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Offensive fireworks aside, BYU’s defensive changes sealed deal against Houston

When BYU changed its defense to an aggressive man coverage, things clicked in 43-26 win over Houston

SHARE Offensive fireworks aside, BYU’s defensive changes sealed deal against Houston

BYU defensive lineman Zac Dawe (99) celebrates his sack of Houston quarterback Clayton Tune, bottom right, during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Houston.

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith

You gotta give Kalani Sitake credit in that win over Houston.

He watched Houston quarterback Clayton Tune rip apart his defense in the first half and he’d seen enough.

It was time to make his defense fit in with the rest of the team game plan of the night: to be aggressive, gamble, take chances and trust players.

The result was quite remarkable after trailing 26-21.

As much as Zach Wilson and Dax Milne deserve all the praise for dramatic playmaking that led to 29-straight points and a career high 400-yard, four touchdown aerial show, none of that happens without Sitake’s defense making multiple stops time and time again in the second half.

For the record, Houston scored twice on drives of more than 90 yards on BYU, but after the changes took hold, BYU’s defense thwarted five consecutive drives by Dana Holgorsen’s offense and a hot-handed Tune to end the game with a convincing 43-26 road win.

It was a total turn of the faucet for BYU’s defenders.

Now the question going forward is, will defensive coaches take a different approach to the defensive front and backend coverage?

They should.

The momentum change in this game due to the adjustment on defense showed BYU’s recruitment of a bevy of cornerbacks may have paid off. Trust them, let them go man on man in zero coverage (no safety help), and let the big guys get some linebacker help on pressure to disrupt.

Tune was disrupted the second half. The in-tune fell out of tune as fast as you could drop a guitar.

On the flipside, Wilson and BYU’s offense, impotent in the second quarter after leading 14-3 and trailing 26-14, scored 29 straight and cut the heart out of Houston’s football team.

Momentum. It’s a crazy thing.

Perfecting this man defense will pay big dividends in the Boise State and San Diego State games, BYU’s two most regarded opponents left on the schedule.

After gaining 333 yards (300 in the air) in the first half on the BYU defense, Houston finished the game with just 105 more yards, 98 of that on one drive. The final five Houston possessions of the game resulted in 7 yards.

“You know, we did some things differently scheme wise,” said Sitake in the media session that followed the win, which elevated the Cougars to 5-0.

“I think we’re going to have to be a little bit more aggressive in a lot of different ways. Obviously being aggressive was the key (the onside kick, going for it on fourth downs). I think it sets a mindset for our players that we want to go and grab the win and basically, take the initiative and make things happen.”

Sitake said he challenges his corners to play man and BYU’s four-man rush started to get to the quarterback in the second half.

“I think Houston did a good job of protecting the quarterback early, and we feel really good about our strength conditioning program, feel good about our players’ fitness and we knew that in the fourth quarter we’re usually stronger than most teams and so it did pay off and that was in all areas, in all three phases that we felt like we were much stronger at the end.”

In Friday’s win, Keenan Pili, Isaiah Kaufusi and Zac Dawe each had eight tackles to lead the defense. Kaufusi, Dawe and George Udo each registered a sack to bring the team’s total to 16 in five games. A year ago, BYU’s defense had just 17 for the entire season.

“Whenever one of us gets a sack, we consider it a team sack,” said Dawe.

Perhaps Friday’s game is a watermark for the defense, if indeed Sitake and defensive coaches take the leash off their players. In that Houston win, we saw a double-reverse pass, a bomb to open the game from BYU’s own 22, an onside kick recovery, a Kansas City Chiefs shovel pass to a fullback for a touchdown.  

The theme was to have an aggressive mindset on the road, give no quarter.

That theme is needed on the defense. Instead of covering grass in the secondary, the Cougars really needed to get after actual flesh and blood. Once they did, Houston had nothing but one touchdown.