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Know Your Enemy: Previewing BYU's Stormin' Mormon Offense

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To earn a bowl berth we need to figure out how to stop one of the biggest, fastest offenses in the nation. Hold onto your butts.

After losing the Varsity Cup Championship to Jack Clark and the Bears, Paul Lasike will be looking for vengeance against Cal.
After losing the Varsity Cup Championship to Jack Clark and the Bears, Paul Lasike will be looking for vengeance against Cal.
Jay Drowns/Getty Images

All season long I had been hoping it would not come to this: a bowl game on the line with BYU coming to town.  Before the start of the season I expected BYU to win 10 regular season games behind the legs of QB Taysom Hill.  Hill's broken leg derailed the Cougars for several games, but BYU has found a groove with backup QB Christian Stewart at the helm.  They may pass more now than they did when Hill was running the offense, but this is still a tough, physical offense.  In fact, this may be the biggest, most physical offense we will face all season.  This is not a team to take lightly.  If we expect to cruise to a bowl berth with an easy victory this weekend, we will get steamrolled.

Robert Anae coordinates the BYU offense and is in his second stint as OC after spending 2005-10 with the Cougars.  Anae originally left BYU to serve as RichRod's run game coordinator at Arizona.  Since returning to BYU in 2013 Anae has run an explosive, uptempo offense.  One of the 2013 team's struggles was with three-and-outs.  As we saw last year, an uptempo offense that goes three-and-out means that the defense gets worn down more quickly.  In 2013 BYU was good at generating explosive plays, but could not always make play-sustaining drives to keep moving the chains down the field.  This season BYU has moved the ball more consistently and the offense has improved notably as a result (scoring is up 5.4 points per game).

BYU's biggest issue on offense this year has been injuries.  Heisman dark horse candidate QB Taysom Hill broke his leg during Week 5, leading rusher Jamaal Williams injured his knee a few weeks ago and will miss the rest of the season, third-leading WR Colby Pearson suffered a season-ending broken collarbone two weeks ago, senior right guard Brock Stringham retired in September, and promising 4-star JC-transfer WR Nick Kurtz has never played this season after suffering a preseason foot injury.  This will be the Cougs' first game against a team with a pulse since losing Pearson and Williams.  They dominated 10-loss UNLV and FCS team Savannah State, but will the personnel losses hamper their offense when facing us?

Rushing

Prior to Taysom Hill's injury, BYU was a run-first offense that ran on 61.8% of plays.  Hill was a major component of the running game and averaged about 20 carries per game.  The number of running plays is down to 51.5%, and that is due to fewer carries for QB Christian Stewart, who runs about 8-9 times per game.  Fortunately for the Cougs, Stewart is a better passer than Hill.  We'll get to that in a little bit, however.  First, let's see how BYU runs the ball.


Scheme

BYU has a unique running game.  They hit hard with big backs and fullbacks as lead blockers, but they employ concepts typically associated with spread teams.  They will run inside zone read, outside zone read, and wildcat.  What's particularly unusual is that they frequently use fullbacks as lead blockers in their zone read.  We haven't seen much of this so far this season.  The running backs are big and physical and they like using fullbacks in short-yardage situations.  We cannot afford to let this team get into third-and-short.

Power Running

First let's look at some traditional, between-the-tackles running.  BYU lines up with three wide receivers and 20 personnel, 2 backs and 0 tight ends. BYU motions the fullback towards the field side (bottom) and snaps the ball while he's still in motion.

BYU pulls the left tackle (although he doesn't end up blocking anyone) to help clean up the middle while the right tackle and fullback displace the strongside defensive end and safety to help pave a wide lane for the running back.

Someone in the middle of the line blows his assignment (this will be come a common theme), but the RB eludes the defender and picks up a 16-yard gain.

Now let's take a look at something a little more fun.

