Nota bene: All video clips in this article are from BYU’s opening two games of the 2022 season - a blowout win over a poorly run USF team from which I only got about 50 meaningful snaps before garbage time, and a double-overtime win against Baylor which provided about 150. I also charted all seven of BYU’s games against Power-5 opponents last year, representing about 870 snaps, for context and to compare the 2021 and 2022 teams’ statistical performances.
BYU returns last year’s starter, #3 QB Hall, and so far he’s been the best asset of the 2022 team. Last year’s backup quarterback, Baylor Romney, has transferred out after playing four non-Power-5 opponents in 2021. We haven’t yet seen this year’s likely backup, low 4-star #17 QB Conover who enrolled in 2020, since they played Hall all the way to the end of their blowout win in the opener.
The Cougars have been without their top two returning receivers for most of the season so far due to injuries: #12 WR P. Nacua, a 4-star transfer from UW, hurt his leg on a sweep play in the 1st quarter of the opener, and #18 WR G. Romney (brother of the former QB and distant relative of the US Senator) hasn’t played at all. There’s been no official word about when they’ll return, though (per usual) fan board rumors have one, both, or neither ready to suit up on Saturday. In their absence, the third-leading returning receiver, #1 WR Hill, has really stepped up, along with three guys who didn’t play last year but Jake correctly predicted would get bigger roles: #20 WR Cosper, #0 WR Epps, and #27 WR Roberts.
Passing efficiency hasn’t been great for the Cougars either in 2021 or 2022. This season they have 29 successful designed passing plays vs 32 failed ones, given the down & distance, or 47.5%. That is precisely the same passing efficiency rate as in their 2021 games against Power-5 opponents. Without Nacua and Romney, their explosive passing has slipped in 2022 as well – BYU is down to 6.7 adjusted yards per attempt and slightly below 15% of passing playcalls gain 15+ yards, which are both below average figures for a Power-5 team. It was 7.9 adjusted YPA and 19% explosiveness in the 2021 games I charted. While the other receivers are pretty reliable, I don’t think the Cougars have anybody who can replicate Nacua’s ability to really take the top off the defense.
Without that piece, where BYU has thrived offensively has been Hall’s ability to keep plays alive and find open targets late in the progression. Some examples:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – BYU likes to quick snap the ball after a 1st-down gain, this one was only 12 seconds in real time after the previous play was whistled dead. The coverage is blown because the defense isn’t ready for the snap – it’s an overload formation to the boundary and the defense is misaligned.
- :07 – A split-out TE and the RB going in motion pre-snap is a semi-reliable QB draw indicator, that prospect freezes the backer to the boundary who’s supposed to be covering the slot receiver since the DB is blitzing.
- :15 – Another quick hitch, since this is far and away BYU’s most productive play type. This is determined pre-snap simply by defensive alignment with no post-snap read at all.
- :21 – I would say that Hall’s best ability – and by extension the entire offense – is knowing exactly when the defense has screwed up and hitting the open guy immediately. Here he reads the coverage bust perfectly (motion has confused the DB as to which man he’s got) and doesn’t hesitate to throw to Hill.
There’s a pretty even split on my tally sheet for the reasons BYU’s passing plays have been inefficient. The first is the usual one, poor pass protection, but the other one has to do with how protective Hall is with the football. I very rarely see him put the ball in danger the last two games (a real change compared to the previous seven I’ve charted him play), preferring to check the ball down, escape the pocket, or throw the ball away rather than attempt a risky throw. He’s got an excellent sense for danger and it’s sometimes eerie how effectively he gets rid of the ball right before he takes a blindside sack. The downside is that I think he’s reluctant to take shots unless the receiver is wide open, although that’s difficult to document with limited film (and very tight ESPN shots in the week 2 game not showing the whole route tree). Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays:
- :00 – Overload blitzes pretty reliably generate QB pressure against this line, here they’re pulling protection to the strong side and the left guard has his back turned to the DT who’s splitting him and the center, and the right guard doesn’t have his feet set and is blown back by the DE.
- :07 – Hall has been weirdly inaccurate on screen passes and other throws that ought to be simple, no-pressure tosses.
- :14 – Roberts has been a good go-to receiver in Nacua’s absence, but he just doesn’t have the same speed. Hall needs a deep shot here and it’s quadruple coverage, so he’s putting his whole arm into it to out-throw the coverage rather than giving the receiver a chance at a contested ball.
- :22 – I could have used five other clips exactly like this from the same game – the DE gets around the LT and Hall has to have eyes in the back of his head because he dumps the ball off a split second before the sack. There’s no way he’s going to risk a deep shot even though this checkdown is a zero-yard gain.
