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Evaluating BYU's 'soft' run defense, a bottom-10 unit nationally, before facing No. 14 Boise State

(Colter Peterson, KSL)

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PROVO — They all know it: the players, the coaches, the fans, the media.

BYU football’s run defense through the first six games of the 2019 season has been abysmal. Awful.

It stinks.

The Cougars (2-4) rank 123rd nationally in rush defense — the seventh-worst mark in the Football Bowl Subdivision — averaging 4.79 yards-against per carry, and 224.5 yards per game. For comparison’s sake, that’s a mark close to the same level as Colorado State, Kansas, Louisiana-Monroe and Charlotte.


It’s one of the many changes BYU coach Kalani Sitake readily admits in the "needs to be better" column coming off the 27-23 loss to South Florida and looking ahead to Saturday night’s home game against No. 14 Boise State (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN2).

"We’re getting things done this week, with the thought of performing better than we have the past two weeks," Sitake said Monday during his weekly press conference. "We’re not performing well, so that’s on me."

Whether by individual effort or collective schemes, play-calling or situational drills, the Cougars have an idea what can be done to fix — or at least, alleviate — what was once a staunch run defense, according to BYU defensive end Bracken El-Bakri. In four seasons under Sitake, BYU has steadily dropped in defensive line production, dropping from a top-15 team nationally in rush yards per game and rush yards per carry in 2016, to 44th and 30th in 2017, 27th and 29th in 2018, and finally 123rd and 101st, respectively, in 2019.

Injuries don’t help the situation; among the Cougars’ more prominent injuries is linebacker Zayne Anderson, the flash linebacker who provided immense cover in run defense.

But that’s only a small part of the greater problem, and the root issue comes down to individual play, El-Bakri explained.

"We need to win some individual battles," the honest 6-foot-3, 290-pound junior said. "It’s hard to coordinate something when you need people to win individual battles, and we need to do that as a defense. I would definitely say we’re emotionally frustrated — but that’s not a bad thing. Playing as a frustrated, angry defense can be a positive thing in this game."

In defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s 4-3 scheme, a lot of the onus of stopping the run falls on that defensive line — and El-Bakri, Khyiris Tonga, Zac Dawe and Trajan Pili (among others) have had their own successes and failures in that area, by multiple admissions.

But the next level has a responsibility, too.

"As a linebacker, that’s what your job is: to read the gaps and shoot them," said linebacker Chaz Ah You, the former Timpview safety who took over as starting flash linebacker in Anderson's injury. "As linebackers, if you’re not doing that, then they’re going to get those extra yards. We’ve got to play more on our toes, ready to play downhill. We can’t wait for them to come to us; that’s how they get five yards, break a tackle, and it ends up being 25 more. We need to come up and meet them at the line of scrimmage more."

A lot of it, quite frankly, comes down to practice, he added.

"In practice, we try to play it safe. No one is really tackling across the nation during practice, but we need to practice being more physical," Ah You said. "We play really soft against the run, as you’ve seen in the past games, and that’s because of the way we practice.

"We kind of just run off and do a little two-hand touch in practice, when we should be getting our chest and everything into it. I feel like just that mindset and that practice, having it during the week, would help a lot on Saturdays."

The Broncos (6-0) averaged 166.5 rushing yards per game, the 66th-best mark nationally. Led by Robert Mahone and George Holani, who have 375 yards and 366 yards, respectively, in the first six games with six total touchdowns, Boise State’s run game is a heavy complement to the pass-heavy quarterbacks Hank Bachemeier and Chase Cord.

Will BYU’s improved run defense come as early as this week?

That’s for each individual player to decide — and the collective defense to subscribe.

"It’s always the role of the player to look first at one’s self and how to improve. But it’s less about a responsibility as playing as a unit," El-Bakri said. "Every yard they gain is against us — no matter if I’m there, or on the far side of the field. We’re a defense, and we need to understand that, and play like that."

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