In defense of BYU’s defense, Ilaisa Tuiaki is getting the job done
While the offense often steals the show, the BYU defense has played a big hand in the Cougars’ 21-4 record over the last two seasons.
Ilaisa Tuiaki takes a lot of heat, especially when BYU’s offense looks so cool.
The defensive coordinator is preparing for his seventh season calling the shots for longtime friend and head coach Kalani Sitake. While touchdowns and fireworks bring fans to their feet on offense, his squad plays to a different beat — with a different goal.
Aaron Roderick’s offense is designed to maximize opportunities to score while Tuiaki’s defense tries to minimize the same goals shared by the opponent.
Some days are better than others, but by and large, BYU’s 21-4 record over the last two seasons is a reflection on the defense, just as much as the offense, even though it’s sometimes hard to see.
The numbers that matter the most, don’t lie.
During 16 of the Cougars’ 21 wins between 2020 and 2021, Tuiaki’s defense has allowed 20 or fewer points — including wins against No. 21 Utah (16), No. 19 Arizona State (17), Washington State (19), Arizona (16), Boise State (17), San Diego State (14) and Utah State (20).
When the defense has allowed 21 points or more during that same time, whether healthy or riddled with injuries and handcuffed by turnovers, BYU is 5-4. Those four defeats were at No. 14 Coastal Carolina (22-17), at eventual Big 12 champion Baylor (38-24), Boise State (26-17) and UAB (31-28).
Doing more with less
It is safe to say Tuiaki has done more with less than any defensive coordinator in the country — especially when you consider BYU’s string of key injuries, a tougher schedule and working around outgoing and returning missionaries.
Again, not all the jewels in his store are diamonds, but he has delivered several defensive performances that have kept their shine through the ups and downs of college football. That’s how you can run up a 21-4 record, including a 6-1 mark against Power Five opponents last season.
The game that made quarterback Zach Wilson an NFL target was a Friday night date at Houston, Oct. 16 on ESPN. With COVID-19 limiting the number of teams playing games in 2020, BYU was left to enjoy much of the television spotlight to itself.
Houston dominated early and led 20-14 at halftime. The host team scored again just minutes into the third quarter. But while the nation tuned in to watch a shootout on offense, Tuiaki’s defense dug in and shut out Houston the rest of the way, while Wilson and the offense scored 29 unanswered points to win 43-26.
A few weeks later, BYU rolled onto the blue turf in Boise, Idaho, and the Cougars’ defense stifled the No. 21 Broncos to three points through three quarters, while the offense pinned Boise State with its worst home loss since 1996 in a 51-17 wipeout.
Later in 2020, the Cougars traveled to No. 14 Coastal Carolina for a game where Tuiaki had three days’ notice to prepare for one of the nation’s most unique and quirky offenses that averaged 38.7 points.
BYU struggled to stop the run. Coastal rushed 54 times for 282 yards and three touchdowns. But that’s all they scored. The Cougars held them to a season-low 22 points and fell one yard short of a victory when Dax Milne was tackled just shy of the goal line as time expired.
Another test for Tuiaki came in the Boca Raton Bowl against future Big 12 foe Central Florida. The Knights featured quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who led the nation in passing and total offense and averaged 44.3 points.
Again, while the offense dominated the highlights, Tuiaki’s defense held UCF to 23 points — 21 below its average — in a convincing 49-23 Cougar victory.
Stronger opponents, stronger performances
Last season, against the most P5 opponents in school history (seven) the defense answered the bell again and again.
Sophomore Hayden Livingston’s fourth-quarter interception and sophomore Keenan Pili’s 17 tackles were too much for Arizona to overcome in the season opener in Las Vegas. The Cougars held the Wildcats to 16 points in a 24-16 win.
A week later against No. 21 Utah, the defense kept the Utes’ 10,000-yard passer Charlie Brewer sequestered in the backfield, while sacking him twice and forcing two turnovers. BYU held Utah to just 2-of-9 on third down. The Cougars stuffed running back Micah Bernard on fourth-and-2 at the BYU 8-yard line in the second quarter and they celebrated as the Utes turned the ball over on downs with their last possession of the game.
