(Author's note: Both the questions asked and the responses given were prior to the news of Louis Nix's season-ending surgery)
This week we have a double shot (insert LDS caffeine joke here) of knowledge on the BYU Cougars! We were able to get responses from BYU SB nation blogger Kevin Schaefer from the site Vanquish the Foe (@vanquishthefoe), as well as a return appearance from Jeremy Mauss (@JeremyMauss), who, in addition to his duties at SB Nation blog Mountain West Connection, is also the BYU reporter/blogger for KFAN Radio in Salt Lake.
Without further ado, let's get into the questions:
Many Irish fans' knowledge of BYU comes from the early-season beating that the Cougars laid on Texas, but is tempered by the knowledge of the loss to Virginia. What is the biggest difference between those two results, and which of those does this BYU team resemble at this point in the season?
VtF: Those two games are the biggest outliers of the season and they happen to be the first two games. At Virginia BYU was installing a new offense under a new offensive coordinator with a young quarterback and needless to say there were some growing pains.
The next week that new offense began to click and Texas just wasn't ready for how well could run the ball out of that offense with Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams. So to be honest the Cougars resemble a team that is somewhere in between those two performances.
Jeremy: The main difference is that the offensive line has improved quite a bit from that Virginia loss to where it is now. BYU brought in quite a few junior college transfers and have been playing true freshman, and it just took a while for them to gel as a unit. With the improved offensive line play it has helped the entire offensive unit, especially the throwing of quarterback Taysom Hill. Through the first three games he struggled to complete 40 percent of his passes, but since the Middle Tennessee State game he has completed about 60 percent of his passes with the exception of the Wisconsin game where Hill was at 48 percent.
At this point in the season the BYU offense is more versatile with Hill picking up his completion percentage while still running the ball well. There are plenty of weapons but the two biggest on offense are running back Jamaal Williams and wide receiver Cody Hoffman, but Hill typically does find multiple receivers per game and spread the ball around. The main thing is that a defense cannot key in on just stopping the running game between Hill and Williams or play the pass.
Bronco Mendenhall has led BYU to be bowl eligible for a 9th straight season. He is 9 for 9 since becoming the head coach in Provo. What is the fan sentiment towards Mendenhall, and do you think he is a top 20 coach in college football? Top 10?
VtF: BYU fans are split on their sentiment towards Bronco Mendenhall. There's a fraction who think he is the right fit for the Cougars and recognize the great job he has done in Provo. The other fraction, which tends to have higher (often unrealistic) expectations of the program, would have already run Bronco out the door if they could have especially after a fourth consecutive loss to in-state rival Utah this season.
I tend to think that Bronco is one of the more underrated coaches in the country. In my opinion, his ability to put together wins on a very consistent basis at BYU, where he has some limitations that other programs do not, definitely puts him in the conversation as one of the top 20 coaches in America. I'll add that while I wouldn't consider him a top 10 head coach, I would include him as one of the top 10 defensive minds in all of college football.
Jeremy: One would think that Bronco Mendenhall can do no wrong with the fans, but that is not entirely the case. Fans do love what he is doing with the program by going to so many bowl games and winning more games than they lose. This is probably a program thing but they like how the independent schedule is shaking out under Mendenhall's tenure, and the coach wants to face the big teams.
The one problem is that Mendenhall has troubles winning the really big game consistently, and especially his record against rival Utah which is 3-6. He also talks saying his team to be BCS worthy and be in contention for a national title, and while fans like to have those big expectations some are unhappy to a point that BYU is not really close to either. That is nitpicking but those fans are vocal by saying their football team has the talent of the best of the best programs in the country.
As for where he stands in comparison to other coaches on a national scale he has to be one of the best. Just going by his record he should be considered one of the best 25 in the nation anyways, but an argument could be made due to BYU being a very religious institution and having an Honor Code limits the pool of talent he could be the best coach in the country considering his recruiting limitations. The overwhelming majority of his roster and recruiting base comes from LDS athletes and there are not that that many high-end talented players within that group. There are very few players like Kyle Van Noy, Cody Hoffman or Jamaal Williams who are not members of the religion who come to the school. The way his defenses are coached I'd be very comfortable saying he is a top-15 coach based on his ability alone to coach.
Kyle Van Noy and Eathyn Manumaleuna really jumped off the tape to me when watching BYU's 3-3-5 defense. Who is one player other than those two who you see giving Notre Dame some trouble on Saturday?
