So it’s come down to this. No really, it has.
With BYU standing at 5-4 entering Saturday’s game versus Iowa State (5-4), and with two games versus Oklahoma (7-2) and Oklahoma State (7-2) thereafter to wrap up the season, this is the one the Cougars have to get.
Okay, just about everyone knows this, but how is it accomplished?
The Cougars have looked flat out punchless over their last two outings while the Cyclones seem to be rounding into good form to close out the season. Still, with BYU playing at home with an 8:15pm MST kickoff, things could come correct for a team that has generally faired well at home all season long while struggling quite a bit on the road. I mean, it has to provide at least some advantage for a team that has been outscored on the road 116-24 over its last three outings.
But how much of an advantage?
The Las Vegas Sportsbooks aren’t buying the Cougar late-game-home-mystic, if that really is a thing, with Iowa State entering the game as 8-point favorites. But should you buy a potential turnaround that vaults the home team into bowl eligibility? I’ll be honest, this reporter is very slow to buy BYU’s legitimate chances given BYU’s massive injury concerns amongst other issues.
Anyway, here’s three things to note as the Cougars prepare to take on the Cyclones.
Can the middle hold?
I’ve covered BYU football for almost 20 full seasons now and several things stick out to you along the way. Most would agree that former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall understands productive defense as well as just about everyone, which is notable here due to one of Mendenhall’s key philosophies, which is rather simple; The middle has to hold.
Okay, those weren’t the exact words Bronco used, but is what was explained to this reporter throughout Bronco’s tenure — simply that a strong defense has to be predicated upon a strong nose guard on top of phenomenal middle linebacker and strong safety play within the former BYU head coach’s base 30-front defensive alignment.
I’m certain the same holds true for just about any defensive philosophy, which leads to me to my chief concern heading into Saturday’s game.
BYU is currently fraught with tremendous attrition in the middle of its defense. We love a good and solid walk-ons and promising young freshmen contributing to the team, sure. Who doesn’t? But when significant reps are manned by the likes of Bruce Mitchell along the front, with freshmen Siale Esera and Harrison Taggart behind him, and then Ethan Slade and Crew Wakley behind them, there’s cause for concern, and that concern became widely warranted due to West Virginia’s demolition of BYU’s front last week.
Don’t get me wrong here, though. We love the prospects of both Esera and Taggart and firmly believe both players will end their Cougar careers as two of the best linebackers ever to pass through the program. Slade has done yeoman’s work at both safety positions throughout the season — called in with the difficult task to supplement for the loss of both Micah Harper and Talan Alfrey. The same could absolutely be said for Wakley, who in his first year playing at safety at any level has been a revelation to a large degree and holds a very bright future ahead of him.
But it’s still a thing. Missing Ben Bywater, John Nelson and Caden Haws on top of Harper and Alfrey is a big thing and very much has been revealed as a detriment in recent weeks. It should be noted that Alfrey may return to action this week, but the concern still remains — Can BYU’s middle hold versus a very decent Iowa State attack focused on running the football?
A two-pronged attack, finally?
Running back LJ Martin is expected to return to action on Saturday after missing a couple of games due to injury. He’ll join with sophomore Aidan Robbins, who has filled in admirably after overcoming much of the injury issues that plagued him throughout the first half of the season.
Both should provide a potentially potent rotation in the Cougar backfield that the team hasn’t enjoyed much at all this season. Yes, both will be taxed to run behind a Cougar offensive front that has struggled mightily to open holes throughout the season, but Robbins and Martin should be able to stay relatively fresh throughout the contest which could provide a very necessary boon.
But still, Iowa State is no patsy in defending the run. The Cyclones are ranked No. 29 nationally in rush defense, yielding just 117.7 yards per game which doesn’t exactly bode well for a Cougar team ranked No. 129 nationally with a 79.7 yard per game average.
So BYU should focus on slinging the football, right? Not so fast, given that Iowa State is even better in defending the pass — posing a very capable secondary leading a No. 14-ranked pass defense which gives up just 112.5 yards per game.
I don’t know if BYU gaining well over 100 yards in this game will happen, but I do know that it likely has to happen should Kalani Sitake’s team hope to come away with a victory. We believe the success has to happen between the tackles with an inside-zone blocking scheme that has proven much better than the outside-zone throughout the season.
A lot of Retzlaff, but not too much
We loved what we saw from Jake Retzlaff last week, which is sort of a weird thing to say about a quarterback whose offense scored just seven points. But it’s fairly obvious to even the most casual observer that BYU’s massive offensive struggles were largely despite Retzlaff’s play, which is both good and bad.
The good is obvious. Retzlaff is capable, confident and perhaps a better fit in Offensive Coordinator Aaron Roderick’s system given his mobility and ability to run the football.
The bad is what Retzlaff has around him. He entered last week’s game absent the services of Darrius Lassister and Keanu Hill and then made do without Kody Epps throughout most of the contest along with the clearly hobbled contributions of both Isaac Rex and Chase Roberts. Coaches were necessarily vague when asked of the overall health of BYU’s receiving corps although it’s probable Retzlaff will have limited options to throw to once again this week.
Given Iowa State’s strength in defending the pass, we believe Retzlaff attempting anywhere close to the 42 attempts he had last week won’t likely provide good results for the offense. Simply-stated; BYU has to pose the type of productive rushing attack it hasn’t provided all season long to have much hope at coming out with a victory.
Overall we think it’s too much for the Cougars to overcome. There’s way too many personnel problems on both sides of the football and Iowa State generally isn’t a team that will beat itself — a factor the Cougars have relied heavily on in most of their wins this season. We also believe this game will provide more points than the Las Vegas posted total of 41.5 portends given the Cyclone’s improved offensive production coupled with BYU’s issues along the defensive interior.
Final Score prediction: Iowa State 31 BYU 21