BYU’s Pepe Tanuvasa and Ammon Hannemann celebrate after Boise State turns the ball over on downs.

BYU defensive lineman Pepe Tanuvasa (45) and defensive back Ammon Hannemann celebrate after Boise State turns the ball over on downs on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. The embattled Cougar defense showed some fight during upset victory of the Broncos.

Steve Conner, Associated Press

Did BYU’s much-maligned defense turn a corner in the 31-28 win over Boise State?

Several of the Cougars’ key defenders think so, but that question probably won’t be answered fully until next week when they play at Stanford, or in a possible bowl game in December if they get to six wins.

Then again, don’t sleep on Utah Tech. The school formerly known as Dixie State University visits Lavell Edwards Stadium on Saturday (1:30 p.m. MST, BYUtv) to pick up a $425,000 check and display an offense that has put up 47, 48 and 34 points in its last three games, all wins.

“I have always had faith in our coaching, and sometimes we, as a team, we get into a slump. After a couple weeks, we kinda all came together as a defense and I feel like we played one of our better games (against Boise State). It reminded me and some other players that the players are on the field and they are the ones making the plays.” — BYU defensive end John Nelson

The Trailblazers (4-6) lost six of their first seven games, but have won three straight and enter the first matchup with BYU full of confidence, particularly on offense. They are averaging 28.4 points and 425.9 yards per game.

“They will definitely come in and throw it around, throw it vertically, shallow, slants, outs, everything,” said BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford. “It will definitely be a high-powered offense that we have to be prepared for.”

The Cougars (5-5) forced three three-and-outs on Boise State’s first four possessions on Nov. 5 and got a first-down strip sack on the Broncos’ fifth series. That first-half performance from the defense did wonders for its confidence, defensive end/linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa said Tuesday.

“I think that we always knew it was there,” said Tanuvasa, who will be honored on Senior Day Saturday and plans to retire from football and put his finance degree from the Marriott School of Business to work next year. “It was nice to see us put it all together and for it to come to fruition. Obviously, there were some drives in that game that we wish could have ended differently had a few things been different. But overall we were happy with our performance and know that there is still a lot of room to improve.”

Boise State put together touchdown drives of 71, 78 and 65 yards in the second half and finished with 16 first downs and 324 yards to BYU’s 532 yards, but a big stop on the Broncos’ final possession is what Tanuvasa and defensive back George Udo will take away from that back-and-forth half of football.

“Yeah, I feel like a lot of things have been cleaned up, especially from the start of the season,” said Udo, a fourth-year junior who will walk on Saturday with the outgoing seniors such as Tanuvasa but plans to return to the team in 2023. “I guess everybody is comfortable with their position now. Everybody is flying around, making plays. And I feel like we are only going to get better.”

The Cougars are 99th in the country in total defense, giving up 412.5 yards per game, and are 121st in third-down conversion percentage defense (.466) but held the Broncos to 4 of 10 on third down in what was a drastic improvement from previous games against East Carolina, Liberty and Arkansas.

Head coach Kalani Sitake took over the defensive play-calling after the 52-35 loss to Arkansas, with mixed results. Liberty had 547 yards and East Carolina put up 424. 

Defensive lineman John Nelson said the defensive players never lost hope.

“I have always had faith in our coaching, and sometimes we, as a team, we get into a slump,” Nelson said last week. “After a couple weeks, we kinda all came together as a defense and I feel like we played one of our better games (against Boise State).

“It reminded me and some other players that the players are on the field and they are the ones making the plays,” Nelson continued. “I don’t know if you want to point fingers at coaching, but at the end of the day we are on the field and we need to take more ownership of that.”

Defensively, the Cougars emerged from the BSU game mostly unscathed health-wise, and had a bye last week to heal up, but will probably still be without star linebackers Max Tooley and Payton Wilgar. Tooley is most likely done for the season and Wilgar has not been practicing; Tuesday, Wilgar was inside the Student Athlete Building with his wife and baby at the same time the Cougars were practicing outside.

Another defender, safety Micah Harper, is dealing with the death of his childhood best friend. Harper grew up in Hawaii with Virginia wide receiver Devin Chandler, one of the three UVA players who were killed Sunday night in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Harper told KSL Sports Tuesday that he is dedicating the remainder of his football career to Chandler. Wednesday, Virginia’s scheduled game against Coastal Carolina on Saturday was canceled.

Meanwhile, Gilford said the defense is focused on stopping a very good Utah Tech offense that features Washington State transfer Victor Gabalis at quarterback and one of the best receivers in the country, Joey Hobert. The sophomore has caught 79 passes for 1,158 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“Our guys are focused, man. I mean, the one thing about the guys here, typically they are focused every week. We just gotta go out and produce,” Gilford said. “We can’t have any letdowns or anything like that. We have to go out there and play BYU football, and I think everything else will take care of itself.”


Cougars on the air

Utah Tech (4-6)

at BYU (5-5)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MST

LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo

TV: BYUtv

Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM