The 27-7 victory over Middle Tennessee was a pleasant surprise to many that were expecting the BYU Cougars to lay another egg, possibly to the tune of giving up 30+ points for the sixth straight game.
The argument can be made that it was Middle Tennessee and it was to be expected that the Cougars wouldn't give up even close to 30 points. However, prior to the game against BYU, the Blue Raiders had scored more than 30 points in five of eight games, and 24 in two others.
On the flip side, in the three games Middle Tennessee did not score more than 30 it was against its toughest opponents, Minnesota, Marshall and Memphis. So maybe holding them to seven points is not all that surprising, and not a significant achievement.
That does leave a couple questions. Is the BYU defense truly improved? Are its worst performances in the past? If it is truly improved, then how much? These are the questions that we will hopefully receive greater clarity on in the coming weeks. Though this week's game is against the UNLV Rebels may not grant a whole lot more clarity, at least not in a positive way. UNLV averages 20 points per game this season with its highest total coming against Northern Illinois, when the Rebels scored 34 points. Giving up more than 20 would not be a good sign for this allegedly reinvigorated defense.
On paper, despite the losing streak, the Cougars should handle UNLV pretty easily. But despite the strong second half in BYU's victory over Middle Tennessee, I'm not ready to claim the Cougars are going to dominate the Rebels from start to finish. That won't prevent me from making some bold predictions though. As always, bold yet attainable.
1. The Cougars will force 3+ turnovers
UNLV's starting quarterback, Blake Decker, has thrown 14 interceptions in 10 games this season. He has had five games in which he's thrown multiple picks. In one of them he threw three, which oddly enough was a close win over Northern Colorado. Isn't that the strangest team to throw three picks against?
UNLV has 21 total turnovers through its first 10 games. With the Rebels averaging a little more than two turnovers per game, three is not impossible. I think we will see a lot of the same personnel that we saw on the defensive end last game. Guys that were waiting to get their chance to make a difference on the field are getting that chance. Fred Warner continues to be a star in the making. I expect this game to be no different. Bronson Kaufusi moving to more of a defensive lineman role (at least a little) helped the defense and should continue to help moving forward. More defensive pressure will be needed to force turnovers.
UNLV has only fumbled the ball four times this season so the Cougars forcing a fumble could be a little difficult, but getting a couple interceptions seems possible. UNLV passes the ball much better than it runs and run defense continues to be BYU's strength on defense. This, like many other matches, is a recipe for getting interceptions if BYU can take advantage of it.
2. Jordan Leslie will have 100+ yards and one touchdown
So far this season Leslie has eclipsed 100 yards once. Other than his 135 yards against Utah State he hasn't reached more than 50 yards since the Houston game, when he had 79 yards receiving. So why should he break out for 100 yards on Saturday night against UNLV? He's the type of receiver that has the ability to reach 100 yards in any given game. Stewart has shown a bit of a propensity to look for Mathews which makes him an obvious choice to reach the century mark (and he probably will) but Leslie is no stranger to getting passes thrown his way. He's averaging just more than 4.5 receptions per game. The only problem has been that he's getting short passes. But as defenses continue to key in on Mathews, as its pretty clear he is Stewart's favorite target, Leslie should get some good looks. With a few more opportunities Leslie should be able to hit that number. With Jamaal Williams out for the rest of the season the Cougars are a good bet to continue moving the chains through the air.
3. The BYU defense will hold UNLV to under 300 yards
This may sound like I'm drinking the blue kool-aid again. 300 yards?! BYU is only two games removed from a shellacking at the hands of Boise State. The Cougars gave up 637 yards to the Broncos. The response to giving up that many yards? Giving up only 228 yards to the Blue Raiders. MT averages 435 yards per games (post-BYU game) so the Cougars holding them to more than 200 less than usual is a good sign for Saturday's game.
UNLV averages 378 yards per game and most recently 339 yards against Air Force. It might be a tad premature to say the Cougars can hold UNLV to less than 300 yards, but after holding Middle Tennessee to 207 yards less than its usual output it doesn't sound crazy. If the defense can improve on last games performance, another strong defensive showing at home is in the cards.
UNLV has consistently been a team that BYU has beaten over the years. I expect Saturday night to be no different. A close game would not be a shock but a loss would put the raging fan base even more into a craze. The BYU defense should have a strong showing against UNLV, forcing some turnovers and holding tough. The BYU offense has been relatively steady with Christian Stewart leading the charge and Saturday will be no different. Cougars win 31-17.