Has the win over Baylor quieted BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s critics?

The Cougar defense was key in last weekend’s upset, a year removed from giving up 303 rushing yards to Baylor.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Max Tooley (31) pulls Baylor Bears tight end Drake Dabney (89) down to the ground, in football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Baylor Bears at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Provo • The stands emptied and the crowd stormed the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium last weekend — because after a big win everyone shares in the celebration.

After a loss, though, one man in all of Cougar Nation seems to be singled out most often.

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki has had his detractors over the years. They were certainly there when a hapless Cougars defense gave up 303 yards on the ground to Baylor last season. But after the roar died down following Saturday’s upset victory over the Bears, Tuiaki has surely enjoyed the quiet.

“I think [Baylor game] proved whoever is hating on [Tuiaki] wrong,” safety Malik Moore said. “A lot of the time when we lose a game, the blame goes on him when in reality it is not all his fault. Sometimes a player messes up assignments.

“Whoever is [still] hating on him is pretty dumb.”

Tuiaki has earned buy-in from a number of key players, despite staying true to a scheme that drew criticisms a year ago.

Linebacker Keenan Pili watched replays of last year’s Baylor game so often, it became a habit. He would be in the locker room and turn it on. He would go home and watch it again. Then, in mandatory film sessions with Tuiaki, he would see more snippets.

And the more the BYU linebacker watched the film of Baylor running for 303 yards on a helpless defense, the more Pili started to buy into Tuiaki’s plan for this season: Change nothing in the scheme, get bigger at each position.

“We gave up too many points, too many yards, too many opportunities,” Pili said of his belief in it.

On the surface, the idea seemed far-fetched. It takes a certain amount of belief to see a defense ranked 73rd in the country, and 106th on third down, and think nothing major needs to change.

As unconventional as it sounded, Tuiaki’s gamble worked. Baylor averaged just 2.9 yards a carry on its 52 rushes. And as much as BYU’s offense often headlines the program, it was the defense that largely carried the Cougars to the biggest win in years.

Now the question turns to whether the gamble can work against Oregon, a team that is averaging almost 37 points per game.

Tuiaki believes it can. The Baylor game provided the blueprint, now it is time to refine it.

“You have to continue to win games,” Tuiaki said when asked what it would take for the defense to build off the strategy. “We watched the tape and there is a lot we can correct. Refining the process, refining what we do.”

So much about the strategy against Baylor came down to trusting individual players to make plays in space.

Since there were few schematic adjustments, Tuiaki instead moved individuals into different positions and allowed them to beat the man in front of them. Last year, they couldn’t. This year, a bigger group was able to do it.

Linebacker Max Tooley rewarded the trust by making 13 tackles. Ben Bywater added 11 and Pili had six.

On the defensive line, Lorenzo Fauatea and John Nelson pushed Baylor’s offensive line back multiple times as the unit got four sacks.

The linebacking corps and defensive line were banged up and immature in 2021. Pili was hurt by the time the Baylor game was played. Bywater was simply inexperienced.

This Baylor game was a testament to BYU’s added depth, as the Cougars’ top two linebackers — Pili and Payton Wilgar — took a backseat in tackles to Tooley and Bywater. And the players who were down on the defensive line also were able to get separation on Baylor’s top offensive line.

“We had a lot to prove just after last year,” Bywater said. “It was a testament to what we did in the offseason in getting bigger. … At the end of the day, it is about those one-on-one matchups and did you put in the work and did you win those one-on-ones.”

The challenges of a strategy reliant on size and individual wins puts a premium on two things going forward. The first is health and the second is being able to tweak it as offensive schemes shift.

The Oregon offense likely wants to play faster and throw more. The Ducks average 39 passing attempts per game and around 75 plays.

“They like to spread it out a lot,” cornerback Kaleb Hayes said. “They have great athletes and you are probably going to see a lot on the perimeter.”

But for now, BYU feels confident Tuiaki’s defense will hold up.

The gamble worked once. The Cougars think it will work again.