Provo • Although the final chapter in BYU’s football season has yet to be written, there have been more disappointments than successes for the Cougars over the past two years than any stretch since the program went 14-21 from 2004 to 2006.
It is tough to blame the Cougars’ defense for the program’s downturn, however. Third-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s guys have been mostly solid the past 23 games. It could be said that the defense has carried the program again this year, patiently waiting for the offense to get its act together.
Sure, there were letdowns against Washington and Utah State, when the Cougars allowed the Huskies 464 yards and five touchdowns and the Aggies 388 yards, five touchdowns and a field goal.
Actually, no defense has been able to contain Utah State, No. 10 in the country in total offense at 517.1 yards per game and No. 1 in scoring at 51.3 points per game.
“I am definitely proud of the boys,” Tuiaki said Tuesday as BYU (5-5) continued preparations for Saturday’s home finale against New Mexico State (3-7) at LaVell Edwards Stadium. “They have come out and played hard in every game. I am definitely proud of the effort they have put in.”
Starting safety Dayan Ghanwoloku missed the McNeese, Washington and Utah State games with an ankle injury, starting flash linebacker Zayne Anderson was lost for the season early with a shoulder injury, starting cornerback Chris Wilcox sustained a lower leg injury against Boise State and linebacker Butch Pau’u has never quite regained his form from past seasons due to nagging injuries.
But the defense has slowly improved, taken advantage of its depth with the emergence of linebackers Isaiah Kaufusi and Riggs Powell and cornerback D’Angelo Mandell and figured out how to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
It has held some fairly prolific offenses in check, most notably Arizona, Wisconsin, Boise State and UMass. The Cougars rank 24th in the country in total defense, allowing 329.2 yards per game. They are 30th in scoring defense (21.5 ppg) and 35th in rushing defense (135.0 ypg).
“Coach Tuiaki has done a good job at dialing up the pressures more and picking the spots to do it,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “Our coaches have done a great job coaching their personnel to execute their assignments. These guys are making plays.”
If there is a knock against the defense, it is that it hasn’t forced a lot of turnovers, hasn’t been as disruptive as coaches would have liked. The Cougars have just 13 takeaways, tied for 83rd in the country.
Tuiaki said the credit for the rise up the national statistical rankings has to go to the players, especially a core group of seniors who have been mainstays the past two or three years.
Defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, nose tackle Merrill Taliauli, middle linebacker Sione Takitaki and left cornerback Michael Shelton have been the stalwarts, backed up by Pau’u, Powell, linebackers Adam Pulsipher and Rhett Sandlin and safeties Tanner Jacobson, Sawyer Powell and Gavin Fowler.
“Those guys have carried through with what we’ve wanted them to do,” Tuiaki said.
Corbin Kaufusi and Takitaki have been the defensive stars and will be missed the most, obviously.
“I am proud of the resilience we’ve had,” Kaufusi said. “You love to see the guys succeed.”
Drawing upon his background as a defensive coordinator at Utah and Oregon State, Sitake has been more involved in the defense this year, with mostly positive results.
“This program is moving in a great direction because of the seniors and the leadership they are providing and the ability to relish the roles that they’ve had,” Sitake said. “Some of it has been on the field, and some of it has been as a mentor on the sidelines helping younger guys out. The senior class has done a great job of overcoming adversity, whether it is personal or through the program, and really trying to relish their roles and making things work.”
In all, 25 seniors will be honored Saturday during the pregame introductions. The majority play defense, leaving questions about next year’s prospects.
“Oh, we have a ton of talent coming back,” Corbin Kaufusi said. “It is sad that I have to leave, but I am excited to see what these guys do. Because after you get a taste of it — there are a lot of young guys who have gotten some playing time — then that is when you see what you can do in the offseason. So I am excited for them.”
BYU’s Senior Defensive Contributors
Nose tackle: Merrill “Meti” Taliauli
Outside end: Corbin Kaufusi
Flash linebacker: Riggs Powell
Backup flash linebacker: Adam Pulsipher
Utility linebacker: Rhett Sandlin
Middle linebacker: Sione Takitaki
Backup middle linebacker: Butch Pau’u
Left cornerback: Michael Shelton
Nickel back: Tanner Jacobson
Backup safety: Sawyer Powell
Backup safety: Gavin Fowler