On the eve of his 82nd birthday, LaVell Edwards paused for a few moments to consider shades of irony and history in what has been by about a thousand miles the best part of BYU’s football season thus far: its defense.
The man who made a name for himself and for his school by building 27 winning seasons at BYU, radically stretching the boundaries of theretofore unenlightened offense in the college game, searched for words to describe the exceptional play he’s seeing on the 2012 Cougar D.
“These guys have quickness,” he said. “They move well. They have good experience at linebacker and they’re strong up front. And the secondary is one of the better ones I’ve seen around here … like what we had in ’96. You could play man, and that frees you up to do a lot of different things.”
Those things include ranking No. 1 in the nation in rush defense, No. 1 in red zone defense, No. 3 in scoring defense, No. 5 in total defense, No. 6 in tackles for loss, tied for No. 9 in sacks and No. 12 in pass defense.
By BYU standards, that kind of showing blows past historical, straight to ridiculous.
The Cougars are giving up just 8.8 points a game — that number would be even lower if BYU’s offense hadn’t served up scoring turnovers — and 60 rushing yards, 169 passing yards, 229 total yards. They haven’t allowed an offensive touchdown since the Utah game, which was four weeks back.
“They like to hit, and they feed off each other,” Edwards said. “What you get is a group that really comes together. It’s kind of an ‘it’ factor. You can’t coach it or manufacture it, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes, it just falls into place. And that’s what’s happening. But they are very well prepared.”
For all the steam Bronco Mendenhall has felt on account of the dubious decisions he’s made as BYU’s head coach this season, his job done as defensive coordinator currently is top drawer. He’s put the right players in the right positions with the right schemes and somehow conjured in them, like LaVell said, a collective effectiveness and pride that has enabled them to impose their will on opponents.
Nowhere is that more apparent than when the defense finds itself backed up against its own goal line, like it was against Boise State, but refuses to yield a score.
“I like the way they handle themselves,” Edwards said. “They’re tough physically and mentally.”
At least they have been against Washington State, Weber State, Utah, Boise State, Hawaii and Utah State. The Cougars’ two losses can be tagged on an offense that has tripped and stumbled too often. The defense has stumbled hardly at all.
“We’re a physical team,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said after the Cougars’ 6-3 win over the Aggies. “We’re a strong defense. You can’t beat us by trying to methodically drive it down the field. That’s what we’re trained to do is keep everything in front and make plays in the open field.”
It’s more than just strategy and attitude. What the Cougars have done is fill out their defense with capable athletes and sprinkle in a few stellar ones.
That starts with Van Noy, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior playmaker who individually embodies what this group tries to be collectively. “I’ve always liked him,” Edwards said. “He can run and he has a real feel for the ball, where it is and where it’s going to be. He’s always around it.”
Another is Ezekial Ansah, the 6-6, 270-pound athletic freak who goes by the name “Ziggy.” The kid out of Ghana ran track at BYU, but a few years back decided to try football. Said Mendenhall: “Ziggy’s a remarkable story … three years ago, he didn’t know how to put on his gear to now being literally the talk on the West Coast of every NFL scout that comes through. You could make a movie at some point.”
Added Edwards: “He’s gifted, big and fast. There’s something there. With him, it’s like a light bulb turned on.”
Ansah makes spectacular plays, but struggles at times with ground-level basics, such as promptly shedding blocks. Still, he’s breathed life into BYU’s defense, especially after defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna’s season-ending injury.
If there’s a rock-steady presence on the D, it’s senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree, who is undersized and not a great athlete, but an emotional leader and a central force. Everything on the defensive side rotates around the team captain. Another linebacker, Uona Kaveinga, is strong against the run and a fine tackler.
The corners — Preston Hadley and Jordan Johnson — have been decent enough, and the safeties — Joe Sampson and Daniel Sorensen — are adequate covers and big hitters.
They’re the most athletic secondary Edwards can remember at BYU since his ’97 Cotton Bowl winning team, which shut the door on Kansas State with an interception in the end zone at game’s end.
“The whole defense is really good,” he said. “They’ve come together, they’ve jelled. Who knows … they might have some more 6-3 games. There’s just something about them. They have a swagger, not arrogant, but they know what they’re doing and they play hard. There’s just something special about these guys. It’s kind of crazy, football. This defense can stack up with anybody.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
BYU national rankings for defense
Rush defense • No. 1
Red zone defense • No. 1
Scoring defense • No. 3
Total defense • No. 5
Tackles for loss • No. 6
Sacks • Tied for No. 9
Pass defense • No. 12
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