This year BYU lost its excellent running back from the previous two seasons, Tyler Allgeier, who had over 1,600 rushing yards on 276 carries in 2021. The two primary backs in 2022 are longtime backup #4 RB Katoa and Cal transfer #2 RB Brooks. I think both are pretty good, Katoa’s got some real quickness and I’ve been writing about what a bruising runner Brooks has been for the Bears for years.
But I don’t think either are able to replicate what I watched Allgeier do last year, which was get something out of nothing over and over again. I think the run blocking of this offensive line, which only lost one starter from last year (the center James Empey), is pretty poor. BYU got the Oregon transfer #78 RT Suamataia, who’s pretty good in pass protection but is still learning the ropes in run blocking and splitting time with a 2021 backup, #74 RT Ca. Barrington. They slid last year’s RG over to center, #70 C Pay, and last year’s RT over to guard, #76 RG LaChance. It’s mostly a zone-blocking run scheme and it’s painful to watch frequent assignment errors.
In 2022 so far the Cougars have just 15 successful designed runs prior to garbage time vs 28 failures, which is less than 35% efficiency and extraordinarily poor. That will probably come up over the course of the season, since the Tite front that Baylor employs and represents most of the sample is very well suited to stop BYU’s rushing scheme. At this point they’re rushing for about 4.7 adjusted YPC and about 11.5% of runs gain 10+ yards, which are significantly below average numbers.
Last year with Allgeier carrying the ball, BYU was at 55% efficiency, 5.0 adjusted YPC, and 16% explosiveness against Power-5 defenses. Those are all a bit above average figures, and I think it demonstrates how important Allgeier was to that offense – he was able to single-handedly overperform the run-blocking in front of him, but even a back of his caliber couldn’t turn it into a championship-level rushing offense. I also think that with a more uncertain backup QB situation compared to last year, they’ve had a lot fewer QB runs, even though his threat as a runner adds a dimension to the offense.
I don’t think the linemen are undersized or the backs are making poor choices. In fact when everything comes together, their rushing looks pretty effective. Some examples:
- :00 – Running on 3rd & 11 is fairly bold, but BYU pretty frequently goes for it on 4th down and I suspect that this was intended just to cut the distance. It works better than that on some nice TE blocking and a great bend outside by Katoa.
- :08 – A third of all successful runs I have on my tally sheet for BYU in 2022 are with only 1 or 2 yards to go, and they just sort of mash the line like this for Brooks to pick it up. I think the o-line has some talent and technique issues but they are at least pretty big bodies and can lean on the d-line for this sort of thing.
- :18 – The ILB bites outside on the RPO (I’m actually not certain if it’s a live tag, I don’t see him throw this much) and Hall pulls the string and runs. The TE can’t handle the DE or LB but Hall can dodge tackles pretty well.
- :24 – Here the slicing TE freezes two defenders, the OLB and ILB both, creating a nice lane for Katoa.
But those are relatively rare, and most of the time what I see are plays like these:
- :00 – The LT and LG both whiff badly on their blocks – lunging and sloppy footwork, respectively – and the center seems so forlorn about it that he gives up on blocking the backer who actually makes the TFL.
- :07 – Both TEs messing up their blocks is the reason this play fails (and is not uncommon) but also watch the zone blocking by the OL – it’s a RG/RT combo on one DT and a C/LG combo on the other, and one guy from each pair is supposed to then climb to the second level to block a backer. The center does but misses, and the RT never does it at all.
- :14 – This time it’s flipped, the center fails to climb and the backer he should have blocked has an easy path to make the tackle; the RT does climb this time and mauls his guy, but the RG can’t sustain the block on his own.
- :21 – A QB draw is pretty common out of this formation, but there’s no way to make it work when the center is getting dumped into your lap by the nose.
On paper, BYU’s defense has been stellar against the pass this season: 30 successful defenses of designed passing plays vs 12 failures outside of garbage time for an astonishing 71% success rate, well above championship-caliber. Their opponents in 2022 have an adjusted average of just 4.2 yards per passing attempt, and only 7% of their called passing plays gain 15+ yards, which are incredible numbers.
If that’s sustainable, it’s a remarkable improvement over 2021’s performance against Power-5 opponents, which was perfectly average in every category I measure: opposing offenses had an exactly 50% per-play success rate, 7.7 adjusted YPA, and 16% explosiveness on designed passing plays.
As a general proposition I expect incremental improvement from players year-over-year, which is why returning production and snap counts are useful metrics to track. And BYU is certainly returning a lot on defense – of the 30 players who got significant playing time in 2021, 27 return for 2022 and each of the three departures are spread out over the three levels of their 4-3 structure. On the podcast, Jake and I spent some time discussing BYU’s unique (or almost so, Utah does some similar things) roster management system regarding LDS missions and extensive walk-on play. I think the Cougars get a big advantage from how fresh they are with frequent rotations, as most positions run three or even four guys deep, despite the pretty modest talent ratings of the roster.
