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Provo • After giving up 31 points and 317 yards to Michigan in the first half alone back on Sept. 26, BYU's defense has given up just 13 points and 361 yards since.
Not surprisingly, coach Bronco Mendenhall said in his weekly press briefing on Monday after reviewing film of Friday's 31-13 win over UConn that his defense is making progress, but still has plenty of room for improvement.
"We have continued to work on leverage and discipline and tackling and assignments and communication, and it is coming along, step by step," Mendenhall said. "Our points allowed is about where I thought it would be at this point. Anxious to see that drop below our 24-point mark, which is where it is now. Most of the time that we are having the ball moved on us right now, it is through communication, or lack thereof, assignments, or lack thereof."
That improvement will be tested this week as explosive East Carolina (3-2) visits LaVell Edwards Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. encounter on Saturday. The game will be televised by ESPNU.
The Pirates' "Air Raid" offensive attack cranked out 49 points against SMU last week and had 35 against Virginia Tech the previous week. Mendenhall, who calls the defensive plays, said he has simplified his strategy somewhat because of injuries to key defensive players.
"I am working to make it as simple as possible," he said. "The last game was as simple as we've had yet, but they played it fast and they played it better. That was similar to the second half against Michigan."
The Cougars (3-2) played without middle linebacker Harvey Langi (knee, arm injuries) and nose tackle Travis Tuiloma (knee) on Friday, but could get both run-stoppers back this week. Offensive lineman Kyle Johnson (sore back) could also return.
"That would be a great boost," Mendenhall said.
The bad news is that seven different players suffered shoulder injuries against the Huskies, including receiver Mitchell Juergens. Trainers were in the process Monday of reclassifying the injuries based on X-rays, MRIs and the like, and Mendenhall said it is not clear yet how many of the seven will miss practices or games.
The coach also said BYU will have to prepare for two quarterbacks on Saturday. East Carolina's regular starter, Blake Kemp, is more of a pocket passer, while backup James Summers, who has been sensational in relief the past two games, is a dual-threat QB who is similar to Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr.
"Their point production has gone way up when Summers comes in, but whether they will name him the starter or not, I am not certain," Mendenhall said. "But we will prepare for both."
It is the opposite of what BYU was forced to do when Taysom Hill suffered a season-ending injury against the Huskers, going from dual-threat guy to strong-armed freshman Tanner Mangum.
"There are elements we defense in practice frequently, which gives us a great point of reference," Mendenhall said.
While the linebacking situation is murky with Langi's status, the secondary is fairly settled through five games. Mendenhall said free safety Michael Wadsworth and strong safety Kai Nacua are performing well, as are cornerbacks Micah Hannemann and Michael Davis.
Junior Jordan Preator, who returned from suspension Friday and saw limited action, and junior college transfer Eric Takenaka will be evaluated this week at both corner and safety, while redshirt freshman Michael Shelton is pushing both corners for playing time after recording an interception vs. UConn. Shelton also sees time at nickel back. The defense played well against UConn, Wadsworth said.
"The big plays they had, they were on our missed assignments, or us not executing the way we could, so we feel that we were in full control on what we gave up on defense," he said. "If we play the scheme we are assigned, and everyone is assignment-sound and has eyes on their keys, we will be able to play anyone in the country real tough."
BYU's defense in national categories
Statistic Average Rank
Total Defense 377.2 ypg. 79th
Pass Defense 216.8 ypg. 67th
Rushing Defense 160.4 ypg. 69th
Scoring Defense 24.0 ppg. 65th
Sacks 2.60 29th
East Carolina at BYU
Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
TV • ESPNU