Loyal Cougars

Houston Shootout: Comprehensive defensive report for BYU

Brian Logan breaks down BYU’s defensive effort in Saturday’s high-scoring affair in Houston.

The BYU Cougars came away with a thrilling victory on Saturday against the undefeated Houston Cougars, 47-46.  I never imagined BYU would be in a shootout considering how great the defense has been playing all year – nevertheless, it was exciting to see. That was one of the craziest BYU football games I have witnessed since joining the program in 2009. From the start of the game — when Spencer Hadley intercepted the very first pass from John O’Korn — all the way to the end of the game — when Alani Fua came away with BYU’s third to seal the victory — the eight total lead changes had me on the edge of my seat.

The performance by the defense wasn’t the greatest, but it did just enough to help the team come away with its fourth consecutive win.

First Quarter

The first quarter alone like felt like an entire game! There were 360 total yards by both teams, four total turnovers and a kick return for a touchdown. The quarter started with a bang with Hadley’s interception. This was a surprise to me, considering that O’Korn had only thrown one interception in his previous 145 attempts. From that play on, the BYU defense set the tone early and had success for the most of the first quarter, holding the high-powered offense to only 83 yards and seven points.

The score at the end of the quarter, 24-21, was definitely misleading for BYU’s defense — 14 of the 21 points were not allowed by the defense, but came from a 95-yard kick return and a 29-yard interception returned for a touchdown.

The play that hurt the BYU defense was when safety Blake Morgan gave up a 69-yard touchdown pass. This is a play where I felt the receiver clearly pushed off, causing Blake to fall to his knees. To make things worse, the pass was thrown by backup quarterback Greg Ward.

But — Blake has to ALWAYS assume that offensive pass interference will never be called and needs to continue to battle through the play. The technique that eliminates a receiver pushing off like Xavier Maxwell did is playing hip-to-hip. Playing hip-to-hip means the DB is literally placing his hip on the receiver’s hip while running. Using this type of technique while in coverage will limit the receiver’s ability to extend his arms and push off. If the receiver does push off while a DB is playing hip-to-hip, the extension of the receiver’s arm is much more noticeable and will most likely get the ref to leave some yellow laundry on the field.

Overall, the first quarter performance was good, allowing only 83 yards on seven drives, and hauling in two interceptions by Hadley and Daniel Sorenson.

Second Quarter

After a slow start for the Houston offense, quarterback John O’Korn quickly turned up the heat. The red Cougars only had four drives for the entire quarter but scored on three of the four.

Early in the second, BYU showed its bend-but-don’t-break defense when O’Korn put together an impressive 9-play, 61-yard drive that led to only three points instead of seven when kicker Richie Leone nailed a 29-yard field goal.

On the first play of the next drive, O’Korn hooked up with receiver Daniel Spencer for a 40-yard pass that got the UH offense to the BYU 12-yard line. The sad part was that it was a screen pass that was caught behind the line of scrimmage. A play that the BYU defense usually shuts down turned into a huge play because of poor tackling — I counted five missed tackles on that play. That set up a six-yard touchdown pass from O’Korn to Deontay Greenberry. The drive only took 55 seconds and 3 plays to score. That was the second big play allowed by the BYU defense that led to a touchdown.

The BYU defense showed that they could be successful on the next drive when they forced the UH offense to a three and out.

The third big-play score by the red Cougars came during the final two minutes of the half with a 41-yard touchdown pass from John O’Korn to Daniel Spencer. This was another heart-breaking play that the defense gave up. The play started well when Van Noy and the defensive line got some good pressure on O’Korn, who was flushed out of the pocket and looked like he was going to run. This caused safety Blake Morgan to make his way towards the line of scrimmage to make a tackle, but at the last second O’Korn found the wide open Spencer.