Power Inside Zone Read

BYU sends out three wide receivers and lines up with 20 personnel again. (I apologize about the Smurf Turf)

Oregon likes to run the triple option from this FB-QB-RB formation, but BYU will run an inside zone read.  Stewart will fake the handoff to his RB before keeping the ball.  Interestingly, BYU uses the FB as the lead blocker on this play for Stewart.

Stewart keeps the ball instead of handing off to his RB, who is quickly swallowed by a defender who blows through the O-line (again--this time the right guard missed the block).  Stewart heads outside for an easy TD.  It turns out he didn't even need his FB on this play.

BYU will also run a standard inside zone read.

Inside Zone Read

BYU lines up 3 WRs again but this time they swap the FB for a tight end.  The RB's position relative to the QB suggests that this could be an inside zone read.

By design, the QB is supposed to read an unblocked defender (either a DE or an outside linebacker) and determine whether to keep the ball or hand off to his RB.

BYU doesn't leave anyone unblocked...except for someone who blows through the middle of the line (AGAIN).  Stewart uses some excellent situational awareness to turn the LB's momentum against him by stopping and cutting back up towards the endzone.

That right A-gap is looking awfully porous on the BYU line...

Triple Option

BYU will also run a triple option.  They line up 3 WRs with 20 personnel.

Instead of handing off to his RB Algernon Brown, Stewart keeps the ball and runs the option with his fullback Paul Lasike..

No one is in a position to stop Lasike, so Stewart flips the ball over to him for an easy touchdown.

At 5'11" and 232 lbs, Paul Lasike is unstoppable at the goal line.  As we have seen, BYU uses its fullbacks liberally, as blockers or ball carriers.

Now let's meet the members of the Stormin' Mormon running game.

Stats/Personnel

BYU is productive on the ground but their efficiency is merely average.

  • 198.09 yards per game (37th)
  • 4.48 yards per carry (58th)

Before we get into the individual stats, here is a visualization of the depth chart on offense, helpfully provided by LoyalCougars.com.  Players whose names are red are injured.

The Cougars' top two rushers are both injured.  Instead of Williams and Hill, we will see a steady combination of Nate Carter, Algernon Brown, Christian Stewart, and Paul "The Mountain" Lasike.

  • RB #21 Jamaal Williams [injured]: 57.2 yards per game, 4.68 yards per carry, 4 TDs
  • QB #4 Taysom Hill [injured]: 77.17 yards per game, 5.38 yards per carry, 8 TDs
  • RB #26 Nate Carter: 41.43 yards per game, 6.30 ypc, 1 TD
  • RB #23 Paul Lasike: 26.36 yards per game, 4.83 ypc, 4 TDs
  • RB #24 Algernon Brown: 29.57 yards per game, 5.43 ypc, 0 TDs
  • QB #7 Christian Stewart: 20.67 yards per game, 3.10 ypc, 4 TDs
  • Hill was team's leading rusher until he went down with injury.  Williams then became the leading rusher until he suffered a season-ending injury.  Now the Cougars use a committee of running backs.  No single back has stood out as the clear #1 back.  They have plenty of experience, however, as BYU returned its top-5 rushers from last season.  I have, however, been impressed by Nate Carter and Paul Lasike.  At 5'9, 181lbs, Carter is not a big back, but he's a physical, hard-hitting back.  He embraces contact and runs like a much heavier back.  Fullback Paul Lasike is a 5'11, 232lb monster of a back.  Lasike is a former New Zealand rugby player and he certainly runs like one.  He's a big, physical, attacking back who will steamroll any defender who dares to arm tackle him.  He needs to be gang-tackled before he gets a head of steam.  Once he gets going, he'll carry defenders down the field.  In addition to running the ball, Lasike will also catch passes out of the backfield.

    QB Christian Stewart is not nearly as good of a runner as injured QB Taysom Hill, but he's surprisingly elusive.  Backup RB Algernon Brown has impressive size (6'2", 229) but has not yet found the end zone this season.  We may also see RB Adam Hine (6'1", 208).  The former 4-star recruit has been inconsistent this season.

