SALT LAKE CITY — Coming off consecutive losses to LSU and rival Utah, Brigham Young University hosts Wisconsin on Saturday in what will be its third-straight Power 5 opponent and second Top 15-ranked opponent it has played during the last three weeks.
The Cougars, who turned the ball over three times and managed just 63 rushing yards against Utah, face another stout defense this week in Wisconsin. After finishing fourth in team defense last season, the Badgers retained much of their defensive depth, returning 22 of 30 defenders that lettered in 2016.
The experienced unit is off to a strong start, yielding only 12 points and 12.5 first downs per game — good enough for 14th in the country. On the season, Wisconsin’s defense has not only been stingy on third down, allowing opponents to convert a mere 23 percent (7-30) of their chances, but also in the red zone, limiting teams to a 50 percent conversion rate on just six trips inside their 20-yard line.
“I think it’s a really disciplined defense,” said Jason Galloway, Wisconsin beat writer for The Madison Journal. “Their front seven is one of the better ones in the country. They lost T.J. Watt and Vince Beigel, two guys who are in the NFL right now. … I think they’ve got enough depth at the linebacker position where they still have guys that can make a lot (of) plays. … It’s a really experienced and really talented front seven.”
Following another poor outing from BYU’s offense on Saturday, head coach Kalani Sitake indicated that changes could be made to that side of the ball, a warning that appeared to be directed at his starting quarterback Tanner Mangum. At his press conference Monday, Sitake offered this quote in response to a question about potential changes: “Everything is open. Competition is always open. Nothing is set in stone. Everything has to be competitive, and we always play the best guys.
“And depending on the opponent, the speed of Wisconsin, and depending on injuries and all this other stuff that works into football, we will compete and the best guys will play.”
Mangum limped off the field Saturday after injuring his left ankle on the Cougars’ final offensive play. No official update has been given on the status of Mangum, but in the event he is unable to suit up on Saturday, the Cougars would likely turn to sophomore backup Beau Hoge, who saw limited playing time during his freshman season in 2015.
“They’re not going to have a whole lot of film on Beau Hoge if he ends up playing, so that’s a bit of an unknown,” Galloway said. “This defense has been a little bit surprised at some of the stuff offenses have thrown at them. Utah State came out in the first game and threw a bunch of stuff at them that they hadn’t shown in the past to try and throw off Wisconsin, and I think FAU did a little bit of the same too.
"I think they’re going to be more focused on what they do. In most situations, they feel like if they do what they do well and they play their game, then they’ll be able to contain any offense.”
Defensively, the Cougars will have their hands full with Wisconsin’s run game, specifically in limiting running back Jonathan Taylor. Through two games, Taylor has been sensational, rushing for 310 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 8.86 yards per carry.
Conversely, the Cougars’ run defense has been uneven. After surrendering 296 rushing yards to LSU, BYU responded last week by holding Utah to 116 yards on the ground — most of which was generated by the mobility of Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley.
For his part, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst has been “impressed” by the Cougars’ defense in watching their three games. Much like his own group, Chryst sees an experienced unit when he looks at the Cougars’ defense.
“The one thing that sticks out to me is it’s a front seven of juniors and seniors,” Chryst said. “And they’ve got a good system and they understand it.”
Wisconsin will make its first-ever journey to LaVell Edwards Stadium when it plays its first road game of the season in Provo on Saturday.
When asked if he was preparing his team for the high elevation, Chryst said, “You’ve got to focus on all the things that you can control,” adding, “You can’t simulate it.”
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