What allowed this play to happen was Morgan coming off coverage to attempt to make a tackle on O’Korn when he was still behind the line of scrimmage. When a quarterback begins to scramble, all coverages and assignments for defensive backs are thrown out the window. The coverage that you now play is called “plaster.”  Plaster coverage only occurs when a quarterback begins to scramble BEHIND the line of scrimmage and the defense initially started the play in zone coverage. At this point, all of the DB’s should find the nearest receiver and stick with them until the ball is thrown. This eliminates confusion within the secondary and also eliminates big plays. If Blake would’ve stayed with Daniel Spencer instead of trying to make a tackle on O’Korn then at worse, Houston gains maybe five yards instead of a touchdown. To make things worse: it was 3rd and 22! It was very uncharacteristic to see a smart player like Morgan give up a big time play like that. Nobody cares if O’Korn gains 10 yards with his feet when its 3rd and 22. The UH offense still doesn’t convert and most likely punts.

The second quarter was by far the worst quarter of football the BYU defense has played all year, giving up 190 yards and 17 points – very unusual for a defense that hadn’t give up more than 21 points in a game in the last 12 games.

Third Quarter

After a disappointing second quarter, the BYU defense turned things around and started to look like the stingy defense it is. The red Cougars had 4 drives for a total of 82 yards. The first drive resulted in a missed field goal while the next three all resulted in punts.

It was great to see some adjustments made by Coach Mendenhall in the second half. The biggest adjustment I saw was moving boundary corner Sky PoVey to safety and replacing him with senior cornerback Mike Hague. You also saw more of the nickel package with Alani Fua as the fifth DB. Playing more nickel in the third quarter helped the BYU defense to match the speed and athleticism of the Houston offense and helped eliminate a lot of those big plays that occurred during the first half.

Fourth Quarter

Just when it seemed like the Cougar defense had things figured, the UH offense made some adjustments of their own. Early in the fourth, O’Korn linked up with receiver Daniel Spencer for another big play for 76 yards. A few plays later on third down, Hague came blazing off of the edge sacking O’Korn for a 15-yard loss. I believe this play by Hague was the BEST defensive play of the game. Not only did the loss of yards keep Houston from scoring a touchdown, it also made the job of kicker Richie Leone that much harder. Instead of a 15-yard field goal attempt, Leone now had to attempt the kick from 40 yards. – which he missed.

Hague did a great job, but credit has to go to Coach Mendenhall for the craziest call ever! To blitz a boundary corner on the goal line is absolutely unheard of but the call was something that offensive coordinator Doug Meacham was not prepared for.

With five minutes left in the game, the true freshman O’Korn put together another impressive scoring drive to regain the lead. It took the UH offense 7 plays and 84 yards to march down the field and score seven points. The drive started with a 42-yard pass to Xavier Maxwell and ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Deontay Greenberry. Again, this touchdown occurred because of the lack of plaster coverage by the secondary. O’Korn was once again flushed out of the pocket and got cornerback Mike Hague to step up to make the tackle while leaving his receiver wide open for the easy pitch and catch. Not sure what Mike was thinking, but as a DB your assignment is pass FIRST, run second.

With less than two minutes left in the game, O’Korn had a chance to put together a game-winning drive but was denied by Alani Fua when he intercepted O’Korns first pass of the drive. Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham had success all game with his slot receivers running wide open up the seams so it would make sense for coach Meacham to go back to the same play. The difference with the defense this time was that it was in nickel coverage. For most of the game, the BYU defense allowed the UH receiver’s to run free up the seam in their base defense. With their nickel defense they have the ability to have the fifth defensive back to cover the slot receiver, which O’Korn was not used to seeing — another great call and adjustment by Coach Mendenhall.

Defensive Stand Outs

Uani Unga – For the third straight game, Unga has finished the game with double-digit tackles. On Saturday, Unga led the defense in tackles with 13 and had one tackle for loss. It seems like Unga is progressing more and more as the season continues. He leads the team with tackles and is emerging as one of the top players on the BYU defense.

Spencer Hadley – Hadley, like Van Noy a few weeks ago, started the game right when he intercepted O’Korn’s very first pass. He finished with 8 tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception. It’s great to have a physical and emotional leader back for the defense.

