BYU is getting exactly what it wanted when it decided to go independent in football: matchups against quality opponents. The next two weeks feature two Top 10-ranked teams as the Cougars take on the Oregon State Beavers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. These next two games will really help define why BYU is a football independent.
Hopefully for Cougar fans, there will be a good showing.
Since last week's 6-3 victory against Utah State, it has been hard for BYU football fans to figure out why in the world Taysom Hill would be running a play with 1:06 left on the clock—based on what I have seen in multiple social media outlets. Unfortunately for Cougar fans, the worst possible scenario came to pass as Hill ran his last real play of 2012 after taking a helmet to the knee and being he lost for the year.
Poor coaching? Yes. Miscommunication? No question. But the bottom line is Hill is done and the Cougar fanbase is stuck with Riley Nelson, for better or worse. There may be a James Lark sighting at some point this season, but head coach Bronco Mendenhall has made it known, in no uncertain terms, Riley is his guy.
So where does that leave the Cougar faithful? There is no question everyone loves Riley Nelson's grit, determination, heart, whatever you want to call it. However, many are in the camp that the guy simply can't throw the football, healthy or not.
Clearly the decision making Nelson has exhibited this year has been questionable at times. This certainly isn't your dad's BYU brand of football where quarterbacks finished their careers with some serious mileage in airing out the football. Case in point, BYU quarterbacks finished the Boise State game with 61 yards passing—61! That was usually an opening drive total for the likes of Wilson, McMahon, Detmer, Sarkisian, Beck, Hall, etc.
So it'll be interesting to see what a healthy Riley Nelson can do going forward. He and the Cougars are going up against a decent Oregon State defense this week—ranked No. 39 in total defense, allowing 353 yards a game. However, the Beavers are No. 4 in rushing defense, which seems to be all the Cougars can do well lately.
Then you have the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Their offense has been decent this year, but it is clearly their outstanding defense that has brought them to the No. 7 spot in the rankings. Led by former BYU recruit Manti Te'o, the Irish are punishing offenses, putting them at the No. 14 total defense in the nation.
The passing game is going to need to be in full effect for the Cougars to help take down the Beavers and the Irish. My sister, a diehard BYU fan due in large part to her husband, sent me a message that she was shedding a tear at the wasted talent at the wide receiver position because the Cougars can't throw the ball well this season.
BYU is as stocked at the wide receiver position as any BYU team has been in a long while, if not ever. Cody Hoffman, Ross Apo, JD Falslev, Dylan Collie, etc. Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman has to find a way to get these guys the ball.
Hoffman has had three games this year where he has had three catches or fewer. He needs to be getting the ball seven to nine times a game and making things happen downfield. Add to that Kaneakua Friel's pass-catching ability from the tight end position and BYU has some real weapons to catch the ball. I'd quote Keyshawn Johnson's thoughts on getting the ball, which I'm sure Hoffman and Co. think on a weekly basis, but it wouldn't be Honor Code approved.
With running back Michael Alisa going down, freshman Jamaal Williams has done a nice job stepping up. But he'll have his biggest tests these next two weeks against good defenses that are stingy against the run. Hopefully the offensive line will give him solid running lanes and he can show off that cheetah-like speed of his.
Now the defense. This has been by far the most dominating defense at BYU in a number of years. This defensive squad is similar to the 1998 team in terms of stats which finished fifth in total defense in the NCAA. With the likes of Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree, Uona Kaveinga and Ezekiel Ansah, this defense puts on a show, week in, week out.
Van Noy is just a beast who will be playing on Sundays after his time at BYU. His constant pass rush has allowed the development of Ezekiel Ansah to come along quickly. Ansah is becoming a rock star on his own with his play and is moving up the charts of NFL scouts. He has 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
With the Beavers losing their starting quarterback, Sean Mannion, and his 339.5 yards per game passing, the defense should be licking their chops this week to get a shot at backup Cody Vaz, who hasn't played in a game since 2010.
So, to answer the headline question: What Should Cougar Fans Expect the Next Two Weeks?
I expect the Cougars to win at home this week against Oregon State. They are a 5.5 favorite, and with a backup quarterback in for the Beavers, the defense should give the Cougars every chance to win the game. Plus, with it being homecoming and the Cougars changing things up a bit with the Blackout, there should be a great college football atmosphere.
The following week will be the toughest to date for the Cougars and particularly the offense. The Irish have already shut down the likes of Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue and Miami. In addition, they haven't allowed a touchdown since September 8.
BYU will need to play a near-perfect offensive game: run the ball effectively, use the wide receiver talent downfield, prevent turnovers and manage the clock. The defense will give BYU a shot to win, but it will come down on offense to a famous Broncoism: execution. If the offense can execute, BYU will win the game.
Now, it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Should BYU beat two top-10 opponents back-to-back, they will most certainly climb back into the rankings and very well could run the table for the rest of the season, finishing 11-2, awaiting a bowl opponent.