Know The Foe is back as the Aggies step out of conference to take on the BYU Cougars for the first time ever. The Cougars are 7-3 but will be without their starting QB Riley Nelson this week. We've enlisted the help of KSL.com contributor Landon Walters to give Aggie fans an idea of how Nelson's absence might impact the game as well as a look at the rest of the Cougar team.
BYU is 7-3 on the season and has really rebounded after the rough early game against rival Utah. What's been the biggest key for the Cougars in bouncing back from that loss?
I think that there are multiple reasons BYU rebounded after that blowout loss to Utah. For starters, the team was embarrassed at their performance in that game. But more substantial reasons include playing teams with defenses that aren't as good as BYU faced in the first five weeks of the season (including Central Florida and Utah State in the weeks after the Utah game). For the most part, the Cougars have done things that are help to win games. Things like keeping the penalties down and also staying close in turnover margin is helping. But, the main reasons for the improvement would be a balanced offense and the emergence of legitimate offensive playmakers. In the seven games since the Utah loss, BYU has passed for over 200 yards and rushed for over 200 yards in the same game five different times, with the exceptions being against UCF and TCU. Extending drives with third down conversions has also been key.
The injury to starting QB Riley Nelson means that Jake Heaps will be under center on Saturday for BYU. What does Jake bring to the table as far as the QB position and how do the Cougars deal with the loss of Nelson's running ability?
As many may be aware, Jake was the number one quarterback prospect in the country a couple years ago coming out of high school. He has a strong arm and can make most of his throws to any place on the field. He has shown the ability to scramble and extend plays with his feet in the past, but definitely doesn't have the speed of Riley Nelson. Heaps played most of last season as a true freshman, so he is experienced even though he was replaced by Nelson earlier this season after struggling. I think that decision may have actually helped Jake learn more about reading coverages and making decisions while he watched from the sideline as the primary backup. The main thing that the offense will need to do to replace the running ability of Nelson will be to utilize the running back by committee approach that has been used most of the season.The offensive line will need to make sure to open holes for the run game and protect in the pass game because Jake and Riley's styles are so different; whereas Riley can pull the ball down and run, Jake's pocket passing is his strength.
The Cougars have a pretty balanced offensive attack this year, who are some players that Aggie fans should be aware of at the skill positions?
The playmaking ability of WR Cody Hoffman (32 catches for 514 yards and 6 TDs since the Utah loss) and RB Michael Alisa (60 carries for 351 yards and 3 TDs in only 5 games) have helped the offense a lot obviously. Redshirt freshman Ross Apo (6'3", 202 lbs) and speedsters JD Falslev and McKay Jacobson give BYU the opportunity to throw the ball vertically down the field. NMSU will also need to be aware of the other running backs that the Cougars use. JJ DiLuigi, Bryan Kariya and Joshua Quezada are all talented and experienced backs. They are especially effective catching passes out of the backfield.
Offensively, what kind of scheme do the Cougars use and will the strategy change at all with Heaps taking the snaps this week?
BYU employs a pro style offense and from that offense, they employ lots of different looks and formations. Fans watching will see quite a few sets with multiple receivers from both under center and in the shotgun, as well as more traditional running formations like the I-formation. Their ability to use the personnel that they have in all of these varying sets has helped to make the offense effective over the past several weeks so that defenses can't key on certain players based on formation.
Defensively the Cougars look to be a very stout defense and probably the second best defense the Aggie have faced so far, second only to Georgia. What kind of scheme do the Cougars run, do they blitz a lot and what kind of pass coverage do they predominantly use?
The Cougars run a 3-4 base defense most of the time. They also have switched into nickle packages quite a bit recently, with either an extra linebacker or defensive back on the field depending upon the field position and distance. You may see them run a 2-4-5 defense with only two down linemen at times as well. The defense is called by head coach Bronco Mendenhall and he will mix up his coverages and blitz packages a lot to keep the offense guessing. They have used both zone and man-zone or zone read packages all year. Keep an eye on sophomore Kyle Van Noy (#3), who many consider to have the potential to be one of the best linebackers ever to play for the Cougars. The kid just flat out makes plays all over the field.
Who are some of the Cougar players that really stand out on defense?
As I mentioned already, Kyle Van Noy is a stud. KVN has recorded stats in every defensive category this year, including blocked kicks. BYU's linebacker corp is extremely deep and talented. USC transfer Uona Kaveinga is a major player for the defense and other LBs (Brandon Ogletree and Jameson Frazier) are multiple letterwinners for the Cougars. DL Hebron Fangupo is another Southern Cal transfer in the middle of the defensive line and is a major force in stopping the run game.
Who are a couple of players on offense and defense that have maybe been under the radar who are poised to have a breakout game on Saturday against the Aggies?
Offensive players that might be considered under the radar would probably include WR Ross Apo (#11) could be due for a big game. He was a favorite target of Heaps early in the year, catching a TD in each of the first three games of the season. His biggest game of the season was against TCU when he had five catches for 71 yards and a TD. Another receiver that might have a breakout game could be McKay Jacobson. He has disappeared this season with only 1 TD all year. He has the ability to get open and make plays if the Aggies elect to double Hoffman or Apo when they are on the field.
Defensively, DB Corby Eason and S Daniel Sorenson could have big games this weekend. Corby leads the Cougars in pass breakups, but has been quiet the last couple weeks, at least from a statistical standpoint.
The Aggies' Taveon Rogers has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns this season and yet teams are still kicking off to him. Do you expect the Cougars to kick away from him or will they take their chances with the Aggie speedster?
The Cougars special teams have improved over the course of the season with the exception of a meltdown against TCU. Justin Sorenson has the ability to kick the ball deep into the endzone to force touchbacks, but hasn't been consistent doing so this year. If Rogers elects to bring the ball out, the kickoff team will need to close down his running lanes and make good tackles to prevent big returns. If they aren't able to do those things early, expect the ball to be kicked away from Rogers for the rest of the game.
The Cougars will win this game if…
They can control time of possession by running the ball effectively and extending possessions with third down conversions. It will be key for the offense to have 3rd and 5 or shorter against the Aggie defense. If the defense can force turnovers and give the offense good field position, they should be able to put points on the board with the talented offense.
The Aggies will win this game if…
They can force the BYU offense into mistakes and turnovers. BYU has struggled when they give the ball up (7 turnovers in lose to Utah, 3 in loss to TCU), especially in situations where the opponent has a short field to score or when a BYU turnover kills a scoring drive deep in opponents territory. If the Aggies can score early and force BYU to play from behind, it can't hurt.
Your predicted outcome:
BYU 45, NMSU 24