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2014 Virginia Football Preview: BYU

Coming off their biggest win in years, the Hoos are riding high. They head to Provo to face BYU, the only FBS team they beat last year. The Cougars are ranked #21 (just like Louisville was). Can the Hoos repeat the magical win?

Ant Harris had a big game vs the Cougars last year, and he'll need to do it again this year.
Ant Harris had a big game vs the Cougars last year, and he'll need to do it again this year.
Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Hoos are riding high following the big win over then #21 Louisville. By now, you know all about it. First FBS win in a while. First ACC win in a long while. First win over a ranked team in really long while.

As it turns out, the Hoos' previous FBS win came over this week's opponent: BYU. The Hoos took down the Cougars 19-16 last year, in a defensive battle that was paused at one point due to a thunderstorm. Weather this weekend in Provo will not be an issue.

Can the Hoos continue their modest 2 game winning streak? Can they pull back to back upsets against the AP's #21 team in the nation? It's been 687 since they've won a road game, can they end yet another streak?

BYU Offense

Players to Watch

#4 QB Taysom Hill - Completed just 13/40 for 175 yards with 1 TD and INT in last year's matchup. Also ran for 42 yards on 11 carries. Finished the season with a 54% completion rate, threw for over 2900 yards and 19 TDs with 14 INTs. Ran for 1344 yards with 10 TDs. Through 3 games this year, has completed nearly 70% of his passes for 689 yards and 4 TDs (3 INTs) and has run for 356 yards and 6 TDs. Hill makes this offense go. Very accurate passer, throws with a lot of zip on shorter throws. Not a great arm for deep balls. Good runner, not fast, but quick and powerful. Wants to run. Will take off if given the chance. Offense will include many designed runs and read-options. On most Heisman watch lists.

#21 RB Jamaal Williams - Tall, slashing runner. Doesn't possess game breaking speed, but has good quickness and change-of-direction ability. Solid receiver out of the backfield, but underutilized in that aspect of the game. Rushed for 1260 yards and 7 TDs last year. Dangerous in the read-option because he can find a lane and hit it hard. Named to Doak Walker Award watch list. Rushed for 144 yards on 33 carries in last year's matchup.

#28 FB Paul Lasike -Bigger back than Williams, will be used for goalline carries. Rushed for 350 yards last year and led the Cougars with nearly six yards per carry. Grew up in New Zealand playing rugby, and is an All American rugby player at BYU. Plays football just like a rugby player. Wants to run through, not around, defenders. Will lower his shoulder and deliver a hit to a defender.

#9 WR Jordan Leslie - Spent three years at UTEP. Transferred for his 5th year after graduating with a degree in Electric Engineering. Led UTEP in receiving last two seasons, with a combined 96 receptions for 1585 yards and 13 TDs.

#10 WR Mitch Mathews - Very tall, possession WR. Runs crisp routes. Not a lot of wiggle, but decent straightline speed. Not a great leaper, but tough to stop on jump balls because of size. Dangerous in the red zone because of size. Caught 4 TDs last year, and 2 already this year. Not really a big play guy, but a very good possession guy. Need to watch him going over the middle on 3rd downs.

#87 WR Mitchell Juergens - Maybe the quickest of the BYU WRs. Not nearly as big as Leslie or Mathews. Will play out of the slot. Good hands, good routes. Can make things happen with the ball in his hands. Will be the guy to get the ball on an end around or jet sweep. Will return both punts and kickoffs.

Offense Breakdown

As I already mentioned, BYU's offense relies heavily on Taysom Hill's legs and arm. So far this year, Hill has run the ball 62 times and thrown it 98 times. As a team, the Cougars have run 159 times versus those 98 passes. Without watching every play, it would be difficult to say how many of those runs were called passes (or run/pass options), but suffice it to say BYU is a running team. Last year, the ratio was 664 runs to 447 passes. Again, we can't know how many times Taysom Hill took off and ran off of a called pass play, but that's a lot of running plays.

Last year, Hill was in his first year starting. Now he's got a full year under his belt, so there should be some more freedom with the offense. That said, last year, the Cougars had Cody Hoffman, one of the top WRs in the nation. He led a senior laden WR corps that averaged 13.5 yards per reception and scored 17 TDs. (It should be noted that Hoffman didn't play in last year's game due to a hamstring injury.) This year, all those seniors are gone, and the leading returning receiver in Mathews, who had just 23 receptions last year. So far this year, the Cougars WR corps is averaging just 11 yards per reception. Along with Hoffman and company, the Cougars also lost their top two TEs, who combined for 23 receptions. So far this year, they have just 3 catches from their TEs (all from starter Devin Mahina).

The addition of Leslie is helping. He's the most explosive WR on the team, and has made some big plays already. He's the one to watch in the passing game. And the RBs, especially backup Paul Lasike, have been a bigger part of the passing game. But, to be honest, none of these guys are really all that scary, in comparison to the depth and talent that Louisville had at WR.

