Toledo (2-1) faces BYU (2-2) for the second time in program history this Saturday. The Cougars have become a common opponent for MAC teams in recent years, playing Toledo rivals Western Michigan and Northern Illinois in 2018.
The Cougars are off to a .500 start, but the schedule has featured three ranked Pac-12 teams. To better preview BYU as it heads east to the Glass Bowl, Phil Hiatt of BYU SB Nation blog Vanquish the Foe joins us to talk Cougar football.
Steve Helwick, Hustle Belt: BYU could easily be 0-4 with its schedule and the Cougars have yet to win a game in regulation this season. But, they’re 2-2 with a thrilling win over a ranked USC team. With a difficult opening slate, how do BYU fans assess the state of the 2019 season four weeks in?
Phil Hiatt, Vanquish the Foe: Coming into this season, BYU knew these first four games would be a gauntlet. I think if you polled BYU fans before the season, the majority of them would have the team going 2-2, with the more optimistic fans hoping for 3-1. The two wins have been in overtime and the two losses have been by pretty big margins, but overall fans are content with where the team is at. It’s kind of hard to get a real feel for this team since three of the first four opponents were ranked in the Top 25. The offense hasn’t blown anyone away, but they won’t face tougher defenses than they have already. The defense was great against USC and definitely not great against Washington, but it’s hard to know what they’ll be the rest of the season because Jacob Eason is the best quarterback they’ll see this year. Overall, fans are optimistic that BYU can get to 8-9 wins this year. The biggest negative is that we’ve lost playmakers on both sides of the ball to injury for the rest of the year in Ty’Son Williams and Zayne Anderson.
Helwick: The Cougars suffered a brutal loss to Washington but an even worse loss to their running back depth with Ty’Son Williams out for the season with a torn ACL. Who do you expect to pick up the ground production going forward? Will we see a feature back take over or carries split between multiple runners on Saturday?
Hiatt: Emmanuel Esukpa is the next man up. He’s another grad transfer that came from Rice University. BYU running backs coach A.J. Steward recruited him to Rice as a freshman and recruited him again to come to BYU. At Rice, Esukpa was behind a terrible offensive line, so it’s hard to know what he is really capable when he has BYU’s great run blockers in front of him. He tends to rely on his power more than his speed, but don’t let that fool you. He still has the ability to get 50 yards downfield before he is forced out of bounds. Lopini Katoa is another back that could see significant increase in playing time. He led the team in rushing last year, before being put behind the two grad-transfers. He’s a much more shifty back that has really quick feet. Look for him to be included in the passing game as well, as he has the better hands of the two.
Helwick: Zach Wilson unseated longtime quarterback and college football fan favorite Tanner Mangum last season. Wilson — who put up one of the best bowl performances in history against Western Michigan — threw for 12 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions last year, but is sitting at 3 and 3 through a third of the 2019 season. What’s changed about Wilson this year and how can he get back to the level of play exhibited in 2018?
Hiatt: I think Zach Wilson’s production so far this year has more to do with the opponents. His 3 interceptions this year have come against Utah and Washington, arguably two of the best defenses in the country. That, and the offense has put more of an emphasis on the run game this year than they did last year. He’s averaging 249 yards a game with a completion percentage of 62.8%. I agree, his numbers aren’t as gaudy as they were last year, but he’s still been effective. With these first 4 games out of the way, I’ll be looking for him to play within the offense better and let the game come to him more.
Helwick: Defensively, the Cougars struggled against Washington but did a great job recording stops against Utah in the first half, as well as stopping Tennessee and USC. What are the strengths of this Cougar defense and who is a name Toledo must watch out for come Saturday?
Hiatt: I agree, let’s throw that Washington game in the trash. The strengths of the defense is the defensive line and the linebackers. Against USC, BYU got constant pressure on the quarterback while only rushing three guys the majority of the game. The big name to watch out for belongs to the biggest guy on the field, Khyiris Tonga. The 320 pound nose tackle is surprisingly quick off the snap and can beat any center 1-on-1. Toledo will need to double him every snap he plays if they don’t want him setting up shop in their backfield. The linebackers are extremely athletic and have held their own in pass coverage. Kavika Fonua at middle linebacker is the teams leading tackler. Fonua, along with other linebackers Isaiah Kaufusi, Payton Wilgar, and Max Tooley all have interceptions this year. Look for some of their roles to change and come up in run support against a dangerous running back in Bryant Koback.
Helwick: BYU and Toledo delivered an instant classic in their only other meeting, a 55-53 shootout in Provo in 2016. What are your favorite recollections from that game?
Hiatt: Oh man, that 2016 game was so fun to watch. The first play of the game was a 75-yard touchdown pass by Taysom Hill! I think that’s when BYU fans knew that game was gonna be something different. Jamaal Williams broke BYU’s single game rushing record with 286 yards that night, and tied the single game touchdown record with 5 of his own. This was the game BYU fans were introduced to Kareem Hunt and the talent he brought to the football field. This was the type of game that you got mad at the defense every time because they couldn’t stop Logan Woodside (505 passing yards... five hundred... and five) but it didn’t matter because BYU’s offense would come right back and score themselves. That was a fun game. Here’s hoping this year’s game is just as fun.
Helwick: Which team wins at the Glass Bowl this weekend? Final score prediction?
Hiatt: I’ll be honest, this has all the makings of a trap game for BYU. Their first game after the brutal start, an away game against a team they don’t know much about, and a game they’re expected to win. The one thing they have going for them, oddly enough, is that last week was such a bad loss. I think BYU will be invigorated this week in practice, looking to prove to themselves and others they are better than what they showed us last week. The defense should be flying around the field, proving they can stop the run as well as the pass. The loss of Ty’Son Williams is huge, so I expect the offensive line to really step up their game and block well for Esukpa and Katoa. And I think we’ll see Zach Wilson return a little bit to the form he had last year. BYU wins it, 34-27.
BYU and Toledo kick off in the Glass Bowl at 12 p.m. this Saturday on ESPN+. Both teams will be in search of their third win of the season, and for Toledo, it’s the last non-conference game before its schedule shifts to MAC play.