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Even though BYU defense is among top-ranked in the country, coach says ‘there’s work to do’

BYU’s defense leads the nation in total defense and is No. 5 in scoring defense after lopsided wins over Navy and Troy. Here is a look at the reasons why.

Troy wide receiver Kaylon Geiger, center, is tackled by BYU linebacker Zayne Anderson (23) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah.
Photo/Rick Bowmer

PROVO — Football scientists are still studying how in the name of Anthony Munoz was BYU’s Khyiris Tonga unblocked when he pummeled Troy’s quarterback Gunnar Watson last Saturday night.

That’s like a jaguar chasing a mouse in an open field.

Equally intriguing is how BYU got big-time pressure on Watson with three rushers against five protectors.

Two games, two defensive challenges, and two completely different opposing offenses has led to two big successes for BYU’s defense and coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.

That’s the main takeaway after BYU defeated both Navy and Troy basically by halftime. Next up for the Cougars is a home game against Louisiana Tech on Friday.

One familiar defensive theme stood out in both BYU wins: The front line was dominating.

On Monday, Tonga called out fans via Twitter who’ve criticized his coach, saying his main man Tuiaki is a genius.

Whether a three-, four- or five-man front, or the confusing six-man look on the play Tonga crushed Watson, no matter if blitzing was deployed, BYU’s front has simply manhandled its opponents in the trenches. Tonga had two sacks, Zac Dawe and freshman Tyler Batty each had one. Troy had seven three-and-outs with its hurry-up offense.

This was a factor missing a year ago in losses to Toledo, South Florida and Hawaii.

In the first two games this season against a pair of teams whose only loss was to BYU, the defense has allowed just 138 rushing yards. Troy’s 181 total yards against BYU was the least since 154 against Georgia Southern six years ago. BYU limited Navy to 149 yards, which was the least the Midshipmen had gained in eight years.

As pleased as BYU coach Kalani Sitake was with his defense, he quickly told reporters after the game there should have been a couple of interceptions and more sacks. “There’s work to do,” he said.

“I thought the presence of our front was felt,” said Sitake, crediting senior nose guard Tonga.

“The big boys answered the challenge to lead the way. They answered the call to be tougher and more physical. It helps to have veteran players out there.”

In 2019, the Cougars had just 17 sacks. In two games of the COVID-19 season, they have nine.

It’s absolutely true that this September playing Navy and Troy does not compare to 2019 going against Utah, USC, Washington and Tennessee, or the planned 2020 slate that had Utah, Minnesota, Arizona State and Missouri on tap.

But progress is there and it’s not BYU’s fault the teams they scheduled ran into conference prohibitions to play them.

In 2020, you play who you can. And it can change from week to week.

As it stands, after outscoring opponents 103 to 10 — and it could have been 130 to 10 — the Cougars have outgained Navy and Troy in yardage 1,241 to 330 and shut down starter aggression in the third quarter.

That is total domination.

It has led to a No. 22 ranking in the AP and USA Today polls and No. 17 in Jeff Sagarin’s computer rating.

The Cougars’ defense leads the nation in total yards (165) and is No. 2 in scoring defense, allowing five points a game.

BYU defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga (95) sacks Troy quarterback Gunnar Watson during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Tuiaki said it is a matter of players following the top, when Sitake asked for physical play from the front and now experienced players reacting and doing their jobs.

“It’s also complementary football,” said Tuiaki, who added it is far easier to play defense when the offense is churning out points. “We are a far different personality when we play from ahead than behind,” Tuiaki said on BYUtv’s “Coordinator’s Corner” Monday.

“The physicality in the way we are playing and making negative plays on defense is huge for the continuity of just the defensive swag they continue to play with as well as the production.”

Tuiaki praised Tonga for his leadership and enhanced play from a year ago, adding that Tonga returning to play his senior year has really helped.

“He has so much more confidence now because he has a better understanding of things, he’s seeing the game a bit faster and differently. It’s been a huge advantage for him to come back and get these reps. He is a next level guy.”

Louisiana Tech, the team once coached by former BYU head coach Gary Crowton and where Karl Malone played basketball, is up next. The Bulldogs are averaging 48.5 points per game.

The Cougars look to build on a 2-0 start in a very strange college football season.