For the second straight season, the Cincinnati Bearcats’ non-conference schedule includes a date with the BYU Cougars. Last year’s matchup did not work out in UC’s favor, as the Bearcats were tossed aside in a 38-24 decision.
We are more than a year removed from that game, which means there will be some changes on the opposing sidelines and on the field itself. To learn more about this year’s version of the Cougars, we turned to Jake Welch of Vanquish the Foe to get an inside look.
DTD: I’d like to start by not talking about this weekend’s game at all. Instead, I’d like to discuss Big 12 expansion. BYU and Cincinnati were kind of kindred spirits when it came to that process as they were two of the favorites to be added. How has the fan base/school dealt with the letdown, if any?
JW: Big 12? Is that even a conference? Never heard of them.
In all seriousness I think the majority of BYU fans are glad that the whole thing is over with, regardless of the outcome. As you know this whole mess has dragged on for too long and while an invite to a power conference would have been great, not having to worry about getting in or not getting in is a relief. Independence has been good to BYU, with their ability to schedule quality opponents like Cincinnati, and hopefully that will continue for the foreseeable future.
DTD: Back to football. This season has been marked by close defeats for BYU, which has lost by a combined total of eight points, including a 28-27 loss to Boise State last time out. What do the Cougars need to do differently to close games out?
JW: The main source of frustration, and something that has prevented BYU from winning these close games, is their inability to capitalize on turnovers and quality field position. Against Utah they forced six turnovers and versus Boise State they had five. Usually when you force that many turnovers you should be able to dominate your opponent but BYU’s offense hasn’t been able to capitalize. If they want to avoid these close games they need to be more efficient on offense and convert the turnovers into points.
DTD: At 4-4, what does BYU have to do the rest of the season to make 2016 a success for the program or is that not possible anymore?
JW: I definitely think that if BYU wins the rest of their games and shows progress on offense it will be a successful season. Then again there will always be the portion of the fan base that is wildly disappointed regardless of the outcome. I’d imagine there are even some Alabama fans out there that aren’t happy with the lack of production from the wide receivers even after they win a national championship. At any rate, the rest of BYU’s schedule isn’t nearly as difficult as the first eight games so a loss against a lesser opponent like UMass, SUU or Utah State would be frustrating.
DTD: What have you thought of the job Kalani Sitake has done in his first year as head coach? What are some things that he has done well? What are some areas that have suffered (if any) with the departure of Bronco Mendenhall?
JW: Kalani has done a fantastic job bringing a lot of energy and passion to the program. Bronco Mendenhall did a lot of great things for BYU but he wasn’t nearly as animated and expressive as Sitake, which makes him a very likeable guy that the players really enjoy being around. In terms of X’s and O’s, we’re still experiencing the adjustment period needed when changing the offense and defense in one season, but overall things seem to be going well. There are times where Sitake can take a few too many risks (WE FAKED A PUNT FROM OUR OWN END ZONE ON A 4TH-AND-19) but overall it’s been a nice transition.
DTD: BYU has been a rather balanced team, ranking 40th and 41st, respectively, in offensive S&P+ and defensive S&P+. What are the keys to the Cougars’ offensive and defensive attacks?
JW: On offense BYU is at its best when Jamaal Williams is health and running the football. The senior runs very well behind his pads and seldom goes down on first contact. He missed the game against Boise State due to an ankle injury and it showed in our offensive production. Taysom Hill is a great human being but not the most accurate passer and his wide receiving core doesn’t have anyone that could be considered a deep threat. That being the case, BYU will look to establish the run and mix in the pass when necessary to keep the defense honest.
On defense, BYU has done a decent job stopping the run but has struggled stopping teams through the air. Teams with decent passing attacks (Toledo, West Virginia, Boise State) have been able to torch the BYU secondary, in large part due to their inability to put pressure on the quarterback. We lost two key defensive lineman this last week due to injury so it will be interesting to see how they adjust.
DTD: BYU is second in the nation in turnovers gained, trailing behind only Utah. Is it just a state thing or is there something the Cougars have been doing to capitalize so frequently?
JW: I don’t know that BYU does anything specific on defense to cause so many turnovers beyond the fact that they do a great job when opportunities are presented. The secondary is full of ball-hawks that are great at catching the football and our linebackers have great hands as well. Teams might be able to move the ball through the air against the Cougars but they run the risk of getting a few picked off as well.
DTD: Taysom Hill has seemingly played well after his season-ending injury last year. First, do you think he made the right choice coming back? Second, what have you seen (good or bad) from him this season?
JW: That’s interesting you say that he has played well because if you ask BYU fans the majority would say that he isn’t having a great year. It’s tough because Taysom isn’t nearly the player he was physically back in 2014 when he was at full strength. If you watch film of him then and what he looks like now, there is a clear difference in his mobility. He’s also in a completely different offense that doesn’t play as well to his specific skill set. He’s done a great job being a leader and showing poise on game-winning drives against Toledo and Arizona but overall his lack of accuracy in the passing game has been disappointing.
Despite the fact that he isn’t playing as well as many had hoped, I think that he still made the right decision to come back for another year. The guy loves football more than just about anything and I think he’s just happy to be out there doing what he enjoys.
DTD: Who are some other playmakers that the Cougars have relied upon?
JW: Jamaal Williams is THE playmaker on offense. Emphasis on THE because he’s the most important playmaker on offense and to be frank he’s the only real playmaker on offense. The BYU wide receivers are a pedestrian bunch and Taysom isn’t making as many plays with his legs this season.
Butch Pau’u is the heart and soul of the defense. He doesn’t look physically imposing but he hits harder and plays smarter than just about anyone on the team. Safety Kai Nacua leads the team with five interceptions so you might be a little nervous if Gunner Kiel starts throwing it in his direction.
DTD: Who is a player that has surprised on offense or defense or both?
JW: On offense BYU has seen quality production from back-up running back Squally Canada when subbing in for Jamaal Williams. He doesn’t have the same burst and power as Jamaal but he still runs hard. Don’t expect there to be a drastic drop off when he comes on the field.
On the other side of the ball, defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi has been a pleasant surprise. Before this season he had focused on his basketball career and when it was announced that he was going to play football as well I didn’t think he would see the field. It’s been quite the opposite as Corbin has played well on defense and contributed to special teams with a blocked kick.
DTD: Lastly, who wins this game and why?
JW: Cincinnati worries me because of their spread offense but I think with BYU getting a few players back to full strength on offense and defense they will be able come away with a road victory. The key will be how effective Jamaal Williams will be running the ball. He’s bouncing back after an ankle injury and if he’s running like he did against Toledo and Michigan State it will be a good day for the Cougars. If Taysom Hill has to shoulder the load on offense then it will be a close one. I call this one BYU 31 Cincinnati 21.