Defense leading the way for BYU football

Ari Davis
Butch Pau’u, left, and Micah Hanneman tackle a UMass player. The Cougars shut out the Minutemen in the final two quarters. (Ari Davis)

The BYU football team shellacked the UMass Minutemen 51-9 on Nov. 19. It marked the highest point total since the Cougars took on Toledo on Sept. 30. The game was the second of three-straight November home games for BYU and was a matchup between two FBS Independents.

Still, things didn’t start well for the Cougars. BYU spent a good portion of the first half trailing the Minutemen. But head coach Kalani Sitake wasn’t concerned.

“It wasn’t anything to panic about,” Sitake said. “The guys came in and they knew what they needed to get done. It wasn’t like they needed a fire lit or anything. They played well. If you evaluate the first half, we kind of screwed ourselves on some of those plays, as far as turnovers and penalties. So once we were able to settle down a bit and play our game, good things happened. Once things started going, they just kept rolling.”

“Good things” certainly did happen.

The Cougars exploded for 37 points in the final two quarters and shutout the Minutemen. Sophomore linebacker Francis Bernard, who had a 39-yard pick six in the victory, said it was all about energy.

“It was a matter of effort and waking up,” Bernard said. “We came out taking it not too seriously. As soon as coach gave us a pep talk during halftime, we were able to turn it around because we knew what we had to do.”

The Cougars were led by their defense in the game, picking off two passes and forcing five fumbles, while recovering two of them.

BYU has now forced 27 turnovers on the season, good for the No. 1 ranking in the nation. The Cougars are ranked No. 45 in total defense, No. 11 in red zone defense and No. 18 in scoring defense, allowing just 20.3 points per contest after giving up just 19 points in their last 12 quarters of play.

The defense has led the charge all season for the Cougars, with just one poor performance (Toledo) and an additional bad half (the opening half against Boise State). The ball-hawking Cougar defense has intercepted 18 passes this season and are adept at forcing opponents to make mistakes.

UMass linebacker Steve Casali said that’s what did the Minutemen in.

“Mistakes were the biggest thing,” Casali said. “You can’t make mistakes against a good time like BYU. If you make mistakes, they’re just going to build off that. That’s what helped them.”

Next up for the Cougars is a matchup with the in-state rival Utah State Aggies. Utah State is just 3-8 on the season and are 1-7 in Mountain West Conference play, but Bernard said the upcoming game, which will be a blackout at LaVell Edwards Stadium, is a big one.

“This will be one of the most exciting games we have ever played,” Bernard said. “Last Year when we played over there (in Logan), it was one of my favorite games. Any rivalry will get the fans, media and players going. I’m looking forward to playing in this game.”

BYU defeated the Aggies last season 51-28, but fell in 2014 35-20. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill has a checkered history against Utah State, suffering two season-ending injuries against the Aggies.

In 2014 Hill broke his left leg on a scramble and in 2012 he suffered a lateral collateral injury in his left knee. The Cougars are 4-2 against the Aggies since 2010 and BYU is looking to win its fourth-straight game to close out the 2016 season.

Sitake said his players are ready.

“I know coach (Matt) Wells and I know that program,” Sitake said. “They have done some great things, so we are honored to have them here at home and end the season with them. I just look forward to a great game. There is a lot of interest, especially in the state. I’m just really excited to play.”

The Cougars and Aggies kickoff on Saturday, Nov. 26 at 8:15 p.m. MST. It is BYU’s senior night and the game can be viewed on ESPNU.

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