Prior to the Utah State game, no one thought that the Middle Tennessee State game would be considered a must win. Of course, prior to the Utah State game, no one, BYU faithful least of all, felt that the Cougars would be riddled by injuries and bereft of their Heisman candidate at quarterback. Nobody could have imagined the Cougars would be limping into a Saturday game, against an opponent considered to be a cupcake at the beginning of the year, desperately needing a win to keep their hopes of bowl eligibility alive. The Cougars are a measly four point favorite against the Blue Raiders, and actually come into the game with an inferior record at 4-4 to a Middle Tennessee record of 5-3.
The promise of a season where BYU thrashed Texas and appeared to be on the cusp of a January bowl is nothing but a fading memory. A bit of the luster has come off of that signature win now that Texas has been revealed as a bottom feeder in the Big XII. The decline of BYU's season has been precipitous, as injuries to starters exposed a frightening lack of depth on both sides of the ball. Even before the injuries a defense that is supposed to be the calling card of head coach Bronco Mendenhall has consistently underperformed. BYU needs a win in the worst way this weekend to help right the ship, and while it is too late to salvage a season where the expectation was a 10 win finish and a January bowl game, BYU can at least hope to salvage some pride if they can win out the rest of the way. The wolves of the media are circling around the Cougar football program, with some criticisms of the head coach, such as Gordon Monson of the Salt Lake Tribune, being particularly biting. The best way that the Cougars can silence the noise is to come out and win this weekend, and win decisively.
This is easier said than done. While many Cougar fans might blame the decline of the team on the injury to Taysom Hill, the performance of the defense is more alarming. In their four losses, the defense has given up an average of 35.7 points per game and surrendered an average of 473.5 yards per game, 335.5 of that through the air. The offense, by contrast, has performed adequately, producing an average of 422.5 ypg, although to be fair, in two of those games the yardage came during mop up time, as the Cougars were well out of the lead toward the end of the game. So, while the offense hasn't been herculean, it's definitely performed adequately in the Cougars recent skid. The defensive collapse is infinitely more concerning.
In order for BYU to right the ship, they're going to need sustained and immediate improvement defensively. Freshman linebacker Fred Warner should be a key cog in the defensive plan for BYU moving forward. The defensive malaise of the past few weeks should disabuse any of the BYU players of the notion that the team can be best served by maintaining business as usual. Many power five conference teams have found immediate success on both sides of the ball by plugging in impact recruits as true freshmen. Myles Jack of UCLA, Shaq Thompson of Washington and Royce Freeman at Oregon exemplify the way an impact freshman can jumpstart a team. These guys are hungry and they want to make plays. Warner and fellow linebacker Sione Takitaki have shown the ability to impact games by forcing turnovers. Warner managed to jump a route in the flat and return an interception for a touchdown on Friday against Boise State, providing a rare defensive highlight for the Cougars in the beat down. He has also been consistently around the football and a sure tackler in space and in the box. He also brings elite speed and ball skills to a linebacker position searching for answers.
Look for Warner to solidify his place on BYU's defense, making it difficult for the team to play politics and start a less deserving upperclassman over the talented freshman. Warner has the size, speed, and awareness to help BYU's defense move in the right direction. This is a game where BYU matches up well athletically with the opponent. The Cougar front seven, led by Warner, should be able to wreak havoc on MTSU, providing opportunities for the secondary to regain some confidence, and they should continue to shut down the run, which, while it forces a team to play to BYU's weakest point on defense, should allow Warner to show what he can do both rushing the passer, and in coverage. I expect him to force some quarterback pressure with either a sack or a knockdown, in addition to collecting half a dozen tackles and a turnover, whether it's a forced fumble or an interception. Warner looks like he could be one of the cornerstones to BYU's defensive future, and against a team that BYU should beat, he has a chance to prove that the past few games are indicative of his future role as a defensive stalwart for the team.
For those Cougar faithful unfamiliar with Warner, an article on his signing can be found here.