In his first true test as BYU’s defensive coordinator, Jay Hill earned an A. His revamped defense marched into a kingdom where pigs are treated like royalty and left them hogtied.

Many of the 74,821 in attendance at Reynolds Razorback Stadium expected to see a repeat of last year when Arkansas seemingly did whatever it wanted on offense in a 52-35 victory in Provo. Instead, for much of the three-hour-and-39-minute rematch, they saw just the opposite in a 38-31 BYU win.

“They proved they were longer and stronger than we anticipated. No exotic blitzes … they just whipped us.” — Arkansas coach Sam Pittman

The Razorbacks head coach was left scratching his head. “They proved they were longer and stronger than we anticipated,” Sam Pittman said. “No exotic blitzes … they just whipped us.”

In truth, what Arkansas didn’t expect was what Hill had accomplished with BYU’s defense in such a short period of time.

The numbers comparisons are startling. Last year against the Cougars, the Razorbacks amassed 644 yards of offense. They converted on 12 of 15 third downs and allowed just one tackle for loss. The punter had one punt and quarterback KJ Jefferson threw five touchdown passes without an interception.

Fast forward to Saturday night, the home team earned 424 yards of offense. It converted just two of 13 third downs and allowed six tackles-for-loss, including four sacks. Max Fletcher punted six times and Jefferson was limited to one touchdown pass and threw his first interception of the season.

How did Hill do it? First, he knew an extreme makeover was needed. This wasn’t going to work by putting lipstick on a pig and expecting it to be something other than a pig. He had to change the animal altogether.

The process initially began when head coach Kalani Sitake lured Hill away from a head coaching job at Weber State. Sitake gave him the green light to restructure the entire defensive staff, and outside of retaining cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford, he cleaned house.

Hill hired Sione Po’uha and Kelly Poppinga to bolster the defensive line to stop the run and create a pass rush, then hired linebackers coach Justin Ena and appointed Gavin Fowler and Jan Jorgensen as his defensive analysts; he assigned the safeties to himself.

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With the staff in place, Hill went looking for some additional players in the portal. Defensive linemen Isaiah Bagnah and Jackson Cravens transferred from Boise State. Cornerbacks Eddie Heckard and Kamden Garrett transferred in from Hill’s defense at Weber State. Linebackers AJ Vongphachanh joined the Cougars from Utah State and Harrison Taggart transferred from Oregon.

As the addition of new blood pumped life into the locker room, Hill focused on elevating the returners, especially on the defensive line where Tyler Batty, Blake Mangelson, Caden Haws, Atunaisa Mahe and John Nelson brought back size and experience.

Once defensive stars Ben Bywater and Max Tooley recovered from their respective shoulder surgeries, Hill and his staff challenged them to add weight and muscle and set a standard for the linebackers room.

Hill has also found a way to get the younger guys to play older. Ethan Slade, Tanner Wall and Crew Wakley are sophomores in the secondary learning alongside junior Jakob Robinson and senior Jacob Boren. Even more impressive is the fact that BYU did what it did Saturday night having lost experienced safeties Micah Harper (knee) and Talan Alfrey (shoulder) to injuries during fall camp.

Even more than changing the overall physique of the defense, Hill changed the attitude, even as the offseason questions kept coming. Could the defensive line defend the run or even slow it down? Could BYU get pressure on the quarterback and force mistakes? Could the Cougars get off the field on third downs?

BYU shut out Sam Houston 14-0 in the season opener and had little trouble with Southern Utah (41-16), but both of those games did little to provide answers. The Cougars played mostly vanilla coverages and, well, they looked very vanilla doing it.

The way Saturday night’s game began with a 55-yard run and an 88-yard punt return for Arkansas touchdowns, Cougar Nation feared the return of the same old problems — BYU can’t get off blocks, can’t get to the quarterback, aren’t fast enough and are significantly outmatched against these Power Five programs.

What happened next was indicative of what Hill is trying to do. The Cougars settled down and started to show some resiliency. BYU forced Arkansas into five consecutive punts, which gave the Cougar offense enough possessions and quality field position to erase the deficit and build a 21-14 lead.

Not everything was perfect. The Hogs ran off 17 unanswered points and jumped ahead 31-21 less than four minutes into the third quarter. But again, BYU dug in defensively and started to wear down the Razorbacks’ offensive line.

Hill confused the Hogs with a form of camouflaged pressure on just about every play and even when the teams lined up strength vs. strength, the Cougars held their ground. Arkansas gambled on fourth-and-1 at the 50, when running back Rashod Dubinion was stuffed by Vongphachanh and Tooley, which led to a BYU field goal.

On the Razorbacks’ next possession and one play after a Batty-Mangelson sack, the rarely rattled Jefferson threw an interception to Tooley to set up the game-tying touchdown.

A defensive stop on third-and-6 ended Arkansas’ next possession with a missed field goal. Two series later, Heckard got to Jefferson on a corner blitz and forced a fumble, which Batty recovered.

While Hill’s defense was wreaking havoc, the BYU offense took a 38-31 lead, but there was still time for Arkansas and the SEC’s second-team preseason all-conference quarterback to tie the game.

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The final drive is what Hill and defensive prowess is all about. The week he was hired, he pledged that the Cougars defense would “attack” instead of “be attacked.”

On first down at the Razorbacks 32, Batty hit Jefferson and forced a fumble, which Arkansas recovered. Three plays later, under heavy pressure, the Razorbacks were flagged for holding. On the next play, they were hit with a false start.

Three plays after that, as Jefferson navigated Arkansas into BYU territory, the Hogs were hit with another holding call. Hill’s defensive line continued its relentless pursuit and just as Arkansas reached the Cougars 16-yard line, it was hit with a third holding penalty.

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On the following play and with just five seconds remaining, the crowd was on its feet. Jefferson watched his pocket collapse again and in desperation, flailed a pass that was caught by his offensive lineman who was decked downfield by John Nelson as time expired.

Hill had done it. He led a brand-new defense into Fayetteville and left with a win. In the heart of hog country, and amidst the constant call of “pig sooie,” Hill showed that in nine months’ time, he did more than just put lipstick on a pig, he turned the Cougars defense into a different animal all together.

It’s a long semester, with nine consecutive P5 exams on the way. But Hill is off to a great start, earning an A on the first major test of the season. The next course comes at Kansas (Saturday 1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) where Jayhawk replaces pork on the menu.

BYU linebacker Harrison Taggart (11) celebrates the win over the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. BYU won 38-31. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at 

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