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BYU coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s defensive play calling will take center stage against pass-heavy Troy

Troy’s fast-paced spread offense will give BYU defensive coordinator Tuiaki plenty of chances to shift focus away from successful near-shutout of Navy.

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BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki listens to the post-practice debriefing in Provo on Thursday, August 10, 2017.

Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News

PROVO —  Troy’s visit to BYU on Saturday should be an entertaining game and it is absolutely the biggest college game being played west of Texas.

Well, yes, it is also the only one.

You’ve got BYU’s offensive line being handed “poison” with all the praise heaped upon them after bowling over Navy. You have Zach Wilson coming off a 200 pass efficiency rating game and a Cougars defense that for all intents and purposes, registered a shutout of Navy’s touted offense.

And now comes Nebraska and LSU slayer Troy, fully capable of pulling down the pants of the Cougars on national television. BYU is favored by two touchdowns.

For me, this is a great showdown of Troy’s spread offense triggered by more than capable QB Gunnar Watson.

How can you not be a great QB with a name like Gunnar? He works out of a fast-paced, quick-fire, fast-break offense created to wear out a defense, prevent substitutions and catch defenders out of position.

Facing this is Ilaisa Tuiaki’s BYU defense, whose linebackers led the nation in pass interceptions last year, but was criticized heavily by many BYU fans for not blitzing enough.

Will the Cougars blitz Watson? How often? Will Tuiaki mix it up, pick his pressure, or fall back and hope Watson makes some mistakes?

This should be fun, even without fans in the stands. But that’s another issue.

This is going forward regardless.

Tuiaki has heard the chorus of complaints about dropping eight into coverage when he told reporters this week the staff had “been asked this question a bunch through the years” and he sees strategy differently than just bull-rushing a QB every play and hoping for a knockdown or shattered nerves.

“I see the game differently as far as what aggression is like,” Tuiaki said.

“Most people are talking about havoc and sacks and all this stuff and I think it’s all relative.”

There is a time and (part of a) season for releasing the attack Cougars, he said.

“To me, it’s what are you willing to give up and what are you willing not to give up? So you face certain teams like this one that passes the ball the majority of the time. They run the ball, but they’re committed to the pass. They don’t hold on to the ball very long. There are certain things that you look at, like do I want to bring four or five guys if the majority of the time they’re not going to get home? Or do I want to just maybe send two or three and dedicate more guys to coverage?”

Troy features very tall, athletic, fast receivers and more than capable running backs. Watson completed 26 of 37 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns with one pick against Middle Tennessee. Receiver Khalil McClain gained 75 yards on six catches and Brett Clark had 59 on another six receptions. B.J. Smith had 10 carries for 81 yards and Charlie Strong had 11 for 54 yards.

Troy has very good receivers that will give BYU’s secondary all it can handle.

You have to wonder if the system and the talent is as good as Hawaii’s, which basically had its way with the Cougars in Honolulu at the bowl game. Maybe, maybe not.

Troy has Tuiaki’s attention and his willingness to blitz or not and when.

“I think there’s a back and forth there. There’s a time to speed things up as far as what the quarterback sees and there’s a time to basically have the quarterback hold the ball and just try to scramble, which is what happens sometimes when you’re facing teams like this. You get frustrated when you’re trying to blitz or send more than four guys and the ball gets out and those guys aren’t able to get to the quarterback,” said Tuiaki.

“These guys know what they’re doing,” said BYU’s defensive brain trust. He speaks of former BYU offensive line coach Ryan Pugh, now Troy’s offensive coordinator who stepped into a program that had an established philosophy from its head coach, Chip Lindsey.

“They’re smart, really good football coaches and they have a system that they run. So the back and forth for us is going to be us trying to find them in situations where we think they’re going to hold on to the ball and for them to try to get us in situations where they figure we’re gonna blitz where they can get rid of the ball.”

Tuiaki said studying Troy’s offense has shown it completes a higher percentage of passes and big plays when blitzed as opposed to not being blitzed.

“They struggle a little bit more with more coverage teams so one of the things we want to do is challenge our D-line to win when we do decide we’re going to commit to a two-man rush or three-man rush and to work hard for five, six seconds to get there.

“And hopefully we can get their quarterback to scramble while throwing, throw off balance, throw tip balls, throw incompletions as well as some interceptions. So, when we do speed things up, hopefully we get some sacks.”

Changing from defending Navy’s triple option to preparing for a spread offense from Troy is a challenge for Tuiaki and his defenders. 

It’s a move from defending an irregular system to a more traditional offense.

It’s the difference between cutting a pie with a knife or a machete.

The biggest adjustment will be in the defensive coverage by BYU’s secondary.

The speed-up in playcalls by Troy will require BYU to “have cleats on the ground” ready to play, Tuiaki claimed.

And if those BYU cleats are not ready and in position, using the time allotted on deep pass plays (complete or incomplete) or plays that finish on BYU’s sidelines for substitutions, Tuiaki said it is on coaching.

So, in this home opener, the best game in the West on Saturday, there’re plenty of storylines to follow.

This one, Tuiaki’s defense versus Troy’s play calls, stands out to me as the one to hone in on with a big bowl of popcorn.