Injuries, rough starts and problems stopping the run have caused BYU to get more conservative on defense

Cougars have been outscored 38-7 in first quarters, can’t be as aggressive on defense as they would like to be

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki has moved to middle linebacker due to injuries. That's one of the reasons the Cougars have not been as aggressive on defense as they would like to be.

Provo • BYU’s underperforming offense and failure to score points in first quarters has some fans and media members calling for a change at quarterback.

The early-game futility — BYU has scored just seven points in the opening quarter through six games — is also putting a strain on the Cougars’ defense, which has not had the opportunities to make as many disruptive plays as it would like.

Falling behind early has caused the Cougars to play more conservatively on defense, coaches said this week as they prepared for Saturday’s rematch with high-scoring Hawaii (6-1) at LaVell Edwards Stadium. They need to force more turnovers and get more pressure on the passer, they acknowledged.

Those trademarks of a strong defense were lacking in consecutive losses to Washington and Utah State the past two weeks.

“When you have the lead, the other team stretches a little bit,” BYU linebackers coach Ed Lamb said Tuesday. “When they have the lead, your [aggressiveness] is limited a little bit."

BYU got zero sacks or turnovers in last Friday’s 45-20 loss to USU, and is now tied for 118th in the country in sacks, with six. That’s not good. They are 50th in turnovers gained, with nine. That’s OK.

They sacked Washington QB Jake Browning just once and also did not get a turnover against the Huskies. They barely touched USU QB Jordan Love.

BYU trailed 21-0 in both games.

“Sacks are a byproduct of good defense, and we are not playing good defense right now,” Lamb said. “But it would be unfair to put it all on the defensive line or all on the scheme. Some people think the answer is to blitz more. It is all those things. It is better four-man pressure. It is better three-man pressure.”

It also takes better tackling so opponents can’t run the ball effectively.

Coach Kalani Sitake pointed at woeful tackling after the USU game as the reason the Aggies were able to prolong drives against the Cougars.

“We had guys in the right spots, we just didn’t make the tackles and that’s the one thing that I think we should have done better and will help us improve,” Sitake said. “If you are looking at scheme, I will evaluate all that, too.”

The Cougars were relatively stout against the run last year and through the first four games this year, but Washington rushed for 187 yards and USU for 223. Lamb said “a lot of variables” have led to the poor defense against the run, including sloppy tackling, injuries to key defenders such as Zayne Anderson, Butch Pau’u and Dayan Ghanwoloku, and the simple fact that UW and USU had excellent and balanced offenses.

“It is never just one thing, but to anyone who would say we need a better pass rush, I would agree,” Lamb said.

A turnaround won’t be easy, because Sitake announced Tuesday that Anderson will have surgery soon for an undisclosed injury and is lost for the season. His absence and Pau’u’s injury and ineffectiveness has caused quite a shuffle at the linebacker positions, including the move of outstanding pass rusher Sione Takitaki to middle linebacker.

Also, linebacker Matt Hadley has been moved back to running back because he is needed there this week due to Squally Canada and Beau Hoge having been limited by injuries. Backups such as Isaiah Kaufusi, Riggs Powell, Adam Pulispher and Rhett Sandlin are trying to pick up the slack.

“Really, it is an ongoing decision each week about where guys are going to play,” Lamb said. “We try to get the best 11 guys out there.”

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said on his Coordinators’ Corner program Monday and reiterated Tuesday that the Cougars had only “six legitimate opportunities” to rush the passer vs. Utah State. Two were blocked well and the Aggies got first downs on third-and-medium, two resulted in quick dump-off passes to running backs, one resulted in Love scrambling to the sideline, and one was a throwaway under pressure.

“We need sacks, obviously,” Tuiaki said. “Everyone talks about needing sacks. But you can probably over-emphasize it. … We have to do a better job with the opportunities we get, and we are not getting as many opportunities as we have in the past.”

How BYU’s Defense Ranks in Selected National Categories

Total Defense: 53rd (360.8 ypg.)

Scoring Defense: T54 (24.7 ppg.)

Rushing Defense: 72nd (163.8 ypg.)

Passing Defense: 37th (197.0 ypg.)

Team Sacks: T118 (1.0 per game)

Turnovers Gained: T50 (9)

Passes Intercepted: 65th (4)

Third-Down Conversion Percentage: 90th (41.6 percent)