Flashback: The Tongan Tackling Terror

Photo Credit: BYU Athletic Department

BYU Cougars fans witnessed an elite defense in 2012. Key losses through graduation made it questionable how good the 2013 Cougar defense would be. One new starter in 2013 gave his all to make the drop off as little as possible.

Uani Unga had seen some playing time as a reserve in 2012. He made a key interception against Utah State, and was credited with 28 tackles for the season. Overall, he gave Cougar fans enough reasons to be grateful he had transferred from Oregon State. However, his play didn't foreshadow what he would do as a senior, at least not to outsiders.

Unga's teammates saw something special in him, and elected him team captain in 2013. He backed up their vote of confidence by tying fellow senior Eathyn Manumaleuna for a team-high 10 tackles in the season opener at Virginia. That is a good showing for a middle linebacker, but not outstanding.

In a second consecutive game impacted by rain delays, Unga was one tackle off the lead against Texas. Unga and Kyle Van Noy had eight tackles, while Skye PoVey had nine.

The next two games, Unga had just 11 total tackles (seven vs. Utah, four vs. Middle Tennessee State). He was starting to fade into the crowd. After Van Noy started game five at Utah State with an interception return for a touchdown on the first play, it appeared that he might be too bright of a star for another player to shine at the same time on this BYU defense.

At that moment, Unga exploded. He accumulated 17 tackles that night in Logan, as BYU routed the Aggies for the first time since 2009. That total tied Kelly Poppinga (TCU, 2007) for the BYU record for most tackles in a game (since the NCAA started officially keeping defensive stats in 2000). He had his third game of double-digit tackles the next week with 10 against Georgia Tech. Unga came up with 13 take downs in BYU's version of Hunt for Red October as BYU handed the Houston Cougars their first loss of the season. Unga led the charge against Boise State with 17 tackles, again, as three BYU players had 12 tackles or more. That defensive effort had a lot to do with BYU picking up its first win ever against the Broncos.

It was now November, but Unga wasn't slowing down. He added 15 more tackles at Wisconsin. That gave him 101 tackles on the season. Unga's streak of five straight games with at least 10 tackles ended the next week as his number of snaps decreased significantly in a route of Idaho State. He managed to get just five stops (second lowest of the season). Unga came back the next week at Notre Dame, however, with a record-setting performance. He broke through the 17-tackle barrier and finished the game one tackle shy of 20. Not only did his 19 tackles set a new school record for most tackles in a game, he now held the distinction of having three of the four highest single game tackle totals in school history.

Already well above Aaron Francisco's school record for most tackles in a season (116), Unga padded his new record with 11 tackles in the regular season finale at Nevada. In 12 games, he had been the team's leading tackler seven times.

Unga would push his total tackles to 143 with seven in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl before tearing his ACL, MCL, and meniscus. It was a heartbreaking end to the season for this Tongan tackling terror. Not only had he added his name to the list of BYU Polynesian greats, Unga had earned a place in Cougar lore among all defensive players.

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