BYU knows exactly what areas it needs to improve on defensively: physicality and stopping the run

The Cougars need to get off the field faster to prevent Washington State’s run and shoot offense from picking them apart.

Baylor running back Abram Smith (7) dives for a touchdown against BYU during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 38-24. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Since losing their second straight game, BYU coaches have pointed out to areas within the defense that need to vastly improve if the Cougars want to break out of the current skid: physicality and run defense.

The Cougars will need to find a way to beat opponents at the blocks and shut down the ground game should they want to get back into the win column this week when BYU travels to Washington State.

“I’m more disappointed with the fundamentals of the game and the technique rather than the scheme or anything,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “We had 11 guys out there playing, but I don’t think we got off the blocks, I don’t think we’re physical enough. Defensively we have to be more physical, and that’s surprising to hear, but we also need to get some guys back [from injury] and some leadership to take ownership of the defensive front.”

The Cougars had enjoyed some success stopping the run early this year. BYU kept all four of its first opponents of the year under 200 rushing yards. That streak was broken up in Game 5 in a win at Utah State.

Last weekend, the Cougars gave up a season-high 303 rushing yards at Baylor.

Assistant head coach Ed Lamb believes having a stout run defense is the first step in getting back on track, and in having a successful season.

“Good solid defense always starts with shutting down the opponent’s running game, no matter how much the running game is the feature of the offensive style,” Lamb said. “We want teams to speak one-handed so to speak. It all begins with being sound and solid up front and taking away the run game.”

Although BYU’s upcoming opponent is dealing with a major staff shakeup midway as of Monday — head coach Nick Rolovich and four position coaches were fired after failing to comply with the state’s vaccine mandate — BYU coaches said it won’t affect the way they prepare this week.

In fact, the Cougars are preparing to face a run-and-shoot offense, a system Rolovich used religiously and implemented at Washington State over his short tenure there, even with a new staff.

“But in terms of the pure form of it, what we’re really looking at is really the side adjustments that can expose any crack in the defense,” Lamb said. “Anytime you give these guys enough area, they will find it. That’s what they’re so adept at. And they will continue to hammer away at formations and motions and personnel groups until they find where the defense is weak in some area.”

The Cougars want to avoid that and will look to get off the field as quickly as possible. That has been another area that has hurt BYU over the past couple of weeks.

At Baylor, the Bears had 20 more offensive plays and held possession for 11 minutes more than the Cougars. Against Boise State, the Cougars had 10 fewer offensive plays and held possession for about eight minutes less than the Broncos.

So, the Cougars have their hands full this week as they try to figure out how to get back to the level of physicality and efficiency they reached earlier this season.

“Defensively, we’ve just got to be as tight as we can possibly be,” Lamb said. “Get off the field as quickly as we can and limit those opportunities for them to find who are the spaces.”