Thanks to BYU’s underwhelming 1-2 start to the season, the University of Wisconsin football team enters the week as a two-touchdown favorite over the Cougars on Saturday in Provo, Utah.
Still, UW's offense won’t have as much margin for error as it did against Utah State and Florida Atlantic the past two weeks. While BYU has fallen short against LSU (27-0) and Utah (19-13) in its last two games, its defense has proven talented and physical enough to keep the Cougars in games in which the offense has floundered. BYU defeated Portland State 20-6 in its opener.
"I think they’ve got a good system and they understand it,” UW coach Paul Chryst said of BYU’s defense. "I think they’ve got good skill in the secondary, and they play hard. They’ve got good players. They’ve got physical players and enough movement and pressures — a lot of different types of pressures you have to prepare for."
That’s one area where UW’s offense struggled with in its first two games. Both Utah State and FAU brought different defensive looks and pressures that the Badgers weren’t expecting, and that might have contributed to performances that were a bit uneven.
It took UW 28 minutes to score against Utah State, while costly miscues against FAU prevented the Badgers from scoring more than 31 points on a day when they finished with 564 total yards.
For UW, there’s now more tape to work with on BYU, with three games in the books.
"Utah State, we weren’t sure what they were going to do, and even in the FAU (game), we weren’t so sure,” Chryst said. "We’ve got three games on (BYU). … So now I think it’s good for our players that they have some tape. Then you’ll typically see something you haven’t seen. How are they going to defend us? We don’t know, but I’ve been impressed so far watching their defense."
BYU’s experienced front seven could give the Badgers fits, especially with guards Beau Benzschawel and Jon Dietzen questionable to play this week. The Cougars return their top two tacklers, linebackers Fred Warner and Butch Pau’u, after ranking ninth in the nation in rushing defense last year.
Many of BYU’s upperclassmen are a bit older than typical college players, as some of the Cougars’ Mormon athletes delay enrollment while on a two-year mission trip.
Chryst said he noticed that maturity on tape.
“I think you can see it,” he said. "You don’t know if you’re projecting that because that’s in your mind, but they play the game tough and the right way. I’d like to say that you see that when you look at some of our upperclassmen. I think it will be a challenge. Our younger players, they will sense that."
The Badgers started slowly against Utah State but scored 49 second-half points. They finished with 357 rushing yards last week vs. FAU but turned the ball over twice, were stopped twice inside the 5-yard line and never found rhythm in the passing game.
A slow start or a slew of missed opportunities might not be as easy to overcome against BYU. Chryst and UW’s offense hope for much more consistency Saturday.
“It is early,” Chryst said. "I think right now, we’re still growing. We need to keep growing. So I don’t know if I’ve taken the time and said, ‘This is who we are.’ But I like the steps some have taken. There’s been some good moments. It comes down to consistency, and right now, we haven’t been that."