After No. 10 Wisconsin rolled up 491 yards, including 235 on the ground, on BYU in a 40-6 romp over the Cougars at LaVell Edwards Stadium in 2017, BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki didn’t panic or make any wholesale changes to his schemes when the Cougars traveled to Madison the following year.
“We just had to make sure the right guys were in the right places,” Tuiaki said.
Sticking to a similar defensive game plan, but with a healthier team and star defender Sione Takitaki playing linebacker instead of defensive end, BYU held No. 6 Wisconsin to 4.7 yards per rush and claimed a 24-21 upset win at Camp Randall Stadium in 2018.
“There is always pressure. The pressure is that we have a good team. There is no doubt that we have a good team. We just gotta make sure that we put guys in the right position, and put ourselves in position to win games. Because I think we can win a lot of games with the team that we got.” — BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki
Tuiaki referred to that stunning turnaround Wednesday when he was asked what his defense was doing in 2022 preseason training camp to shore up against the run. Last year, the Cougars ranked 73rd in the country in rushing defense, giving up 4.34 yards per carry and 156.8 yards per game.
Losses to Boise State, Baylor and UAB in the bowl game can be attributed to the fact that the Cougars struggled to stop the run in those games, and were especially bad on third down. They were 106th in the country in third down conversion defense (.430).
Tuiaki’s plan to turn that around?
For one, stay healthy, which is obviously easier said than done. Before star middle linebacker Keenan Pili sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 against Arizona State, BYU’s rush defense was stellar. Although Ben Bywater filled in admirably and led the team in tackles, BYU’s defense wasn’t the same after Pili went out, and it was even worse when Rover linebacker Payton Wilgar missed the final three games after having shoulder surgery.
“You can’t play so many snaps with your starters, or you start to lose them at the end of the year,” Tuiaki said. “I have always (rotated) the defensive linemen because it is something I did with Kalani (Sitake) when we were still at Utah. I have really liked it. You keep the guys healthy, you bring the others along.”
Tuiaki said the Cougars are to the point now on defense that they have enough depth to rotate not just at D-line, but with the linebackers and the defensive backs.
“We feel good about the depth,” he said. “We are trying to solidify the secondary right now. We feel like we have four corners that can play. We got a couple of nickels that we feel like we can rotate. We are trying to nail down who the safeties are and what packages (work best).”
Another move he’s made is to switch versatile senior Pepe Tanuvasa from defensive end to Mike linebacker, backing up Pili. Tanuvasa isn’t as talented as Takitaki, who is still in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, was in 2018, but he’s “like an all-purpose tool” in the words of defensive end Tyler Batty.
“Pepe is a really talented dude, had a great skill set,” Batty said. “We can throw Pepe in anywhere and he is going to get the job done.”
If nothing else, it’s a nice insurance policy if Pili is slow to return to his pre-injury form, or gets hurt again. Pili said Wednesday that he is “feeling super healthy” and his knee is close to 100% healed.
“It is actually feeling a lot better than I thought it would be,” he said.
Much of the focus in fall camp has been on BYU’s offense, and rightly so. Almost all of the Cougars’ best players are on that side of the ball. Tuiaki was asked if there is pressure on the defense to not be the weakest link again in 2022, and to be better at getting off the field on third down so the prolific offense can have more time with the ball.
“There is always pressure. The pressure is that we have a good team. There is no doubt that we have a good team,” Tuiaki said. “We just gotta make sure that we put guys in the right position, and put ourselves in position to win games. Because I think we can win a lot of games with the team that we got.”
With Pili and Wilgar healthy and participating fully in camp, “we are pretty sound all across the board” on defense, Tuiaki said.
The Cougars were 51st in scoring defense (24.6 points per game) last year, which isn’t bad considering they faced seven Power Five programs. They were 74th in total defense, giving up 388.8 yards per game.
Tanuvasa said the defense “definitely” has a chip on its shoulder this year.
“We are the first ones to point fingers at ourselves. We take responsibility for what happened last year. Win or lose, we know there is always room for improvement,” he said. “There has been a huge focus on stopping the run. Looking ahead to the teams that we have on the schedule, we know it is going to be very tough, very physical. We feel we have prepared well over the summer and are ready to meet the challenge.”
Batty seconded that notion, saying that stopping the run falls on the entire defense, but particularly the front seven.
“For the most part, a lot of us block the noise out. We don’t pay attention to a lot of it. But we hear things,” Batty said. “Defensive guys are hungry. We want to show how good we can be.”
Because the defense gave up 281 first downs in 2021 — ranking a woeful 101st in the country in that category — BYU’s time of possession suffered. The Cougars were 87th in that stat, meaning the offense’s opportunities were more limited.
Kevin Clune, the linebackers coach, said it takes all 11 defenders to stop the run, but having stars such as Pili and Wilgar back on the field is a good start.
“All you gotta do is go back to the first two games last year to see what Keenan did. I mean, he had 17 tackles in the Arizona game, and there was a bloodlust to get to that football,” Clune said. “He is an intelligent player, a fast and physical player. And I can’t wait to see what he does finally when he is back on the field on game day.
“Payton, same thing. Very smart player, heady player, physical player, all those things. He was there for nine of the games, maybe. So having both shoulders healthy will hopefully up his game.”
And perhaps then nobody will be wondering why the Cougars can’t stop the run.