With two of college football’s top defenses meeting Friday night in Provo, it is natural to paint the BYU-Utah State game as a competition between coaches with defensive backgrounds: BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall and USU’s Gary Andersen.
But while Mendenhall is acting as his own defensive coordinator, Andersen is claiming no direct responsibility for the Aggie defense this season.
That’s a major departure for Andersen, who built strong credentials as Utah’s defensive coordinator for four seasons before arriving in Logan. Andersen deserves credit for establishing USU’s defensive aura, but the actual scheming and in-game calls are being done entirely by defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and his staff, by Andersen’s account.
USU is playing its best defense since the Merlin Olsen era, ranking 11th in total defense (280.8 yards) and 18th in scoring defense (14.2) through five games. BYU is even better, ranking fifth in total defense (226.6) and fourth in scoring defense (10.0) — and that number is inflated by two touchdowns scored by opposing defenses. The Cougars have not allowed an offensive touchdown in nine quarters, and they’ve kept offenses coached by supposed gurus Mike Leach, Chris Petersen and Norm Chow out of the end zone.
The irony of Friday’s matchup is that Aranda became available to USU when Hawaii’s staff was fired after a 2011 season that ended with a 41-20 loss to BYU, as quarterback Riley Nelson and the Cougars racked up 530 total yards in December.
Mendenhall has gone back and forth in terms of his defensive approach in his eight seasons as BYU’s coach. He returned to the coordinator’s role in October 2010, the day after a 31-16 loss to USU in Logan. Mendenhall often remarks about how much fun he’s having and how coaching the defense gives him more contact with his players and influence on the team.
Andersen also has searched for just the right level of involvement with the defense. A stress-related health scare the week of that 2010 game led him to re-evaluate his activities, yet he gave himself even more responsibility for the defense last season.
It’s different now. Andersen worked extensively with Aranda and the other defensive coaches in the spring, mixing their philosophies and developing the scheme. During the season, however, Andersen says he has not been involved in defensive meetings on Mondays and Tuesdays, when the bulk of game-planning is done, or made any calls during games.
"It’s amazing," he said last week, marveling about his detachment.
Andersen is redirecting his daily efforts toward recruiting, while also paying more attention to special teams and offense. Beyond that, the freedom from the defensive grind enables him to spend more personal time with his players.
Football has changed since Olsen was leading USU’s defense in 1961, when the Aggies allowed only 139 yards per game. But this could be USU’s best defense of the modern era. The standard actually was set by a 3-8 team in 1998. Defensive coordinator Paul Arslanian’s group, led by linebacker Tony D’Amato, gave up 319 yards per game.
That year also may have produced BYU’s best defense in recent history, led by linebacker Rob Morris. The Cougars allowed 273 yards to rank fifth nationally during a 9-5 season, although bowl statistics did not count at the time. BYU lost 41-27 to Tulane in the Liberty Bowl, giving up 528 yards.
That performance could drop the ‘98 defense below the ‘86 defense, headlined by linemen Jason Buck and Shawn Knight.
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