BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, who had a big day last year against Oregon St., returns to action this week (Photo by Andy Wooldridge)
To get ready for the trip to Provo for the conclusion of Cougarfest, and the 2 game series with BYU, we got together with Brett Hein from Vanquishthefoe.com, which is the SB Nation blog that covers the Cougars as completely as anyone, to exchange questions and answers.
Here's what Brett wondered about, and our answers.
Here's another piece from Vanquishthefoe.com that compares the programs, and the head coaches, and finds a lot of similarities.
With both teams having had their quarterback suffer a knee injury last weekend, there's more uncertainty than ever heading into the rematch of last year's 38-28 win by the Blue Cougars (who won't be in blue this week, more on that later) in Corvallis.
Can the BYU offense get back on track with Riley Nelson back at quarterback? Or are 2 injury induced quarterback changes by mid-season going to be too much to overcome?
It all depends on his health. As you saw last season in Corvallis, when Nelson is healthy, the offense generally works well. BYU gained 500 yards of offense and scored 38 points. He says he's near 100% after sitting out a few weeks. Many are still skeptical -- back injuries take a while to heal.
Recognizing that the passing game was bound to suffer with not only changes in quarterback, but also quarterbacking style, why hasn't a pretty good rushing game (38th in the country) still translated to a more productive offense?
Mistakes. Last week, it was penalties -- holding on 1st & Goal from the 9, a player on the sideline pushes an opposing player after a big play.
Some of the trademark strengths of the BYU offense, the bubble screen and short slant and crossing route passes that Oregon St. fans saw the Cougars use to win handily the last 2 times these teams met, aren't the most difficult of throws. Even with quarterback changes, why haven't those still been pretty effective? Or are people overlooking the fact that Utah, Boise St., and Utah St. might just have pretty good defenses too?
BYU actually hasn't used bubble screens or short slants much this year, a fact of which we are well aware. The offense is perplexing at times. BYU has such great receiver weapons and can't figure out how to get them the ball -- whether its because of scheme, or because Riley Nelson played 1.5 games with a hurt back he was trying to hide.
While the offensive struggles have gotten the national attention, the Cougar defense has quietly become one of the best in the country. Who is playing lights out? What has made this defense particularly good against the run?
The defense, which we have begun to call the Zion Curtain, has been extremely assignment-sound and attacks the ball at every turn. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy has 10 tackles for loss and seems to be in the right place to make big plays, whether a tackle, batted pass, or forced fumble (of which he already has 3 this season).
As we get ready for the Orthopedic Surgeon Bowl (Oregon St. is suddenly minus their starting quarterback Sean Mannion due to knee surgery as well), is there a chance for the Beavers' backup quarterback Cody Vaz to keep what has been a very effective passing game going against the BYU secondary, given that Oregon St. still has blazing speed at the wide receiver positions?
That depends on if Vaz can be accurate with the deep ball. Deep routes seem to be BYU's only weakness, but so far, quarterbacks haven't been able to hit on those. I was worried with Mannion coming to town, but now it becomes a big question. I would still suspect Vaz to try. So it depends on his accuracy and if the offensive line can keep players like Ziggy Ansah (33rd nationally in tackles for loss despite only starting the last 3 games) out of the backfield.
What is going on with the Cougars' kicking game? We heard Coach Bronco Mendenhall say his quarterback was the next thing he was going to try, but that plan went out the window with the injury. Why has this become such a problem, which is a particularly bad problem for a defense-oriented team that is going to play a lot of low-scoring games?
Justin Sorensen came to BYU as a heralded high school kicker. Last year, he had hamstring problems. This offseason, he hurt his back while weightlifting. He has kicked a few times this year, but punter Riley Stephenson was giving place-kicking duties. Neither has been effective. This week, coaches reinstated Sorensen as the full-time place kicker. Apparently he is healthy again, and this has given him triple the kicking reps in practice. Hopefully this makes a difference. But he's never been consistent, so I'm still on Team Go For It.
BYU is on a 27-3 run at home, which is a long enough stretch that it can't be discounted. And it can't all be attributed to altitude, because you have played a number of teams who are also used to playing at elevation. What makes the Cougars so tough to beat at LaVell Edwards Stadium?
Generally, BYU is just a good team that wins most of its games (several 10-win seasons), so they win home and road. At times it can be elevation, but generally I just think the players like playing there. It's a great surface, great fans, and a familiar place.
What kind of game day experience should visiting Beaver fans expect? The interactions we had with the multitude of visiting BYU fans last year in Corvallis were very cordial; is the traveling Cougar contingent representative of the home crowd? What is tailgating, which is a huge part of football at all the northwest Pac-12 schools, like in Provo? How loud will it be inside the stadium during the game?
We hope you find our fans to be cordial, I know we were met with that when we traveled to Corvallis last year. There are always a few knuckleheads, but we are generally a good crowd.
Legit tailgating is kind of in its genesis at BYU, but those who are doing it have a lot of fun. If you are making it early, I would recommend hitting up the RV tailgate lot, which is 2230 N. 150 E. in Provo, just a couple blocks from the stadium. Hit up Cougar Tailgating on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/cougar.tailgating to hook up with those guys.
Sometimes, the BYU crowd can be a bit pedestrian, but we always seem to bring it for bigger games. The last ranked Pac-12 team I can recall coming to Provo was UCLA in 2008, and that was the most frenzied crowd I have been a part of. With the caliber of opponent and broadcast on ABC, I think fans will bring their A-game this week.
Tell us about the blackout. Is the BYU fan base, or at least the student body excited about it? This isn't something BYU is known for, compared to some other places, and black isn't even a normal team color (even though black is the new alternate blue/red/brown/green). Will the novelty make it all the more exciting and difficult for us bright orange visitors (though the team will be in high contrast white)?
The players are definitely excited. The fans have done a good job coordinating this year with whiteout games and the like. I don't expect it to have too much impact otherwise, but it's good to give the players something they want.
Thanks, Brett! We're looking forward to the trip, and the game!