But it has to be said that the two passing attacks they’ve faced so far in 2022 have demonstrated poor QB play and skill position talent, and it’s tough to know how much of the purported jump in performance from 2021 to 2022 is real and not a mirage. I suspect it’s not zero, since they have a well established system and a ton of experienced players, and I see high quality plays pretty often from this squad. Some examples:
- :00 – BYU is playing cover-1 in order to blitz and it’s getting through here, the QB isn’t using great throwing form. But the high safety comes down on the crosser for reasons I don’t understand and the other DB is beat on the post - a better pass is probably a touchdown.
- :07 – Both the LT and LG take the blitzing backer, leaving the DE free to chase down the QB. Of course I have no idea what the QB is doing here, all four receivers are to the left so I’m at a loss as to why he’s looking and rolling right.
- :21 – The best part of the defensive front is that they effectively convert speed to power. The burst here from multiple defenders overwhelms the linemen.
- :28 – Good recovery off the break by the DB to earn this pass break-up and no flag.
But a lot of times I see plays like the following representative sample of failed pass defenses that make me think this is still in fact a fairly average pass defense. To me, the single greatest mystery about BYU going into tomorrow’s game is how good their pass defense really is, and I just don’t have enough information right now to come to a confident conclusion.
- :00 – There’s three receiving targets to the boundary and BYU is blitzing a backer from that side, and they’ve got nobody to cover the flat. Both the backer and DB back out to cover the No. 2 receiver and the TE gets a free 1st down.
- :07 – The structure of the defense makes this RPO almost impossible to defend, since the overhang backer is going to widen on the sweep man and no one is assigned to prevent the LT from slipping out the seal the MIKE. As soon as the DE decides to crash the QB the H-back has seven yards of empty grass to run into, and since the catch is behind the line all the downfield blocks are legal.
- :23 – You might think this is man coverage from the CB’s leverage but it’s actually zone, and there’s assignment confusion against 12-personnel since the DB moves inside into the MIKE’s zone instead of staying on the hash to cover the H-back.
- :30 – This is a pretty standard comeback, but ESPN was zoomed in way too tight to show the entire route on any of them. It’s easy to infer the CB beat on the break from the way his hips are turned though, and that dip and turn downfield should look familiar to Oregon fans by now.
This year the Cougars’ efficiency against the run is almost identical to last year’s team on a per-play basis: 24 successfully defended rushes vs 33 failures, or 42%. That’s only up half a point from last year’s 41.5% success rate against Power-5 rushing offenses. Those are pretty poor figures and I believe that BYU is structurally vulnerable to a methodical run game. Some examples:
- :00 – I don’t think too highly of USF’s offensive line so it was surprising to see couple effectively power-blocked runs from the Bulls. BYU’s d-line are big guys who are usually pretty fresh but they don’t get off one-on-one blocking quickly enough to stop power runs consistently.
- :12 – BYU tends to switch up to a 3-down front (often to drop 8 in coverage) on 3rd & long situations, and offenses that were bold enough to run against it were usually rewarded. The backer here is jumping inside and giving up his arm to the slicing H-back so he has no leverage to stop this run when it bounces outside, in fact there’s no outside contain at all.
- :32 – This is zone blocking but it’s all one-on-one in the inside, and the offense is winning all four, against both DTs, a nice climb by the center to the WILL, and the MIKE is taking on the slot receiver and is drawn out of the lane.
- :39 – I never quite understood this choice, against a heavy run formation BYU will back out a DE to linebacker depth and rush the overhand backer instead. The back runs right past him and the TEs clean up the other two, while the DE on the hash is covering no eligible receivers.
However, BYU is doing a much better job at stopping explosive rushes this year: they’re only allowing 4.1 adjusted YPC, and only 11% of opponents’ designed runs gain 10+ yards, which are above-average figures for a Power-5 defense. They compare favorably to last year’s stats, which were 5.7 YPC and 15% explosiveness allowed. While I think some of this has to do with the poor passing offenses they’ve faced – and therefore allowed them to play the safeties lower to keep chunk runs from going explosive – I also think I’m seeing more consistent linebacker play and better tackling compared to 2021 as well. Some examples:
- :00 – Good job by the DT to maintain outside leverage to get off the block and catch the back as he goes by.
- :08 – Here’s a 3rd & 19 run by Baylor for some reason, and with no one to block the backer. He makes an excellent form tackle.
- :15 – Nice work by the DB and LB both here, they’re getting off blocks, tracking the play, and staying square to the line.
- :21 – The RG is getting creamed on this outside run, making the back have to re-route, but the backer is keeping his outside leverage against the center to prevent a cutback.