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WSU Vs. BYU Football Preview: Riley Nelson And The Cougars Offense

BYU Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson will have the position all to himself this season after performing well in 2011.
BYU Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson will have the position all to himself this season after performing well in 2011.

The Washington State football team opens up against the BYU Cougars this Thursday. One of the biggest questions that is left to be answered is whether or not the WSU defense can perform well enough for Mike Leach to keep his impressive bowl streak going.

BYU featured a balanced attack under offensive coordinator Brandon Doman in 2011. They were just about 50/50 with rush attempts and estimated dropbacks (pass attempts + sacks). S&P (what's that?) had the offense around the middle, ranked 55th overall. Both their running game and passing game were ranked 53rd.

This should be a solid test for a WSU defense that has a lot to prove early in the season.


The task won't be easy for the Wazzu defense against a group of experienced BYU skill players led by quarterback Riley Nelson. The senior performed well a season ago as he split time with Jake Heaps. Nelson completed 57% of his passes for 8.5 yards per attempt (YPA) while throwing 19 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.

Compare that to 5.8 YPA for Heaps with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in a similar number of attempts. It's not hard to see why Nelson rose above Heaps on the depth chart. Nelson is also mobile and is a threat to make plays with his legs occasionally.

Click the jump for the receivers, running backs, and offensive line.


Nelson gets back his favorite receiver from a season ago. Junior Cody Hoffman was targeted 92 times on the year, or about seven times a game and 21% of BYU's passes. Hoffman did well with those targets, converting 66% of them for catches and putting up an excellent 10.3 yards per target (YPT).

That means when a quarterback threw at Hoffman, BYU gained a first down on average. Any receiver who is in the double-digits of YPT is in the upper-level of production. Perhaps Hoffman's most impressive stat is how he performed when BYU needed it the most, catching 76% of balls on passing downs for 12.1 YPT.

BYU is also returning their second most targeted receiver, but he was not nearly as effective. On first glance, sophomore Ross Apo's 2011 numbers might be impressive. 34 catches for 453 yards. That's good for 13.3 yards per catch.

Unfortunately, catching the ball was Apo's biggest problem. He converted just 47% of his targets into catches. Even with all the big plays he was making when he had the ball in his hands, he sill averaged just 6.3 YPT. Still, that big play threat is something that has to be given attention, and his size at 6'3 may give WSU corners trouble.

The "other" Cougars third option may not be as big and strong, but according to the numbers he is much more sure-handed. J.D. Falslev works the shorter routes out of the slot. He caught 66% of the balls thrown his way, for 7.0 YPT.

The projected starter at tight end is Kaneakua Friel. He wasn't used much in the passing game in 2011, garnering just eight targets. He caught seven of those for 6.9 YPT.

Running Backs

The top runner from a season ago, J.J. Di Luigi, is gone. That is probably not a bad thing for BYU. Di Luigi's value was mostly in the passing game, and he was below average in the running game.

When I say below average, I am referring to a statistic from Bill Connelly called Adj. POE or Adjusted "Points Over Expected." Essentially, this stat figures out how many points a runner is worth compared to how an average back would perform under the same conditions (schedule, etc.).

A look at Adj. POE for 2011 shows that Di Luigi was not good. He had a score of -3.0. Negative is bad. Negative is, as I said earlier, below average.

For reference, the best runner according to Adj. POE last year was Wisconsin's Montee Ball. The worst was Memphis's Artaves Gibson. Carl Winston was also among the poorest performers. Want to learn more about this newfangled statistic? Go here.

As a team, BYU had a below average ground game according to Adj, POE, with a score of -4.7.

Michael Alisa will be the No. 1 running back this season for the Cougars. He carried the ball 85 times last year, so he does have experience. Alisa performed far better in his chances than Di Luigi, with an Adj. POE of 2.8. Behind Alisa are a couple of freshman in Adam Hine and Jamaal Williams.

Offensive Line

17 sacks is all BYU gave up in 13 games last season. They lost two seniors from that offensive line, and now the starting five is composed of two seniors (LG Braden Hansen, RT Braden Brown), two sophomores or a junior (C Blair Tushaus or Houston Reynolds, RG Brock Stringham) and a freshman (LT Ryker Matthews). Matthews was the 11th-ranked tackle out of high school in 2011.

In case you were wondering, BYU won't have a freshman protecting the QB's blindside. Nelson is a lefty.

BYU should put up a healthy dose of points against a WSU defense that will rely heavily on turnovers and big plays this season. With a senior quarterback, the Cougs (WSU version) will have to force the action if they want to do that. Reports from camp says that forcing the action is the goal, bringing more pressure from all angles in the 3-4. It will certainly be interesting and many fans are more curious about this side of the ball than the one Mike Leach heads up.

There's something exciting about the unknown.

For more on the BYU Cougars, visit their excellent SB Nation site, Vanquish The Foe (with the best tagline ever). Depth Chart information via Deseret News. Statistics come from Football Study Hall, Football Outsiders, and