    The Cougars are running behind an experienced offensive line, although nearly 50 of the team's 89 returning starts are shared among four right tackles.  The line seemed to play musical chairs last season, yet it was reasonably productive.  The Cougars will start De'Ondrey Wesley (6'7, 330) at right tackle.  The JC transfer has started every game he has played at BYU.  Next to him is RG Brayden Kearsey (6'4, 330), who is filling in at a position that has seen plenty of turnover due to injuries.  The weak link on the offensive line is true freshman center Tejan Coroma (6'0, 280).  Kyle Johnson (6'4, 303) has moved from right tackle to left guard.  Finally we have another converted right tackle Ryker Mathews (6'6, 320) at left tackle.  He's replacing injured true freshman Ului Lapuhao.

    Passing

    BYU will incorporate uptempo elements into both its running game and passing game.  They like to push the tempo after negative yardage plays and incompletions.

    Scheme

    The BYU passing game reminds me of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense.  It relies on quick, easy passes for QB Christian Stewart.  Unlike the offenses we recently faced against USC and Stanford, this is offense should not be as well equipped to exploit our poor pass rush.  Stewart won't be throwing long bombs downfield all day, but Air Raid pass plays have certainly worked against our defense this season.

    Zone Read + Pass Concepts

    BYU lines up wth 11 personnel and RB Algernon Brown is directly next to QB Christian Stewart in a formation that suggests outside zone read.

    Instead BYU will opt to pass to the tight end.  We've faced many teams whose QB reads an outside linebacker or safety to determine whether to hand the ball off or pass.  BYU will use this same concept, although the play below is a designed pass (you can tell by the blocking by the O-line).

    The defensive end nearly gets past the left tackle, but some blatant holding directly in front of the ref goes uncalled.  That sounds familiar.

    If I sound a bit salty it's because I am.  Last week's refereeing was an embarrassment to the conference and an embarrassment to the game of football.

    I think there's some confusion among the interior of the BYU O-line (surprise!), as the middle linebacker goes untouched into the backfield.  Fortunately the RB manages to slow him down enough to prevent a safety.  The tight end is wide open and picks up about 15 yards to move BYU away from its own end zone.

    Covering that 6'6, 251 lb TE Devin Mahina could be tricky...

    Air Raid: Four Verts

    Four verts is a staple play of the Air Raid.  As the name implies, the play sends four receivers downfield.  If a WR gets separation from his DB, the QB will throw a back-shoulder pass.  Otherwise he will throw a curl.  The QB must deliver a strike on the curl pass, otherwise the DB will have an easy pick-six.

    BYU has 3rd and long and lines up four WRs and 1 RB in the backfield.

    Everyone but the field side outside receiver runs a go route.  The field side outside WR runs a (designed, by the looks of it) curl.  Once the RB determines that he does not need to stay inside for pass protection, he moves into the middle of the field for an easy 2-yard gain in case all the other receivers are covered.

    Stewart delivers the ball to Mitch Mathews, who converts the third down and picks up an extra ten yards.

    In our next play, BYU faces third and long again.  This time they use an unbalanced formation with three WRs on the field side and one on the boundary side.  Once again they will send four WRs deep downfield, but this is not a true four verts play.

    The top two WRs run intersecting routes, with one running a curl and the other running deep.  The other two WRs run go routes.  Once again, the back will slip into the open space created by the WRs' deep routes.  Because this is 3rd and 19, Middle Tennessee State allows Paul Lasike to sit in the shallow hole.

    Ordinarily the defense would be safe to bet that the back would not pick up 15 yards after the catch and convert the third down, but this is 232lb rugby player Paul Lasike.

    Surprisingly Lasike is slowed by the safety, which allows the other DBs to swarm him and stop him short of the first down marker.

    Another third down, another set of routes that are designed for easy completions for Stewart.  BYU has 11 personnel with 2 WRs on the field side and a TE and WR on the boundary side.