Alani Fua – Alani didn’t have great stats for the game, but by far had the most important one when he intercepted O’Korn’s pass to seal the victory. His stats don’t reflect his impact on the game, but Alani’s presence was felt in the second half when BYU played more nickel defense to limit the UH passing game.

Mike Hague – Mike was the biggest player that stood out to me during Saturday’s game. He finished the game with 5 tackles, a sack and a pass break up. There are a few minor things that Mike can clean up, but will have no problem doing so after he watches the game film on Monday. I believe Mike made strong enough impact to where he should be receiving a lot more playing time for the rest of the season.


I saw three problems with which the BYU defense struggled on Saturday. The first was allowing big plays. There were 4-5 big plays from the Houston offense that resulted in a touchdown or setup great field position that led to a touchdown. Moving forward, the defense has to find a way to limit the big play from opposing offenses. The defense was very fortunate that the BYU offense had a lights-out performance that helped win the game. I don’t expect the offense to have the same success against better opponents moving forward, which means the defense is going to have to step and play even better than they have been playing so far.

The second problem was a lot of missed tackles. It was weird to see the BYU defense miss so many tackles during the game. I don’t remember that last time I saw 3-5 missed tackles on multiple plays from a coach Mendenhall defense. Most of those missed tackles resulted in the big plays for the Houston offense. There were a few passes that were caught for minimal gain but because of poor tackling the plays went from five yards to 40 and 60 yard touchdowns. Better tackling skills by the BYU defense will eliminate some big plays moving forward.

I loved the aggressiveness from the BYU secondary in this game. The DBs did a much better job of challenging the Houston receivers at the line of scrimmage, but sometimes their aggressiveness got them into trouble. There were two key plays that resulted in touchdowns because the secondary left their passing assignments to try to help with running assignments. This is something that is unacceptable as a DB. As I said previously, a defensive back’s first assignment is to play the pass first and the run second. Secondary coach Nick Howell will need to have a strong emphasis on playing the pass first and the playing the run last this week in practice. He will also have to review the scramble rules for the secondary when a quarterback gets flushed out of the pocket.


The BYU defense played well overall despite giving up 483 yards. Of the 46 points scored by Houston, the BYU defense only gave up 30 of them, which is only 6 points more than their state goal of 24 points or less.

When it came the stopping Houston’s running game, BYU was flawless. Houston rushed for 102 yards but then lost 54 of those yards because of an aggressive, physical BYU front seven. Houston finished the game with a total of 48 net rushing yards.

The passing defense is something that coach Mendenhall will have to keep a close eye on but shouldn’t be too worried about. A huge reason Houston was so successful passing was because of missed tackles, which is something that can easily be fixed in a few days at practice. Another reason why Bronco shouldn’t be too concerned is he should have free safety Craig Bills back. There were a few big plays that occurred throughout the game that had you wishing that Bills was healthy and on the field. Craig is one of the leaders on the secondary and is able to get guys in the right position to make plays.

I think we learned a little more about this BYU defense on Saturday. We learned that no matter how difficult things may get, they will continue to fight to the end and never give up — a true testament to coach Mendenhall and how he mentally prepares his players when it comes to fighting through adversity.

I’m excited to see the matchup between the BYU defense and the Boise State offense, and to see how they will bounce back after letting a offense score 30 points when they haven’t allowed more than 21 points since playing Oregon State last year in Provo.


  1. LouisD

    October 22, 2013 at 11:17 am

    My biggest disappointments watching were (1) the missed tackles – there were just so many of them; and (2) the late hits on 3rd down that resulted in yellow hankies and extended drives which always seem to lead to opponent scores and keep BYU’s offense OFF the field. I would be running Pikula 10 extra miles this week. That hit on O’Korn was ridiculous and cost BYU points and the lead. The defensive captain is responsible for reminding everyone that they must be both aggressive and smart, especially on 3rd downs.

  2. bdunn02

    October 25, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Great breakdown btw. This site is starting to look like the only source for serious team analysis.

    • Brett Hein

      October 25, 2013 at 12:37 pm

      Quite a complement, thank you.