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Previewing the BYU defense

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If Cal can score enough points against the Cougars, then this won't be the final opponent preview of the year!

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

BYU is led, of course, by the defensive-minded Bronco Mendenhall. However, Mendenhall has recently conceded majority control of the defensive over to coordinator Nick Howell, who as far as I can tell has done a good job. Mendenhall took back play-calling duties for one game . . . and that game was against Boise St., in which BYU allowed 55 points. Needless to say, Howell was given play-calling power back immediately.

Mendenhall is perhaps best known for helping to pioneer the 3-3-5 formation while coaching with Rocky Long at New Mexico. However, he's made the switch to a more traditional 3-4 defense as a base. Against Cal? You always expect to see 5 defensive backs against our Bears, so a move back to the 3-3-5 wouldn't be surprising.

In terms of trying to predict BYU, the good news is that we now have 11 games of data to analyze! To the extent that college football is ever predictable, this game should be it!

The bad news is that BYU, by its nature as an independent, plays a weird schedule full of random teams. The Cougars have only played two games against Power 5 teams, but won both games. They have played four games against Mountain West teams, and went 1-3. When the best team you play is either post-Chris Petersen Boise St. or Utah St., you're going to be a tough team to evaluate properly. Believe it or not, but Cal is probably the best offense BYU has faced all year.

To add to the confusion, BYU has one of the deepest defenses in terms of meaningful player participation I have ever seen. Cal played a ton of different guys on defense out of injury and desperation (21 different Cal defenders have received at least one start!!!). BYU has done so . . . well, I'm not entirely sure why. I suspect it's just a matter of philosophy. Because they have the depth? Because they have played a bunch of bad teams and wanted to build depth? Dunno.

Since we don't play BYU every year, and since 2013 stats are almost completely irrelevant, I've removed them from this preview. It's interesting to talk about how Stanford has changed from year to year, but less so for BYU.

Starters

Left DE: Jr. Graham Rowley ; NT: So. Travis Tuiloma ; Right DE: Jr. Remington Peck OR Jr. Logan Taele

The good news is that BYU doesn't have one obvious impact player on the defensive line. The bad news is that they are loaded up on quality options. Every player on the two deep has appeared in nearly every game. Individually, nobody has more than 19 tackles and a handful of tackles for loss. Collectively, they appear to be solid. To be fair, I'm assuming solidity based upon BYU's solid run defense stats.

As you would expect, a few of these guys have been on missions and are pretty old despite none of them being seniors. There's decent size all around, but the upside here is that there isn't a single player that demands a double team. BYU is going to have to send linebackers to get to Goff. They will send linebackers, because this is a 3-4 defense and that's what 3-4 defenses do.

SLB: Sr. Alani Fua ; MLB: Sr. Zac Stout OR So. Harvey Langi; BLB: Jr. Manoa Pikula ; WLB Jr. Bronson Kaufusi

Stout has 60 tackles to lead the team, while Langi has 11, so I find it a bit odd that they are listed as co-starters. I would expect to see Stout more frequently, mostly because he has an ideal name. That's also a good reason to expect plenty of Bronson (Kaufusi), although his team-leading 6 sacks from the outside are probably a better reason.

Alani Fua is the other sack threat, although his 3 doesn't inspire a ton of fear even though that puts him tied for 2nd on the team. BYU only averages 2 sacks/game, which is average for a normal team but below average when you consider their schedule.

Just like the defensive line, expect heavy rotation amongst the linebackers. Again, every member of the two-deep has seen significant playing time. I always have trouble deciding whether that means BYU is lacking in big-time playmakers that demand to be on the field for as many snaps as possible, or if it means that BYU is stocked with many players capable of starting. I'm leaning towards the former, but willing to consider being wrong.

FCB: Sr. Robertson Daniel ; FS: Sr. Craig Bills ; KAT: So. Kai Nacua ; BCB: Fr. Jordan Preator

For the record, the KAT position is just a strong safety, but presumably named so that it's COUGAR STYLE or something. Regardless, and stop me if you've heard this before, but this is another group that will see rotation. Skye Povey is a walk-on, back-up free safety who also is 2nd on the team in tackles, which is weird for a player technical considered to be a back-up. Back-up KAT Dallin Leavitt also has more tackles than the nominal starter, Kai Nacua. Maybe the starters are better at preventing guys from catching the ball in the first place, although their combined 5 pass break-ups indicate that might not be the case.

At corner, starters Daniel and Preator will rotate with sophomore Michael Davis. None of the three have put up numbers indicating that they are ball-hawks (a combined 2 interceptions and 23 pass break-ups) particularly when you consider the amount of passes BYU has faced this year. More on that below.

Season So Far

4.5 yards allowed/play in a 35-10 win over UConn
3.9 yards allowed/play in a 41-7 win over Texas
4.9 yards allowed/play in a 35-25 win over Houston
5.1 yards allowed/play in a 41-33 win over Virginia
6.4 yards allowed/play in a 35-20 loss to Utah St.
4.6 yards allowed/play in a 31-24 loss to Central Florida (OT)
5.4 yards allowed/play in a 42-35 loss to Nevada
8.1 yards allowed/play in a 55-30 loss to Boise St.
3.3 yards allowed/play in a 27-7 win over Middle Tennessee
4.5 yards allowed/play in a 42-23 win over UNLV
1.0 yards allowed/play in a 64-0 win over Savannah St.