    The field side outside receiver runs a go route, the inside receiver runs a quick out, the TE runs a curl, and the boundary side WR runs a dig route.  The RB runs a slant to serve as a safety valve for Stewart.  The intersections of shallow routes and deeper routes creates holes in zone defenses and possible confusion in man defense.

    Stewart delivers a pass to his TE, but could have also converted the first down with a pass to the out route, dig route, or slant route.  Praise be to the Air Raid.

    Next we'll look at another staple of the Air Raid.  Wazzu runs this many, many times per game (and for good reason).

    Air Raid: Mesh

    The key routes here are the shallow crossing routes, which create the mesh.  Once again, this exploits seams in zone defense and creates traffic among defenders in man coverage.  This play works best when the defenders in man coverage run into each other (which is not an infrequent occurrence).

    The pocket breaks down just as the inside receivers mesh, so Stewart rolls out and delivers a pass to Jordan Leslie.

    Stewart is a very capable passer on the run.  If we flush him from the pocket we need to bring him down before he gets a chance to pass the ball (lol).

    We should be pretty well equipped to stop BYU's passing game.  We've seen plenty of Air Raid this year and we did a decent enough job stopping it last time, right?  Oh.  Maybe not.

    Stats/Personnel

    Like the BYU running game, the BYU passing game is moderately productive but merely average in its yards-per-play production.

    • 257.4 yards per game (43rd)
    • 7.2 yards per attempt (59th)
    • 137.47 QB efficiency rating (46th)

    Losing Taysom Hill was not as big of a blow to the passing game as it was to the rushing game.  Hill is a slightly more efficient QB than Stewart, but his major advantage was that the defense always had to respect the run with Taysom as QB.  Now we can be less concerned that the BYU offense will run four verts on 3rd and 12, which opens the field for an easy 15-yard Hill scramble.

    • QB #8 Christian Stewart: 203.2 yards per game, 58.2% completions, 7.0 yards per attempt, 134.77 QB efficiency
    • QB #4 Taysom Hill [injured] : 162.5 yards per game, 66.% completions, 7.4 yards per attempt, 141.66 QB efficiency

    Former walk-on Christian Stewart is a better passer than Hill, but he can be streaky.  He had a tendency to throw turnovers when he first took over the job.  He threw three interceptions in his first game and has had only two since, with none occurring in the past month.  Stewart has steadily improved all season.  As he has gained experience, he has put better touch on his passes and is becoming better at reading through his progressions.  He has good patience and does not panic if his first read is covered.

    BYU faced a challenge this season in replacing 3 of its top 4 receivers, who tallied 1,676 yards.  This year the receiving game is anchored by Mitch Mathews and Jordan Leslie, who have combined for 112 of the team's 242 receptions.  Paul Lasike is third in receptions.

    • WR #10 Mitch Mathews: 72.8 yards per game, 12.71 yards per reception, 8 TDs
    • WR #9 Jordan Leslie: 54.6 yards per game, 12.27 yards per reception, 3 TDs
    • WR #3 Colby Pearson [injured]: 30.0 yards per game, 16.88 yards per reception, 3 TDs
    • RB #33 Paul Lasike: 19.0 yards per game, 9.50 yards per reception, 3 TDs
    • TE #84 Devin Mahina: 17.3 yards per game, 10.56 yards per reception, 3 TDs

    If the 232lb Paul Lasike doesn't have you sufficiently worried, BYU's size at WR will no doubt rustle your jimmies.  Their top two WRs and three of the top four WRs are 6'3 or taller.  Mitch Mathews is a towering 6'6" and 215 lbs.  He is the team's leading receiver and the team struggled to replace him last year when he went down with injury.  He's a tall possession receiver who runs good routes.  He will not burn opposing DBs downfield, but he will easily win jump-ball receptions in the end zone or on the sidelines.  With four 100-yard games, he is BYU's most productive receiver

    UTEP graduate transfer Jordan Leslie (6'3", 215 lbs) made an immediate impact on the team after leading the Miners in receiving the past two years.  With an average of 16.7 yards per catch at UTEP, he demonstrated that he could stretch the field.  But he has not produced quite as impressive of an average this year, likely due to BYU's Air Raid-heavy scheme.

