South Florida mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to upset BYU last Saturday based largely on a bruising running game — and constantly running the same two plays right up the middle. The Bulls rushed for 243 of their 315 total yards.
Seven years ago, the Cougars were third in the nation in both rush defense and total defense. So far this season, BYU is ranked 123rd in rushing defense and 86th in total defense.
Opponents have averaged 224.5 rushing yards per game against BYU and have scored nine rushing touchdowns over six games. What’s happened to this historically stout defense?
Sophomore linebacker Chaz Ah You believes the issues may stem from practice, where players haven’t been as physical as he thinks they should be.
“We play really soft against the run, as you've seen in the past games, and that's because of the way we practice,” Ah You said. “We just kind of run off and do a little two-hand touch in practice when we should be getting our chest and everything into it. And I feel like just that mindset and that practice during the week, that would help a lot of Saturdays.”
After their most recent tough loss, head coach Kalani Sitake said he was going to reevaluate everything — again.
Sitake decided not to share what he’ll focus on immediately, but he believes part of the problem lies both in player development and schemes.
“I’m not going to blame our players, though,” Sitake said. "To be honest with you, normally as a coach, if they give you the effort and they’re tough, we should put them in a position to at least handle the run consistently. That’s what we’re going to try to get done.”
Junior defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri feels frustrated with several of the recent games the Cougars have played. The players know what they need to do, and it starts with winning individual battles.
Part of BYU's philosophy is “we're better than you – come at us,” El-Bakri said. So, the defense needs to start winning those one-on-one and two-on-one matchups, and play a mean, stout defense, he added.
Besides physicality, schemes and individual battles, Ah You believes the defense is getting outnumbered on the edge.
“It was linebackers against the tight end and a pulling guard, pretty much the whole game on that counter run that (USF was) playing,” Ah You said. “You can get hands on and be as physical as you want, but when you've got two more guys to work through, it's pretty hard to make that tackle. It's really just a number thing on the outside.”
As a former three-year starter at fullback for BYU, Sitake understands the defense. He started his career working with defensive backs and special teams at Eastern Arizona in 2001. The four-year BYU head coach also served as the defensive coordinator at Utah and Oregon State.
So, Sitake knows what makes a good run defense, and despite the recent problems he maintains his optimism.
“That’s all I care about, is stuffing the run,” he said. “We’ll get there. I’ve been in tough spots before, you know, where we’ve had to respond well with coaching. I’ve been coaching for 19 years, so this isn’t new to me. We’ll respond the right way.”
Meanwhile, El-Bakri is hoping to use all the frustration to motivate himself for the next game, Saturday against Boise State. And maybe some of his other defensive teammates will do the same.
He said, “Playing as a frustrated, angry defense can be a positive thing in this game."