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September 14, 2011A struggling BYU offense will look to get on track this week against arch rival Utah.
The Cougars are averaging just 15 points and 275.5 yards per game. Both numbers are currently among the worst in the nation.
Those stats are a surprise for sure, seeing that the BYU offense was supposed to be the strength of the team this season, with 10 returning starters and the much-anticipated addition of Ross Apo at wide receiver.
Apo has not disappointed, scoring both of the Cougars' touchdowns this season and making some nice grabs, but the rest of the offense has been AWOL under the direction of new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman.
In last week's 17-16 loss at Texas, the Cougars were corralled by the Longhorn defense in the second half, managing just 67 yards of total offense in the half and allowing Texas to come from behind after trailing BYU 13-0 in the second quarter.
On Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Doman's offense will face a Utah team that is surrendering just 16.5 points per game in its first two contests against Montana State and USC.
The Ute defense held the Trojans to 17 points prior to a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown as time expired, pushing the final tally to 23-14 in favor of the Men of Troy.
Both teams enter this earlier-than-normal Holy War at 1-1. Even though the two teams are no longer in the same conference, there still will be the usual bragging rights on the line. The loser on Saturday will fall to 1-2, and neither team will want to dig itself from underneath such a start to the season.
For BYU, much of the talk by coaches this week has centered on the Cougars inability to run the ball thus far on the young season. Against Ole Miss they ran for just 91 yards, while against Texas they could muster just 43 yards on the ground.
However, Jake Heaps and the passing game have been equally non-productive. Heaps has completed 61 percent of his passes, but his 5.5 yards per passing attempt is among the lowest in the nation.
For whatever reason, be it game planning, play calling, lack of execution or superior defensive play by their opponents, the Cougars have simply not taken their shots down the field in their first two games.
Heaps is 61st in the nation in passing yardage, averaging just 208.5 yards per game. His passing rating is just 107.42, ranking him 96th among college quarterbacks.
Those are stunningly low numbers for a quarterback who was expected to produce big numbers in 2011.
So while the BYU coaches talk about needing to run the ball better, the real key to keep an eye on for the Cougars on Saturday will be how well Heaps and the BYU passing game perform.
Utah did give up 152 yards on the ground against USC, as Marc Tyler came back off his suspension and rolled up 113 yards on 24 carries. But don't expect BYU to be able to produce similar numbers by running at the talented Utah defensive front.
First of all, the Cougars do not have a back the caliber of Tyler, or an offensive line that is as solid at run blocking as is USC's. Secondly, without the threat of the long ball by BYU, the Utes can crowd the line of scrimmage and take away the run and short passing routes.
For that reason, BYU will need to attack a relatively inexperienced Utah secondary early and often. Heaps needs to take his shots down the field with his two rangy targets in Apo and Hoffman, thereby stretching the Utes vertically and forcing them to cover the entire field defensively.
If history is served, the Utah coaching staff will be willing to put their corners on an island against the BYU wide receivers. The Cougars must make the 5-foot-9 Ryan Lacey and 6-0 Conroy Black pay in that case against their two 6-4 receivers.
It would be a mistake to come out against Utah and seek to establish the run. That would play right into the hands of Kyle Whittingham.
Instead, expect the Cougars to come out with guns-a-blazin'. Bronco Mendenhall should feel confident that his defense will be able to limit the Utah offense, giving Doman the leeway to open some things up at home and take some chances.
If the Cougars are unable to be productive in the mid-to-long range passing game, this one will be a defensive dogfight to the end. However, if Heaps and his receivers get things cranked up, BYU could find itself in control.