Impressively, the collection of offenses faced by BYU ranked as the 112th weakest in the nation according to FEI. In case you were curious, Cal's offense is ranked 38th in the F/+ combined national rankings. If you believe in those sorts of stats, Cal is literally the best offense BYU has faced all year long, with Boise St. really being the only team anywhere near Cal in the standings. You will then note that BYU allowed 55 points and  8.1 yards/play to the Broncos, and you will feel confident that Cal can score points.

You will also note that Utah St. was really the only offense that had a reasonably decent day. Everybody else struggled pretty badly against BYU. Is that because pretty much every other team BYU has played has a bad offense? Yes, yes it is. Is it also possible that BYU has an OK defense that merely failed to show up against the only good offense on its schedule? I guess, although I don't think I'd bet on that.

Also, Savannah St. is a winless FCS team, in case you were wondering about a team that managed 63 total yards against the Cougars. Please note that all stats quoted below remove Savannah St.'s stats from the calculation, for obvious reasons.

Against the pass

2014: 6.7 yards/attempt allowed, 35th in the country

BYU has faced 443 pass attempts this year. Only five teams in the nation have faced more. Are you curious which team has faced the most passes in the nation? Why, the University of California, of course! Cal faces a ton of passes because they have a pass defense that is woeful and an offense that requires teams to continue scoring. BYU has faced a ton of passes likely because teams just haven't been able to run the ball with any effectiveness. That plus the fact that BYU has put up decent leads in a few games, forcing teams to throw to catch up.

So we know this is a passing defense prepared to face lots of drop backs. But are they prepared to face lots of drop backs against a GOOD passing offense? BYU has managed just 10 interceptions and 24 sacks despite facing so many passes. Recording an interception on 2% of passes attempted and a sack on 5% of drop backs is pretty bad. Now they will be facing an offense that is very interception averse and (surprised though you may be) actually pretty good at avoiding sacks.

Goff should have time, and he should have players open on most plays. The stage is set for an excellent regular-season ending performance.

Against the run

2014: 3.3 yards/attempt allowed, 15th in the country

Now, here's where we might start to worry. That's an impressive number, almost no matter the competition. Not surprisingly, BYU hasn't faced a ton of rush attempts. It will be interesting to see just how aggressive BYU's linebackers and safeties are in run support against the best pass defense they have faced all year long.

Advanced stats

2014 S&P: 59th in the country

S&P more or less mirrors the stats above, with the obvious schedule strength adjustment. The Cougars are 45th against the rush and 78th against the pass. In case you were curious, that passing defense rank roughly matches Washington St. I think that's a little off, but would love for it to ring true on Saturday.

Note that S&P has recently added Havoc numbers to their displayed data, but please for the love of God DON'T LOOK AT CAL'S RANKINGS. BYU's havoc numbers are roughly middle of the pack despite a weak schedule, which indicates that they are more of a bend-but-don't-break style defense this year. The numbers mostly bear this out, as you'll see in the FEI section below.

2014 FEI: 61st in the country

For the nth week in a row Cal will face a defense that is more vulnerable to long, deliberate drives that they are to explosive plays one way or the other. The good news is that both cases the vulnerabilities are more pronounced that the same vulnerabilities of, say, Stanford and USC.

Turnovers

2014: 17 forced turnovers (9 interceptions, 8 fumbles), 54th in the country

As noted above, very weak considering the offenses based. The lack of front seven havoc likely has something to do with it. Considering that, like, 80% of Jared Goff interceptions come from batted balls, I would simply pray to whichever deity you prefer that his passed aren't deflected. Or that if they are deflected, they DON'T FALL RIGHT INTO THE CHEST OF A DEFENDER GAH WHY US?!?

Conclusions

Woe upon last week, for yea there was much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Losing back-to-back against USC and Stanford LIKE THAT tends to lead to such angst. One topic of angst: The perception that Cal's offense has regressed as the season went along.

Of course, it was also pointed out that Cal has faced a much higher quality of defense in the 2nd half of the season. How much higher?

F/+ defense rankings:

Northwestern: 43
Sac St. [VOID FCS]
Arizona: 42
Colorado: 90
Washington St.: 98
Washington: 46
UCLA: 33
Oregon: 27
Oregon St.: 77
USC: 34
Stanford: 12
BYU: 62

The four best defenses Cal has faced this year have all come in the last five games. The Bears have faced only once truly poor defense in the 2nd half. Not coincidentally, Cal mixed in a solid offensive game against that crummy OSU defense. Is it a bummer that Cal's best offensive performance relative to the quality of the defense was probably in game 3 against Arizona? Yes. And I think it's fair to say that Cal's offense hasn't improved much as the season has gone along (or, perhaps, it has improved at the same rate as opposing defenses have improved over the course of the season).

But has the offense regressed? I say no. I say that the Cal offense started the season more or less fully formed, with returning players at almost every position, and has performed at a very consistent level for most of the year, with a few exceptions (Really good: Arizona! Really bad: Washington!).

But if this offense doesn't produce enough yards and points to beat BYU and secure a bowl, then talk of regression will have significantly more substance to it. This is a game Cal has to win in part because they need it to secure a bowl, 15 more practice days, and positive feelings heading into the off-season. This is also a game Cal has to win because Cal is the better team, playing at home.

And that's not homer-me speaking. If you've read my previews all year long you know I tend towards caution and pessimism. Not this week. BYU should not be able to get pressure against Cal without blitzing, and even then I don't expect them to get to Goff with any consistency. Maybe Cal will struggle to run the ball, but I don't think this is a game Cal NEEDS to run the ball.

I don't even care what Cal's defense might allow. This is a team we should outscore regardless. Should, should, should. A dangerous word, but true.