    BYU's third-leading receiver Colby Pearson will miss the rest of the season with a broken collarbone.  Wide receiver Mitchell Juergens tends to play in the slot.  He has good hands and run good routes.  6'6" tight end Devin Mahina should also be a nuisance for our DBs.

    Miscellaneous

    And now for the mashed potatoes, yams, cranberries, and bread to supplement our turkey and stuffing (yes, I elevated stuffing to the same level as turkey because it is the best of all the Thanksgiving sides).

    Total Offense

    Again, the yards per play number isn't that great due to the large number of plays BYU runs.  But what counts is what's on the scoreboard and BYU is quite good at lighting up the scoreboard.

    • 35.6 points per game (25th)
    • 455.5 yards per game (30th)
    • 5.69 yards per game (58th)

    It's a bit ironic that BYU averages slightly fewer yards per play this year, but puts up 5.4 more points per game.

    Conversions

    However, that statistic can easily be explained by an offense that is among the best in the nation in the red zone.

    • 44.19% third down conversions (36th)
    • 71.70% red zone TD conversions (12th)

    BYU has shown remarkable improvement on red zone offense.  They only converted 48% of red zone trips into touchdowns last year.  They improved that by nearly 50% this year.  They've improved as the season has gone on and have scored 20 TDs in their last 23 red zone visits.  While solid, their third down conversion numbers have stayed roughly the same over the course of the season.

    Negative Yardage

    Finally, something to generate some optimism!

    • 21 turnovers (90th)
    • 80.4 penalty yards per game (124th)
    • 2.82 sacks allowed per game (107th)
    • 5.46 tackles for loss allowed per game (53rd)

    BYU turns the ball over frequently, gives up large numbers of sacks, and gets penalized frequently.  If they thought their penalty numbers were high before, wait until they meet the Pac-12 refs.

    Clock Management

    Our depth on defense will be tested on Saturday.

    • 28:02.64 average time of possession (109th)
    • 80.09 plays per game
    • 21.01 seconds per play (FAST, faster than Oregon)

    BYU runs large numbers of plays and they run those plays very, very quickly.  A natural side-effect of these uptempo offenses is a low time of possession.  Our defense will be strained and stressed, but at least it won't be on the field for 35+ minutes..

    Conclusions

    Despite missing several key contributors, this BYU offense is formidable.  It's an uptempo spread offense that likes running with great physicality.  They run inside zone read, outside zone read, and several option variants.  Although it's unconventional, they like to use fullbacks as lead blockers in some of these plays.  No single runner has stood out and we will see runs from several running backs, fullbacks, and the QB.  To stop BYU's running game the Bears will need to swarm BYU's big backs at the point of attack, especially when Lasike has the ball.  BYU's passing game is similar to the Air Raid.  They spread the field and set up easy completions for QB Christian Stewart.  Like many Air Raid schemes, theirs is designed to stress the defense both horizontally and vertically by using combinations of deep and shallow routes and intersecting routes.  Disguising coverage against the inexperienced QB and disrupting BYU's timing with press coverage could force the BYU passing game to make mistakes.  BYU will move the ball very quickly, especially if they put themselves behind the chains with negative yardage plays and incompletions.  Saturday's forecast calls for rain and BYU would have no problem running the ball 60 times and trying to grind out a victory on the ground.

    A Giving of Thanks

    I would love to write one more of these posts this season, but in case the season ends on Saturday, I would like to thank each and every one of you who reads and comments on these posts.  Previewing these offenses all season has been hard work, but quite enjoyable due to the variety of interesting offenses we face in the Pac-12.  Our struggles on defense have made these a bit more frightening to write, but I've been happy to put all this material together week after week.  If you've learned half as much about the opposing offenses as I have, I will consider these previews a rousing success.  Thanks again and Go Bears!  I hope to see you again for one more preview in December.