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BYU scrambling to fix its suddenly leaky run defense as ground-oriented San Diego State comes calling

Despite having one of the highest-ranked rush defenses in the country, the Cougars gave up 281 rushing yards to Coastal Carolina last week

Coastal Carolina’s Shemari Jones runs out of the backfield during a game against BYU Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Conway, S.C. The Chanticleers’ run game gouged the Cougars, and BYU will face another team that favors the ground attack Saturday when San Diego State visits LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Richard Shiro, Associated Press

BYU defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri and his family have a saying when they get together for fly-fishing excursions on Utah’s lakes and streams.

“One rise does not a hatch make,” El-Bakri said.

In other words, just because an angler sees a trout surface out of the water, that doesn’t mean more are coming in that area to feast on an insect gathering.

As it applies to BYU’s rush defense, which was pummeled Saturday in the 22-17 loss to Coastal Carolina, El-Bakri’s point is that just because the Cougars struggled to stop the run at Brooks Stadium, it can’t be labeled a weakness just yet.

“One game does not a D-line make or break, fortunately or unfortunately,” he said. “So we are not panicking. We are not like, ‘Omigosh, what are we going to do?’”

The Chanticleers, who swapped placed with BYU (18 to 13, and vice versa) when the third College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday, rushed for 281 yards on 54 attempts in the upset win, an average of 5.2 yards per carry.

The Chants picked up 22 first downs and dominated time of possession, nearly 38 minutes of game time, to keep BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and company off the field and ruin the Cougars’ dream of making a New Year’s Six bowl game.

“We never made them uncomfortable,” El-Bakri said. “We never got them off-schedule. … Definitely a frustrating night from a defensive line standpoint.”

Somewhere, San Diego State coach Brady Hoke must have been smiling, while Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo must have been wondering what might have been if the Cougars had only a day or two to prepare for his option attack, instead of three weeks before they held the Mids to 119 yards and 3.1 per carry.

Hoke’s Aztecs invade LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday (8 p.m., ESPN2) hoping to ruin BYU’s senior night with the same sort of run-heavy attack, but not in triple-option form. San Diego State (4-3) is averaging 203.7 rushing yards per game, 21st in the nation.

Last year, SDSU played a solid game of keep-away to upset the Cougars 13-3 at Qualcomm Stadium, and its defense has seemingly improved. The Aztecs are third in total defense in 2020, giving up just 269.1 yards per game.

“They like to run the ball and possess the ball, and so this is an opportunity for us to try to get the ball back for us to score,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “They have a very dynamic run game.”

So does Coastal Carolina.

The Cougars (9-1) entered Saturday’s hastily arranged showdown of unbeatens with the No. 6 rushing defense in the country, giving up only 89.1 yards per game on the ground. Coastal had that in the first quarter alone, and was well on its way to surpassing its 222.0 average.

“They just found a few things, a few things you probably would have been able to wrinkle out with a couple more days of practice,” BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said Tuesday in a Zoom meeting with reporters. “Don’t want to take any credit away from them. The scheme that they run is very good.”

And BYU couldn’t stop it. The Cougars had allowed just three rushing touchdowns in their first nine games. Coastal had three at Brooks Stadium, and BYU’s rushing defense fell to No. 15 in the country.

“We didn’t do a good enough job on the early downs, first and second down,” Tuiaki said, calling the offense Coastal ran against BYU similar to those ran by Navy, Army and Air Force, which the Cougars weren’t totally expecting. “You play a good team that finds something, and they continue to expose it, and you don’t fix it, then you are going to give up some of those long drives.”

In truth, BYU had struggled to get off the field against lesser offenses before. For all their defensive prowess — they are fourth in points allowed per game — they are just 71st in first-down defense, having given up 165 through 10 games.

“Looking back at it, they did a good job of keeping their third downs relatively short,” said BYU linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi. “But we have got to get off the field on those third downs. I think that’s the key. We gotta step up, change the attitude. This week we have addressed that. We gotta get off the field.”

San Diego State running back Kaegun Williams sprints with the ball past Colorado State defenders during game on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020 in Carson, Calif. The Aztecs are 47-3 the last 50 times they have rushed for 200 yards, and are likely to take to the ground when they square off against BYU Saturday night in Provo.
Kyusung Gong, Associated Press

San Diego State is 47-3 the last 50 times it has rushed for 200 yards. It has won the time of possession battle in 15 of its last 20 games and is 28-6 when holding the ball for at least 35 minutes.

“I am sure they are looking at the Coastal film and trying to pick a couple things out that they think they can take advantage of, and we have got to do a good job just making sure that our boys are ready and schemed up to stop some of the things they are doing in the run game, and put them into long yardage situations, and force the quarterback to make throws to win them the game,” Tuiaki said.

If they can’t, it could be a long, cold night in Provo — a week and 2,200 miles away from that long, frustrating night in South Carolina.