LINCOLN — Pick a problem, and there’s a good chance BYU’s offense poses it for Nebraska’s defense.
Quarterback Taysom Hill is a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender. The wide receivers are giants. The offensive line can mash and pass protect. And BYU’s pace? That might be the biggest hurdle for the Huskers. BYU runs its no-huddle offense at breakneck speed.
This is why Nebraska was snapping the ball every 15 seconds during a no-huddle drill this summer, with players on offense and defense dripping with sweat in the morning August heat. This is why, on Monday, Nebraska’s top defense faced 87 plays in one hour, linebackers coach Trent Bray said.
“It seems like they must snap the ball every two seconds,” defensive end Jack Gangwish said. “We’re expecting them to be fast.”
If BYU is going to play run-and-gun football, the Huskers intend to be fit enough to handle it and resilient enough not to flag in their efforts.
“It’s more a mental thing,” NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “The play doesn’t stop when the ballcarrier hits the ground. It becomes a true test of communication, too.”
Coaches plan to play several defenders, Bray said. “We’re keeping guys fresh, so a lot of people are going to have to contribute.”
Initially, all eyes will be on Hill, the 6-foot-2, 234-pounder from Pocatello, Idaho. Hill has had two seasons cut short by injuries to the same leg, but has otherwise been sparkling when healthy. In 2013 — his last full season — he had 2,938 passing yards, 1,344 rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns. Physical like a running back but a gifted enough passer to do damage, Hill is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in college football.
And he hasn’t played a game in roughly 11 months.
“We have the luxury of knowing exactly who we have, and that establishes an identity,” Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
That identity: a physical, spread-option running game that blends elements of Arizona, Baylor and even Minnesota.
BYU runs the zone read often and effectively. It can design plays with Hill as a lead blocker downfield. The Cougars can throw off play-action fakes, and have a variety of “package plays” — Hill can hand off, throw a quick pass or run the ball. All three options are built into the design of the play, and Hill is the conductor — the guy whom the defense must locate.
“He’s going to be a hard guy to contain,” said defensive tackle Maliek Collins, who added it’s “very important” to hit a running quarterback early and often. In Collins’ freshman debut against Wyoming in 2013, the Huskers failed to do that, and quarterback Brett Smith racked up 475 total yards in a narrow 37-34 NU win.
“We couldn’t tackle Brett Smith out there,” Collins said.
But Collins said Nebraska has improved in its ability to make open-field tackles, and coach Mike Riley said that will be essential.
“This is going to be a game, played in space, that good tackling in space is going to be a key,” Riley said.
The additional challenge, Riley said, will be in covering BYU’s tall wideouts. The best of them is 6-6, 215-pounder Mitch Mathews, who caught 72 passes for 922 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Mathews is a red-zone threat — he caught five of his nine touchdowns inside the 20 — and is especially dangerous as a play-action threat on first down, when he caught 36 passes for 422 yards.
Other big receivers include 6-6 Nick Kurtz and 6-5 Terenn Houk.
Riley said BYU will try to isolate those wideouts and pick on Nebraska’s cornerbacks. Hill retains the threat to run, too.
That’s why senior corner Daniel Davie said the Cougars are such a tall task.
“From a cornerback’s standpoint,” he said, “you just have to be good with your eyes, stay on the receiver as long as possible, not be looking in the backfield, because (Hill) can do so many different things with his arms or with his legs.”
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