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By The Numbers: BYU's bend-then-break defense

Examining the numbers behind BYU's defensive struggles.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

After giving up 29 unanswered points in the span of 17 game minutes, BYU's defense appears to be the weakest such unit in nearly a decade.

Watching Cody Fajardo and the Nevada Wolf Pack trample and cut through the defense in the second half felt like watching video of a train crushing a car. (These were a staple in those "Most incredible videos"-type shows that were popular before the dominance of YouTube.) You clicked on the video after reading the title, you know the wreck is coming, but you keep watching in hope, just in case it is somehow avoided.

We had hope BYU's defense would step up and make just enough plays to help the team to a win, but play after play it was vanquished by the Wolf Pack freight train. We kept watching long enough to see that train plow through the car and blast it into uncountable pieces.

Shortly after Bronco Mendenhall took over as head coach, his defenses have quietly (except to the fanfare of 2012's amazing defense) been the bedrock of the program as offensive coordinators changed, quarterbacks graduated, and lauded quarterbacks crashed and burned.

The known philosophy has always been "bend but don't break." Keep the opponent's offense in front of you, don't give up big plays, make them execute and earn every first down, and eventually they will falter, either to the tune of a punt, a turnover, or settling for a field goal.

This season, however, BYU's defense spends a lot of time bending only to break anyway (or, in the case of the Utah State game, give up big plays and eschew bending in the first place.)

I don't claim to be a statistical genius. But I have compiled some numbers that I feel tell at least part of the tale.

The first stat: Total plays defended against each opponent.

Total Plays Run

vs. BYU

Avg vs. other FBS teams













Utah State









On average, opponents run 8 more plays per game against BYU than they normally run against other teams. That alone is an entire drive's worth of plays.

It stands to reason that BYU's fast-paced offense, which has slowed a little compared to last season, would produce this kind of result. But some of the comparisons are wildly different. For example, the Virginia game wasn't a balanced shootout. Virginia ran 102 plays to BYU's 60.

Texas running less plays against BYU than against other teams makes sense: It was Tyrone Swoopes's first-ever start. Since then, Texas has sped back up as Swoopes has become more comfortable. I can only make sense of the Houston result -- since the Coogs ran 53 pass plays to 13 runs -- because BYU pounded the ball on the ground in the second half, shortening the game.

Starting with Virginia, you start to see a trend where teams have figured out BYU's defense: Give the QB time to throw and you will move the ball, even if it means less route-runners. The only reason BYU survived that game against Virginia, in which the 'Hoos ran nearly 30 plays over its season average and 42 more plays than BYU, is because Taysom gon' Taysom and Jamaal Williams is a beast.

I thought the defense played sufficiently well against UCF. But if you give a team 25 more plays than it is used to for running its offense, it will probably find ways to score more than it should.

The key struggle of BYU's defense to an average observer would be passing defense. More often than not, BYU's defense is allowing quarterbacks to be much more efficient than they otherwise are against other teams.

So here's your passer rating comparison:

Passer Rating

vs. BYU

Avg vs. other FBS teams

Texas (Swoopes)



Houston (O’Korn)



Virginia (Lambert)



Virginia (Johns)



Utah St (Garretson)



UCF (Holman)



Nevada (Fajardo)



I've excluded Connecticut, because Casey Cochran's only game this season was against BYU. His season is over after a concussion during that game, so there is no valuable comparison to be drawn.

Swoopes's first start resulted in a near-average result, and Lambert was held just below his average. BYU held UCF's Holman decently-below average, which is part of why I thought the defense may have been making a turnaround, a thought that continued through the first half against Nevada.

But O'Korn, Johns, Garretson, and Fajardo all posted passer ratings above (to well-above) their usual average against other FBS teams.

So that's the bend. Is the defense breaking? The only measure to define breaking would be points allowed.


vs. BYU

Avg vs. other FBS teams













Utah State









Texas was just an absolute whooping, plain and simple. BYU brought it in all facets that day, and that was the game we thought signaled a breakthrough season. It was a complete game.

Aside from the Texas game, BYU's defense at best gives up points to opponents at their average. At worst, it allows teams two touchdowns over their average (that happened three times and resulted in three losses).

All of this has, of course, brought a spotlight on defensive coordinator Nick Howell.

In Bronco Mendenhall's 10 years as head coach, in only one cumulative season has he not called defensive plays during games. For part of the 2010 season, the much-referenced Jaime Hill defense surrendered 28.8 points per game before he was fired. For the remainder of 2010, BYU allowed 17.1 ppg (though admittedly, its opponents weren't as good during that stretch).

The seven games this season constitute the other half of that one cumulative season when Bronco has not called games defensively. I know points per game usually doesn't tell the whole story in the statistics world. But, over the course of 10 seasons, this season's 26.1 ppg allowed is second only to 2005's 28.7 ppg as worst in the Bronco-as-head-coach era. The next closest is 22.1 from 2013.

Bronco has hinted at explanations and also doesn't seem too alarmed with Howell at the helm. In last week's Bronco On The Go webisode, he briefly discussed how blitzes that have worked for 10 years suddenly aren't working. When you watch BYU's blitzers this season when linebackers and defensive backs are sent, they usually don't time it very well. They are usually either late and the blitz takes too long to be effective, or they are extremely early, tipping the quarterback to where he can make a hot read and slowing the momentum of the blitzer.

I also must mention injuries. To whatever degree you personally think injuries are allowed to be used as an explanation for struggles, you still have to acknowledge them when they occur at such a high degree as BYU has experienced this season.

Defenders who have missed time to injury: Craig Bills, Alani Fua, Jordan Johnson, Marques Johnson, Bronson Kaufusi, Dallin Leavitt, Sam Lee, Sione Takitaki (missed Nevada, reason why unsure).

(Not to mention the offense's list: Devon Blackmon, Algernon Brown, Taysom Hill, Adam Hine, Brayden Kearsley, Nick Kurtz, Ryker Mathews, Jamaal Williams.)

The lists are long enough that I am sure I have missed players. Every player I have listed was a starter at the beginning of the season except Lee and Takitaki, and Takitaki had likely just played himself into considerable playing time.

Whatever the reason, or because of a combination of reasons, the defense is clearly struggling. This may very well be the biggest test of Bronco Mendenhall the head coach. Before when the offense struggled, his defense allowed 14 ppg. When the defense struggled, he took back the reins -- something I am not entirely sure he wants to do again. So how does the fix come? Time will tell, if a fix is even possible during the season.