Sep. 23—LARAMIE — Kevin Reynolds, who covers Brigham Young for The Salt Lake Tribune, weighs in on what Wyoming can expect this weekend against the Cougars.
BYU is coming off of a rough game against Oregon. What is the thing that stood out to you the most about that loss?
To me, the biggest thing was the missed tackling, and just the defense's inability to stop the run. I think there are a lot of things you can point to about that game, and Kalani Sitake, BYU's head football coach, was quite honest about saying, 'Hey, everything needs to be evaluated.' But the glaring thing is this defense just took such a big step back after a win against Baylor in Week 2. It just looked like an undisciplined group that was missing tackles. They hadn't really missed tackles all year, and that's a concern for this team going forward, because they're going to face good rushing offenses pretty consistently throughout this year.
You look at the way Oregon did it — they had four ball carriers that had 10-plus yards on a given run. It was really just a gashing from start to finish. Ilaisa Tuiaki, BYU's defensive coordinator, talked about how if they can't stop the run, it's going to be a major concern and major Achilles' heel of this group going forward. BYU's defense has consistently been on the field for a lot of plays, and there are injuries to the top two defensive ends. They didn't play last week, and injuries are starting to become a talking point for this group. That, and the missed tackles, really stood out against Oregon.
Quarterback Jaren Hall has gotten a lot of attention. What's the thing that makes him so dangerous?
A lot of people will talk about how he's a dual threat that can run the ball really well, and he's a very accurate passer — which is true. But I think his best attribute is just his decision-making. He's not a guy who makes a lot of mistakes in terms of interceptions and anything like that. He's played down his top two receivers for most of this year. In three games, he's only had them for one half of football, really, and he's stepped up and made the offense work.
It's not like this offense has been very good. They can't run the ball, they haven't had over three yards a carry in the last two games, so this offense is really predicated on Jaren Hall being who he is — making smart decisions and pushing it when he needs to. He's been, by far, BYU's best player all year.
BYU has guys missing on both sides of the ball. Who are the most notable names that won't be available this weekend?
BYU does a really good job of not telling anybody anything about injuries, so I don't think anyone has been officially ruled out, per se. The names I would look out for in the receiving corps are Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney. Puka Nacua hasn't played in the last two weeks, and he had an ankle injury in the first game of the season that has kind of hampered him. Kalani Sitake spoke to us (Monday morning), and he feels there's a chance he can play, but then again, he's said that for the last two weeks. Gunner Romney hasn't played at all this year, so we will see about him.
On the defensive side, Tyler Batty and Earl Tuioti-Mariner are the defensive ends that didn't play last week. It showed, and there was just not a lot of pressure on the quarterback. The depth there at that position has been a little sketchy for BYU. As of right now, they're both probable to play on Saturday, and their injuries don't seem to be as significant as the wide receiver corps.
What would you say is the Cougars' strength and weakness on the defensive side of the ball?
The strength is definitely the linebacker corps. You look at guys like Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili and Ben Bywater, they're probably the best players on the defensive side for BYU. Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili, barring injuries, are projected to be NFL players, and they played really well against Baylor. It was a big step back for that group against Oregon. The speed of Oregon, I think, really affected them, so that's something to look out for, but the strength of this team is still the linebacker corps.
As far as the issues, traditionally, people around the program have said the concern has been the secondary. Is there speed, and can they match up? But the secondary hasn't been the worst part about it. I think it's just been the tackling. It was a really bad tackling performance against Oregon, and then the second part is pressure on the quarterback. BYU has been really up and down, and it's really hard to say right now who this defense really is.
Against Baylor, you have a team that has four sacks and holds Baylor to 2.9 yards per carry. Then, against Oregon, they were averaging five yards a rush, 16 yards a completion, and, at one point, eight yards a snap. It's really tough right now to say who this defense is, and honestly, Wyoming is a big test for BYU to establish a baseline of what this team is through the first month of the year.
What is your prediction for Saturday?
For BYU, this is an interesting game. I tend to think for a prediction, BYU does win this game. I think it's a game where BYU can kind of recalibrate a little bit. You look at the first three weeks of the season, they traveled to South Florida, then they go to Oregon and they play Baylor. It's been a gauntlet of a year.
Wyoming is not an easy opponent for BYU by any metric, but at the same time, I think playing at home again and getting some guys back ... it's one of those games where BYU can kind of recalibrate. That's why I say BYU likely wins against Wyoming this weekend.
Josh Criswell covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @criswell_sports.