The Hoos need to concern themselves, first and foremost, with the read option. This is a staple of the BYU offense and Taysom Hill runs it very well. This means we may see more of Donte Wilkins and Andrew Brown (assuming he's healthy). Brown is very quick off the snap, and could be in the backfield before Hill is even able to finish his read. Wilkins is so good at the point of attack, that he'll really help take away the inside run by the RB. This will make the read-option less effective.

The Hoos don't want Hill to get outside the pocket. So that means the DEs will most like "stay at home" on most plays. This means that Hill is going to handoff, and the Cougar RBs want to get upfield as quickly as possible. If they can't do that because Wilkins and/or David Dean have won their battles with the interior OL, then the RBs are forced outside, which gives the rest of defense time to come up and make plays. None of the BYU RBs are really fast enough to get the corner and outrun the defense. And if Hill can't get outside because the DEs are staying home, he's going to get frustrated. Turning Hill into a pocket passer is a good way to win the game. This is what the Hoos did last year, and this year's defense is better than last years'. Of course, Jamaal Williams rushed for 144 yards last year in the losing effort. The Hoos will need to do a better job of bottling him up.

All of that said, winning the battle against the Cougars OL isn't easy. They average over 310 pounds. The right side of the line is a pair of seniors who are big, experienced and very good. The rest of the line isn't nearly as experienced, including freshman LT Ului Lapuaho and OC Tejan Koroma is the smallest of the OLs, at 280 pounds. Koroma is the weak link of the OL, and Wilkins/Dean could have a field day against him. Lapuaho is big and has played well so far. But he's never faced a DE as quick Eli Harold. The Cougars will give Lapuaho help with a TE on passing downs.

A key for this week will be tackling from the DBs. BYU is going to get outside with Hill and Williams, and guys like Brandon Phelps and Maurice Canady are going to have to make tackles. Having seen this defense in action for 3 weeks now, I suspect Tenuta will keep them in the nickel. But rather than use Tim Harris as an extra DB, he'll use Wil Wahee or Kelvin Rainey. Wahee and Rainey are better tacklers than Harris, who has missed a few tackles this year. Wahee would provide a speed advantage, while giving another sure tackler in the defensive secondary, to go along with Ant Harris and Quin Blanding.

It seems crazy to say this about a player in just his 4th game, but Blanding could be one of the most important players on the Hoos defense this week. If BYU is able to get outside, Blanding is going to have to come up and make plays against Hill and the RBs. If he's able to, it'll go a long way towards shutting down the BYU defense.

The altitude in Provo can be a detriment to opposing defenses playing against BYU's up-tempo offense. Therefore, we may see more substitutions on defense than we saw last week. Kwontie Moore, for example, can give the Hoos some snaps at both DE and DT. Andrew Brown may see some action, and we may even see Trent Corney, a guy who's speed could be useful against the read option. Keep in mind, though, that the Cougars will quick snap if they think they can catch the defense in a substitution, or if the defense looks out of sorts.

The Hoos shut down BYU's offense last year. The altitude may cause problems, and Taysom Hill is a better QB than he was last year, but the Hoos can shut them down again.

BYU Defense

Players to Watch

#44 DE Remington Peck - Big, tall DE. Moves well for a guy his size. Came to college in 2009 at 210 pounds, has worked hard to add bulk. Works just as hard on the field. High motor, never stops trying. Not the quickest or the strongest, but will eventually find a way into the backfield. Finished with 38 tackles last year, including 4.5 TFLs and 3 sacks. Only 4 tackles so far this year.

#5 SLB Alani Fua - Tall and lean. Runs well. Quick off the snap. Tough to block in space as he moves well laterally. Tied for team lead in TFLs (3) and sacks (2). Totaled 63 tackles last year, with 3 sacks and 5 TFLs. Also picked off 2 passes and had 10 passes defended. Height lets him disrupt passing lanes, similar to what we're seeing from Max Valles. More developed as a pass rusher than Valles is right now. Named to Nagurski (defensive player), Butkus (linebacker) and Lombardi (lineman or linebacker) watch lists.

#22 BLB Manoa Pikula - Plays the Buck position in the BYU defense after being a reserve LB last year. Good size for the position, but may be a bit slow for some of the coverage aspects. Not a guy to run down a ball carrier in pursuit, but doesn't miss many tackles in front of him. Fills a gap well. 31 tackles including 5 TFLs and 3 sacks last year.

#48 MLB Zac Stout - The leader of this defense. True sideline-to-sideline LB. Moves well in space, makes plays all of the field. Decent in zone coverage, but best when coming up to make a play on a RB. Missed 2011 due to an injury (redshirted). Was kicked off the team for his part in an off-campus fight in November 2012. Returned this season. Played in 10 games as a true freshman, totaling 20 tackles and 2 TFLs. That was his last significant playing time prior to this year. Leads the team in tackles so far this year with 20, including 2.5 TFLs, a sack and safety.