VtF: BYU actually plays a 3-4 base defense with the linebacking core being the strength of the defense by far. The Cougars have had big plays from a lot of guys this season, but one guy to watch outside of the two you mentioned is middle linebacker Uani Unga. Unga leads the team in tackles with 106, which is 50 more than Kyle Van Noy who is second on that list. Unga isn't a guy who tends to make a lot of big highlight plays like Van Noy does, but he is on the stop on a high percentage of BYU's defensive plays.
Jeremy: To go with just one it would have to be Uani' Unga. He is an overlooked linebacker since Kyle Van Noy makes the big plays. Unga has 101 tackles with 74 of them being solo and 6.5 for a loss. He is all over the field and has a handful of pass break ups and recovered a fumble. He is very good at finding the ball carrier and chasing them down, and as I said all over the field making plays. It does help that Van Noy takes up so much attention to allow Unga and others to put up big numbers.
Taysom Hill and Tommy Rees don't sport the highest of completion percentages. In Rees's case, it's because the Irish offense takes a lot of shots dowfield. From what film I've seen on Hill, he seems to be an erratic passer who prefers to have a run/pass option available to him. What do you see as Hill's biggest weakness as a thrower?
VtF: Taysom has actually succeeded quite well when he gets the time to get his footwork right (see the Houston and Boise State games), but when he doesn't have the time to really set his feet and throw he has been erratic and unfortunately that's been the case all too often this season.
BYU has also struggled with injuries to key pieces in their passing offense the past few weeks including two of their starting receivers, JD Falslev and Mitch Mathews, and two starting tight ends, Devin Mahina and Kaneakua Friel, which obviously doesn't help the quarterback out too much.
Jeremy: Hill does have a tendency to overthrow receivers and be inaccurate. He has fixed that after his first few games where he was struggling to complete just 40 percent. He has improved due to the offensive line playing much better as a unit and giving him time to throw the ball. He does like to take off and run if he sees a lane, and he has shown a little bit more restraint to find another receiver before he runs, but he still likes to take off and run the ball. Even in the read-option plays he is more inclined to take the ball then handoff to Jamaal Williams.
BYU's offensive tempo is downright impressive - what has given the offense the most trouble this season, and how can the Irish exploit that to their advantage?
VtF: BYU's glaring weakness on offense all year is the play of the offensive line and their inability to protect Taysom Hill. The Cougars haven't had much confidence in getting the push up front they need to comfortably throw out of the pocket against a solid pass rush. Because of this you will see BYU run quite a few designed plays that roll Hill out of the pocket to throw.
I expect Notre Dame's defensive line will win the battle in the trenches, but the key to keeping the BYU pass game from getting off the ground is not allowing Hill the extra time to throw on the rollout plays. Wisconsin did a superb job of this against BYU a few weeks ago and it really kept the BYU offense from having a very big impact on the game until it was too late.
Jeremy: The biggest issue on offense has been the line. Early in the year it was because they were new and learning a completely different style of offense. Of late, look toward the Wisconsin game where the BYU line was just manhandled and unable to stop the very large men the Badgers threw at them. Notre Dame has that same type of front and is at worst on par with Wisconsin in size and skill. With Notre Dame having a pair of NFL bound defensive lineman in Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt the Irish should be able to use those two players and others along the front, and that is where Notre Dame can hurt the BYU offense.
Finally, what is your prediction for the game on Saturday?
VtF: I think this year's trip to South Bend will be fairly similar to the game last year in a lot of ways. A lot of physical play with both teams trying to establish the run game early, but ultimately the team that is able to establish the better passing game will come out with the win.
I'm going to optimistically assume Robert Anae has made some adjustments from the Wisconsin game that will get BYU's passing game back to where it was in the Houston and Boise State games and go with BYU to win in a close one.
BYU 27 - Notre Dame 24 with Hill connecting with Cody Hoffman for the game winning score.
Jeremy: I think this game will be similar to last year and will be a low scoring game. BYU's offense is much better with Hill under center compared to Riley Nelson, and should be able to move the ball against Notre Dame. The one area of concern is that this game could mirror the Wisconsin game where we saw Hill running for his life while being chased by their defenders. BYU does get back Ryker Mathews who should help on the line, and just adding him could be the difference.
I expect BYU's defense to make plays against Notre Dame since BYU's front seven is fairly close to what the Irish saw against USC, and give Rees some trouble.
Notre Dame will probably win a 21-17 game.