Football to finish regular season slate at No. 18 Brigham Young

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Then-sophomore running back Jordan Byrd carries the ball during the Aztecs’ 13-3 win over Brigham Young on Nov. 30, 2019 at SDCCU Stadium.

by Andrew Finley, Staff Writer

After a Senior Night victory over Colorado State, San Diego State football travels to Provo, Utah to take on the Brigham Young University Cougars on Saturday, Dec. 12. At 7 p.m. on ESPN2.

BYU is No. 18 on the AP Top 25 rankings entering Saturday’s game after suffering its first loss of the season last Saturday to then-No. 18 ranked Coastal Carolina. The Cougars’ 9-1 record is their best since 2009 when they were a part of the Mountain West Conference. Before it was snapped, their nine-game win streak was their best to start a season since 2001. BYU went 12-2 that year in former head coach Gary Crowton’s first season at the helm. 

The current BYU football team is led by head coach Kalani Sitake, who is in his fifth season with the Cougars. Last season was Sitake’s first time facing SDSU at the former SDCCU Stadium on Nov. 30, 2019 . The Aztecs held the Cougars to a field goal while forcing three turnovers in a 13-3 SDSU victory. 

Despite having a higher win percentage in 2020, the BYU roster includes a lot of familiar faces. SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said the Cougars seem to have improved, but also recognized a lot of returning players while watching game film this week. 

“I think up front there’s a little bit of difference even though some of those guys played a year ago,” Hoke said. “I do believe, like any other player, the more mature and the older you get and from experience, that you improve. So I think on that front, they’re a little better there.”

This matchup will be the 37th contest between BYU and SDSU football. The Cougars lead the series with a whopping 28-8-1 record spanning back 73 years. 

Offense

BYU possesses an explosive offense through the air and on the ground with a 54%-to-46% run-to-pass ratio — the most balanced attack the Aztecs will face to this point of the season. The Cougars tend to spread out the field with three or four wide receiver sets. The three receiver sets typically include a tight end in the wing. BYU will also run a two-receiver, two-tight end set from time to time. The quarterback is in the shotgun most of the game, out of the seven and the nine. 

BYU’s offense averages 522.7 yards per game and 7.7 yards per play, as well 44.6 points per game. 

Passing game

The offense is led by junior quarterback Zach Wilson. Last season against the Aztecs, Wilson passed for 316 yards but threw two interceptions. In 2020, Wilson has been as good as any quarterback in college football, throwing just three interceptions while throwing for 2,964 yards and 27 touchdowns. Aztecs junior defensive back Darren Hall recalls Wilson’s effort last season and is aware of the dangers the potential 2020 Heisman candidate poses against the Scarlet and Black. 

“He’s a good quarterback, but we just can’t let them score,” Hall said. “That’s our philosophy.” 

Wilson has a trio of junior wide receivers he has thrown to the most this season. Leading the trio is Dax Miline with 55 catches for 1,012 yards and seven touchdowns. Next to Miline is receiver Gunner Romney, who has 38 catches for 755 yards and two touchdowns. The last receiver of the trio of juniors is Neil Pau’u, who has 32 catches for 419 yards and three touchdowns. 

Redshirt freshman tight end Isaac Rex appears to be Wilson’s favorite target near the goal line with 27 catches for 286 yards and eight touchdowns. Running backs also serve as common targets for Wilson. Junior Lopini Katoa has 15 catches for 156 yards and four touchdowns, and sophomore Tyler Allgeier has caught 11 passes for 114 yards. 

Ground game

The BYU run game has been rock solid in 2020. The Cougars have run the ball 365 times this season for 1,986 yards — that’s a 5.3 yards per carry average. Allgeier is the lead back with 131 rushes for 957 yards (7.3 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns. Fellow running back Katoa has run the ball 63 times for 333 yards and five scores. 

Wilson is a threat on the ground as well. As BYU’s third highest rusher, Wilson has run the ball 61 times for 246 yards and eight touchdowns. 

Defense 

BYU’s defense has had a lot of success this season, holding opponents to 14.7 points per game while running mostly basic coverages. The Cougars usually line up in a 4-3-4 and run either cover 4 or cover 2. The defense will also line up in a 3-4-4 with the same coverages, or go with a 4-4-3 cover 3 look. On third and short against Boise State and Coastal Carolina, BYU used the 5-2-4 and 5-3-3 defenses trying to defend the run first. 

In 10 games this season, BYU has held opponents to 311.2 yards, allowing 207.9 passing yards and 103.3 rushing yards per game (3.1 yards per carry). 

Leading the Cougars in nearly every defensive stat is senior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi with 66 total tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception for a touchdown. Kaufusi’s pick-six is BYU’s only defensive touchdown, but Kaufusi isn’t the Cougars only disruptive linebacker. Sophomore linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wiglar are forces in the middle of the BYU defense. Pili is second on the team with 54 total tackles and also has a pass deflected along with a fumble recovered. Wiglar has 45 total tackles with four pass deflections and a forced fumble. 

The Cougars have six defensive linemen with two or more sacks on the season. Seniors Bracken El-Bakri and Khyiris Tonga have 2.5 sacks each with fellow senior Zac Dawe just half a sack behind them. Tonga and Dawe also have six combined pass deflections. 

Sophomore defensive back Greg Udo leads all BYU defensive backs with two sacks, and senior defensive back Troy Warner leads the entire BYU defense with two interceptions. 

Overall 

There is a lot on the line for this game for the Scarlet and Black, and there’s some incentive for BYU as well. For BYU, it’s simple: after a big loss last week, they’re looking to rebound with a win at home to end what has been a successful season on a high note. 

For the Aztecs, they have to travel to Utah in December (it’s forecasted to snow) to try to beat the 18th best team in FBS in order to potentially keep their season going with a bowl game in late December. That’s not to mention SDSU versus BYU is also considered a rivalry to some fans on both sides.

The Aztecs traveled to Utah earlier in the season when they beat Utah State. BYU is just two hours south of Logan, Utah where the Aztecs faced the Aggies. As far as the weather, SDSU football players seem eager to play in snowy conditions. For junior running back and kick returner Jordan Byrd, the snow is nothing new. 

“I miss the cold,” Byrd said. “I’m from New Mexico. It’s always snowing there, so it’s going to be a really good game in the cold.” 

As far as facing the No. 18 Cougars, the ranking doesn’t seem to affect the Aztecs attitude coming into this contest. However, the history between the two teams has SDSU football players like Hall enthralled to take on the Cougars. 

“We have a rivalry with them, even though we haven’t played them as much of late,” Hall said. “It’s just a big game for us to just go out there and prove that we are still the San Diego State Aztecs and that we’re a great team.”

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