OPPONENT PREVIEW: BYU Cougars

TCU (schedule, roster, stats) plays another Friday night game this week, this time against the BYU Cougars, freshly independent of the Mountain West Conference, Versus, CBS College Sports, and the mtn.

BYU’s story this season has two very different chapters. The first, scripted in the final games of 2010, is the story of quarterback Jake Heaps and his new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman trying to recapture the Cougar glory days with passing, passing, and more passing. Trying, and failing, that is.

Through five games, Heaps only could manage a 97.68 passing efficiency, while the team flailed around on the ground with JJ Di Luigi (43 yards per game), Bryan Kariya (27 ypg) and Josh Quezada (19 ypg). The passing game was decent in midfield, averaging 229 yards per game, 63rd nationally, but it was creating few scores. BYU averaged under 19 points per game, good for 106th nationally, through five games.

And so, trailing in Provo to Utah State, Bronco Mendenhall switched horses, opening BYU’s second chapter of the season. In went backup quarterback Riley Nelson, who promptly led the Cougars down the field and, with a lucky bounce, into the endzone to beat the Aggies. It’s been Nelson’s team since then

, and no wonder. He’s always been more popular in the locker room; on the field he’s a grittier player than Heaps.

Nelson hasn’t done any worse at passing than Heaps—BYU is, in fact, slightly better on average now, averaging 233 yards per game. (Compare: TCU averages 234 yards per game.) But Nelson is leading scoring drives; not just long drives (Nelson has a 175 passer rating; Pachall has a 165 passer rating). Riley Nelson plays quarterback similarly to how Brandon Doman played it in the early 2000s—he passes as a compliment to his running. He runs lots of draws, and runs them very well. He can take advantage with his arm of defenses that line up to stuff the run; the combination has proven very effective. BYU's scoring jumped from 18 points a game with Heaps starting, to 41 with Nelson starting. (Compare: TCU averages 44 ppg.) Granted—the level of competition was significantly lower; none of BYU’s six wins this season has come against a winning team; the three Nelson has started against are 7-15 so far this season.

Competition aside, another part of the story comes with a change in the supporting cast. The change is named is Michael Alisa; Alisa is a sophomore runningback, moved over from the defense this season. Doman told Alisa he’d get a few carries against San Jose State, "just to see" how he’d do. Alisa ran for 91 yards on 16 touches; he’s started ever since.

At 6-1, 215 lbs., Alisa isn’t a Wisconsin-sized bruiser; but he runs like one. He’s the first Cougar runner to fill, mostly, the role left vacant when Harvey Unga left the team a year early last season. Alisa eschews the comparison, however. "Harvey’s stronger, heavier and a fast, fast guy," said Alisa. "He’s got all the tools. If I ever get to his level, I’d be happy."

Alisa gets yards after contact; he falls forward; he’s dependable, in a word. He’s netting 5.2 yards per carry—again, against questionable competition—in the last three games this season, which are his first to get carries regularly.

Nelson and Alisa add 65 yards, on average, to the Cougars’ ground totals, per game. DiLuigi, Kariya, and Quezada still tally a respectable 92 between them. (Compare: TCU averages 217 rush ypg; BYU 159 rush ypg); but the added production with BYU’s new-look backfield has completely changed the character and outlook of the team. Since Nelson and Alisa have started BYU raised its conversion rate on third and fourth downs (combined) from 39% to an eye-popping 62%. (Compare: in all of 2011 to date, TCU converts just over 51% of third and fourth downs; BYU’s conversion rate to date is 49%.) Just as impressive: Nelson has not led the team to a three-and-out since taking over against Utah State. Mendenhall calls his team’s ability to prolong possessions "critical." It maintains momentum, the coach says.

When passing, the Cougars have spread the ball around a lot more than they used to; their go-to receiver, as much as they have one, is Cody Hoffman, who averages over four catches per game, almost twice the next prolific receiver in blue and white, Ross Apo (compare: Josh Boyce, TCU’s go-to receiver, averages over five per game). Hoffman is the receiver who gets BYU out of jams. "He is making so many plays in so many critical situations, it is fun to see," Mendenhall said.

TCU once feared BYU’s tight ends making critical plays over the middle; Austin Holt and Marcus Matthews will try and fill that role on Friday; but BYU’s passing game has not focused on tight ends like it used to. Holt and Matthews are fifth and sixth, respectively, on the team’s reception list, behind Hoffman, Apo, Jacobson, and slot back back JJ DiLuigi. Richard Wilson looked like he was going to emerge at tight end this season, but is out for the year with an injury.

Across the line of scrimmage, BYU is discovering it has depth on its line. "It is probably the deepest we have been at defensive line since I’ve been here," coach Bronco Mendenhall said. Starters Loni Fangupo and Romney Fuga both left the game two weeks ago with minor injuries, and were held out against Idaho State. Matt Putnam, freshly reinstated after getting his grades up, and Travis Tuiloma stepped in, and stepped up. TCU expects to face both Fangupo, a USC transfer, and Fuga, Friday.

BYU has used some very linebacker-heavy sets on defense, at times playing as many as five linebackers at a time. Outside linebackers Jordan Pendleton has 8.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks; Kyle Van Noy at the other side as six TFL and 3 sacks. Brandon Ogletree, inside, is the team leader on tackles, at 45.

The pass defense (51st nationally) does bend, but doesn’t break too often; it’s 19th in pass efficiency. (Compare: TCU’s pass defense is 58th, pass efficiency defense, 78th). The teams have almost identical performances from their rush defenses; BYU is 38th, TCU 39th.

Looming over the game is TCU’s three consecutive throttlings of the Cougars. Mendenhall warrants Understater Of The Year status, calling his team’s performances recently not "as competitive as I would have liked."

Cougar center Terrence Brown gives a more detailed explanation. TCU has been so successful recently shutting down BYU’s offense because the Frogs " do a really good job of disguising coverages and disguising blitzes. They've been able to stop our run, then pin their ears back and come after our quarterback."

But the last three matchups with these teams have seen a very different TCU and very different BYU on the field. TCU lacks an iron-tight defense this season; BYU lacks a very dangerous passing game this season. Because Riley Nelson is so much more elusive than Jake Heaps and Max Hall, it’s foolish to predict Friday’s outcome based on recent history between TCU and BYU. The teams probably are more closely matched than any game since 2007, which (you’ll recall) the Cougars won. This matchup, like the one in ’07, won’t be decided until the fourth quarter. TCU 33, BYU 30.

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