#20 FS Criag Bills - Probably the best overall player on this defense, and the one with the brightest NFL future. Bills is second on the team in tackles, after finishing second last year. He also had 2 INTs, 1 forced fumble and 2 fumble recoveries last year. Acts as the QB of the defense, calling coverages and directing traffic. Very good size for a FS, tremendous range. Can play CF in a 1 deep, or halves in a 2-deep. Very good coming up to make a tackle on a RB or WR. Takes very good routes to ball. Not great pure speed, but moves very well in space. Very difficult for a WR to block on the perimeter.

#4 CB Robertson Daniel - JUCO transfer who played extremely well last year, named to several All-American 2nd or 3rd teams. Finished 4th on the team in tackles, tied for the team lead with 2 INTs, forced 2 fumbles and finished 3rd on the team with 9 passes broken up. This was after stepping in for injured star Jordan Johnson, who suffered a season ending knee injury just days before the season began. Daniel has very good size for a CB and can run. Not a great man-to-man guy, but very good in zone coverage. Excels at coming up to make a play on the ball. Will absolutely bait a QB into a throw and then make a play on the ball.

Defense Breakdown

BYU is another 3-4 team and another team that uses a hybrid player who acts as both a LB and a S. This position, called the "Buck" LB, is really more like a S who plays in the box against the run. Louisville used an "MO" position, which was an OLB/FS hybrid. This is more like an ILB/SS hybrid. He is asked to guard against the run, cover short zones and will occasionally blitz.

What BYU wants to do is simply win each one-on-one battle. They will blitz, but they aren't as much of a pressure defense as the Hoos are under Tenuta. What BYU is going to do is make you beat them with long drives. Nothing is going to come easy. They flow to the ball, they tackle well and they don't get beat deep. After seeing Greyson Lambert get hit on a CB blitz, the Hoos should be ready for this time of action. BYU has big, veteran CBs who would love to get a free shot on Lambert. Watch for Fairchild to keep a RB in on more plays to help with blitz pickup.

Because of the up-tempo offense that Cougars use, the defense often spends a lot of time on the field. They finished 47th in total defense and 56th in rushing defense, which doesn't look very good. But they excelled against the pass, finishing 16th in passing efficiency defense. They also finished 22nd in scoring defense and 33rd in 3rd down defense. Getting into 3rd and manageable is key against the Cougars, because they simply don't give up big plays. A 3rd and 15 may as well be forever against the Cougars. But 3rd and 5 is doable.

The screens that are such a big part of Steve Fairchild's offense won't work against BYU. The jet sweeps and reverses that we saw last week won't work. BYU players are disciplined and will stay at home. Running between the tackles probably won't work very well either, because BYU's defense is basically designed to stop those first and foremost. The Hoos may have some success with off tackle runs and trap runs, if they can get the RB to the edge with a blocker in front. BYU's defenders are all big and strong, but they generally don't possess the speed that we saw last week against Louisville.

We saw a few slants and at least one seam pass against Louisville. Those are the types of plays that will work against the Cougars. Against a defense like this, you need WRs to make plays. BYU has big CBs, who won't be as susceptible to the fade pass that Greyson Lambert threw to Gooch for the TD this week. But they can be beaten deep, if the OL can keep Lambert on his feet. They can be beaten on double moves.

Darius Jennings could have a big day on short and intermediate passes, as he'll have a quickness advantage over the guys in the defensive secondary. He should be used on ins, outs and slants. Taquan Mizzell could be used out of slot, and on similar routes. The Hoos have used Mizzell much in that position thus far, but there's no reason not to. He's a very good receiver for a RB, and it would be a good way to get him the ball in space. Out there, he'll be able to get a free release and could be dangerous once he gets the ball. Even just a quick curl might get him the ball in space.

The Hoos don't want to get into a track meet with the Cougars. BYU's offense plays fast, so the Hoos need to use as much time on offense as possible, to give the defense a breather. The altitude can make players tired more quickly than they would normally, and we don't want a tired defense near the end of the game. The offense needs to avoid 3-and-out possessions. A first down or two each possession will really go a long way towards helping the defense stay fresh.

Game Breakdown

BYU is a solid, well-coached football team. They're 3-0 for a reason. They struggled a bit last week with Houston, a team with a very potent offense, but not much of a defense. The Hoos are the exact opposite. The Wahoo defense could very well dominate this game. But the Hoos' offense might give everything back.

If the offense is able to move the ball consistently, it'll enable the Hoos to win the field position battle, much like they did last week. But a lot of 3-and-outs (which we saw far too many of last week) will spell doom. BYU's offense is good, and they work very hard to put pressure on the defense. They will play up-tempo and the defense will get tired.

The Hoos won last game because of a couple of big plays. One from the defense and one from the special teams. Both plays, of course, came from the same person: Anthony Harris. As I mentioned above, Harris and the DBs will be a big part of this game. They have to be able to come up and make tackles on the RBs in the read-option, but they also can't forget their coverage duties.

BYU is favored by 14, which seems awfully high. If the game had been in Cville again, I would've thought the Hoos might even be favored. As it is in Provo, I can't pick the Hoos. I think this team is good, and ready to break out. But going to Provo and playing in a tough environment against this team is too much I fear. I think the Hoos fall, but cover the spread.

Prediction: Cougars 27, Hoos 16