Heavy rains pelted Ilaisa Tuiaki and the reporters who were interviewing him Tuesday night at BYU’s outdoor practice field, but the Cougars’ seven-year defensive coordinator was in no hurry to break the huddle.

“Yeah, I think he has definitely proved whoever is hating (him) wrong. I think too much blame goes on coach when in reality it is not all his fault. Sometimes the player just messed up the assignments to make that play work. He has always been a good coach, and whoever is hating on him is pretty dumb, to be honest.” — BYU safety Malik Moore on Ilaisa Tuiaki

He even playfully asked for more questions and chided early departees, as some media members scurried for cover. In some ways, Tuiaki has transformed from a quiet, softspoken and always serious sidekick to affable head coach Kalani Sitake to a confident, free-wheeling jokester with the media, punching back at times to perceived doubts regarding his defense.

And why not? 

Tuiaki’s defense, much-maligned the latter half of last season when injuries made it a shell of its former self, is back to full strength in 2022 and has been a strength of the team, particularly during last Saturday’s 26-20 win over No. 9 Baylor in double overtime at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

The Cougars’ self-described “No Name Defense” has been worthy of a moniker this year, although it is really, really early. Remember, the Cougars started well defensively in 2021, too, holding Arizona, Utah and Arizona State to a combined 50 points before star linebacker Keenan Pili sustained a season-ending ACL injury late in the ASU game.

How good is this defense that ranks 35th in total defense (291.0 yards per game) and 21st in passing defense (154.5 ypg.) and throttled No. 9 Baylor on all but three possessions last Saturday?

More will be known Saturday night, after the No. 12 Cougars play at No. 25 Oregon (1:30 p.m. MDT, Fox) and deal with not only a raucous Autzen Stadium crowd in Eugene but a much-improved Ducks offense that just put 70 points and 604 yards on Eastern Washington.

“Really pleased with the things that we saw on film in all three phases (after the Baylor game),” Sitake said Monday. “Obviously, there are some things to correct and to work on this week. But if I am looking at it from my perspective, the improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 did take place and I am really happy about it.

“Hoping to make another step of improvement from Saturday to this weekend against Oregon in Eugene. … But this is a different beast this week, just watching Oregon on film.”

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Tuiaki said the bottom line is that the Cougars are 2-0, and all that matters to him is winning and limiting points. The Cougars are 51st in scoring defense, but that doesn’t tell the complete story. They would be 43rd if you throw out the kickoff return for a touchdown that special teams gave up to South Florida.

“You gotta continue to win games. That’s what it is all about, and so there is a lot to work on. We watched film, and there is a lot to correct,” Tuiaki said. “It is just really (about) refining the process, refining what we do, and getting better at it, and continuing to win games.”

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick awarded Tuiaki the game ball after the Cougars shut out the Bears in the two overtime sessions; Tuiaki credited the ROC — BYU’s student section — for the victory.

BYU fans cheer after the catch by Cougars receiver Chase Roberts (27) was ruled inbounds against Baylor on Sept. 10, 2022.
BYU fans cheer after a catch by BYU wide receiver Chase Roberts was ruled inbounds as BYU and Baylor play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. The fans came up big for the Cougars in victory over the Bears. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I think by nature coaches are critical. When you do it right, obviously we are excited and we are happy. But our eye is always drawn to just what is going wrong, and how can we be better, and what needs to change, and all those things,” Tuiaki said, explaining his reticence to gloat. “We are always extra critical and it is important for us to point out the things that we are not doing well.”

Safety Malik Moore said the Cougars can always improve their tackling, their rallying to the ball, and their eye control. He felt like the defense should have been better on third down. Baylor was 9 of 18 on third-down conversions.

The senior also said Tuiaki gets a bad rap from some BYU fans and media members.

“Yeah, I think he has definitely proved whoever is hating (him) wrong. I think too much blame goes on coach when in reality it is not all his fault,” Moore said. “Sometimes the player just messed up the assignments to make that play work. He has always been a good coach, and whoever is hating on him is pretty dumb, to be honest.”

As was expected, BYU’s outstanding linebackers are leading the way. Max Tooley had a pick-six against South Florida and leads the team with 18 tackles. Ben Bywater has 16 tackles and a sack; Pili has two tackles for loss.

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“Yeah, I was proud of our guys, the way we handled battling up front, playing smash-mouth, big-boy football (against) the downhill run game,” Bywater said. “We had a lot to prove, especially after what happened last year. So I was proud of the way the guys handled business. It was just a testament to what we did in the offseason, getting big and just having that pride.”

Linebacker Payton Wilgar said the 38-24 loss at Baylor last year “was kind of an embarrassment for our defense a little bit” and put a collective chip on the Cougars’ shoulder in 2022.

Can the Cougars do it again against a more varied Oregon offense directed by Auburn transfer quarterback Bo Nix and powered by receiver Troy Franklin and running back Sean Dollars?

“We just need to come in and play BYU football,” Wilgar said “Come in, don’t worry about the opponent or the rankings or anything. Just play BYU football, which is four quarters of tough, physical football. I think if we can come out and do that, I think everything else will fall into place.”

Cougars on the air

No. 12 BYU (2-0) at No. 25 Oregon (1-1)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

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Autzen Stadium

Eugene, Oregon

TV: Fox

Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM

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