Tuiaki’s defense kept Utah quiet on offense, while BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, playing with broken ribs, delivered on offense in a 26-17 win.
No. 19 Arizona State suffered the same fate a week later. The tenacious Cougars defense chased Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels all night long, intercepting him twice, sacking him twice and, with the help of a raucous crowd, they made it difficult for him to run a play.
On one fourth-quarter possession, Arizona State was penalized with four “false start” infractions in a 27-17 defeat. The win was sweet, but the Cougars’ defense left the field feeling a bit sour knowing that Pili was lost for the season with a knee injury.
BYU traveled to Logan and held the Aggies to seven points in the second half in a 34-20 win. Freshman quarterback Jacob Conover replaced the injured Baylor Romney just before halftime. The Cougars’ defense held firm against a Utah State team that went on to finish 11-3 and ranked No. 24 in the final AP Top 25.
Three weeks later, against the Pac-12’s leader in touchdown passes, BYU’s defense kept Jayden De Laura out of the end zone and held Washington State to 19 points on its home turf in a 21-19 win.
Finest hour, worst first half
Tuiaki’s finest hour came after BYU’s worst first half in program history against Virginia and former Cougars defensive coordinator and head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
The Cavaliers caught BYU fatigued on defense and scored 35 points in the second quarter to lead 42-38 at halftime. The full house at LaVell Edwards Stadium sat stunned, but Tuiaki didn’t panic. Instead, he adjusted the game plan to utilize more personnel on defense in the second half. He substituted more to keep fresh legs on the field, and he decided to drop eight defenders into pass coverage and rush three.
The adjustments, though lost in Tyler Allgeier’s five-touchdown night, held the Cavaliers to just seven points in the second half, while BYU exploded for an exhausting 66-49 victory.
“Drop eight won the game for us,” Sitake told the Deseret News. “And that was Ilaisa Tuiaki’s idea. I think people need to respect him a little bit more now.”
Even during the regular season finale at USC, when the Trojans put together one of their best offensive nights of the season, it was a play on defense that sealed the win for BYU.
Kaleb Hayes tackled USC receiver Gary Bryant Jr. at the Cougars’ 10-yard line with 38 seconds to play. Bryant needed six yards for a first down, and Hayes held him to five and BYU took over possession of the football.
In the Independence Bowl defeat to UAB, where the Cougars’ defense was depleted by injuries, they allowed just 10 points after halftime and had it not been for Samson Nacua’s fumble on the Blazers’ 28-yard line with 3:36 to play, BYU was in striking distance to win the game.
He’s not perfect, but he wins
Don’t get me wrong, the Cougars’ defense isn’t perfect. No defense is and the loss to Baylor last year showed Tuiaki where he must go to compete in the Big 12 on a weekly basis — BYU needs to be bigger, stronger, faster and deeper.
There will surely be more heat on Tuiaki this fall, including the Sept. 3 season opener in steamy Tampa, Florida, against South Florida.
It’s just not as sexy on defense. It’s like being the bass guitarist in a rock band. Everybody is watching everybody else on stage, but for the band to hit its mark, the bass guitar must be spot on, or the songs will be off.
With Pili and Payton Wilgar back from injury and sophomore Ben Bywater ready for his second season, the defense will be anchored by its linebackers. The secondary is decorated with returning starters, including Hayes, Malik Moore and D’Angelo Mandell, and Tyler Batty headlines a defensive line that Tuiaki believes could steal the show.
BYU’s amazing run over the last 25 games has had the Cougars entrenched in the national polls, the stadium seats filled, players drafted into the NFL and Big 12 recruits taking notice. At a program built around offense, it’s easy for the defense to get a little defensive. Give credit where it’s due and for Tuiaki, he’s getting it done — on his side of the ball.
He’s not perfect. The Cougars could get more pressure on the quarterback and be more efficient on third downs, but he’s good enough to be 21-4 over the last two seasons and that record can help keep him cool when the heat of fall camp begins Aug. 3 and the heat from fan expectations undoubtedly returns Sept. 3.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.