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Full preview and matchups for Virginia Cavaliers vs. Boise State Broncos

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Boise isn’t even a sta...oh so you know that already.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

For the second week in a row, the Virginia Cavaliers face a team coming off extra rest. First, it was Hurricane Irma that cancelled UConn’s game and gave them a week off. This time around, Boise State has two extra days because they played on Thursday last week. They hosted New Mexico in their first Mountain West contest, and came up with a 28-14 win.

On the season, the Broncos are 2-1, with the loss coming in triple overtime at Washington State. Last year, the Broncos won 10 games, reaching double digits for the 8th time in the last 10 years. They’ve gone to a bowl game for 15 straight years. Yes, on paper at least, this is game is a mismatch of programs.

Also a mismatch was the last time (and the only time) these two teams faced off. The Hoos hosted the Broncos in 2015 and fell 56-14. The Broncos returned a Matt Johns INT for a TD on the first play of the game, and did not look back. It was 14-0 less than 5 minutes in, and it was 29-14 at halftime. It got no closer.

That game was also a Friday night game, the only Friday night game I can recall the Hoos playing recently (other than VT which have come on Thanksgiving Friday a few times, which I don’t count because it’s a holiday).

Let’s get on to the matchups.

Hoos on Defense

The most notable thing about Boise State’s New Mexico game was that Brett Rypien didn’t play after suffering what appeared to be, but was not officially announced as, a concussion during the Washington State game. Playing in his stead was Kansas transfer Montell Cozart. You may remember Rypien from the 2015 game, as he carved the Hoos up for 321 yards on 24/35 passing as a true freshman. You may also recall that Rypien’s father is Mark, the Super Bowl MVP winning QB for the Washington Redskins.

Cozart is very different player from Rypien. Cozart started part of four seasons with the Jayhawks (including 2015, which was cut short due to injury and allowed him a 5th season). In 27 games, he threw for 2755 yards with 14 TDs and 17 INTs. He also rushed for 481 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a dual threat QB who is at his best on the run and out of the pocket. Rypien, on the other hand, has thrown for 7,235 yards in 26 games in just over two seasons. He has rushed for -115 yards (yes, that’s negative) during that time. He has 44 TD passes and just 17 INTs. Rypien is an NFL caliber QB. Cozart is not. Cozart, though, saw action in the opener even with Rypien healthy (although Rypien had just taken a big shot and may have been woozy).

Considering the trouble the Hoos have had with mobile QBs this season, I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather face Rypien. Virginia has depth and talent in the secondary to keep tabs on the receivers, coupled with a strong pass rush. The Hoos are 32nd in the nation in sacks and are 30th in the nation in passing defense (83rd in passing efficiency defense though). Rypien would undoubtedly be the best QB they’ve faced as yet, but they did a great job of shutting down Richard Lagow, who is a similar QB.

Regardless of what the Hoos might prefer, Rypien has been practicing this week and expects to start. Whether there are any lingering effects that will impact his performance is unknown. The Hoos may still see both QBs, especially if Rypien isn’t sharp.

The offense around Rypien lost a lot from last year. The biggest loss is RB Jeremy McNichols. McNichols rushed for over 3000 yards in 3 seasons before turning pro after his junior year. He’s currently a backup with the 49ers. McNichols had 27 TDs last year, 23 on the ground. There simply isn’t a back capable of doing what he did right now. In fact, Cozart is the leading rusher for the team on the season. He has 179 yards, at almost 6 yards per carry. The depth chart lists two co-starters, Alex Mattison and Ryan Wolpin. Wolpin is a senior who had just 38 carries for 194 yards prior to this year. He actually began his career at Northern Colorado, but never played for the Bears. Mattison is a sophomore who had offers from most of the Pac-12. He’s big and he’s talented and he’s the RB of the future for the Broncos. He didn’t play very well against New Mexico, rushing for just 10 yards on 6 carries. But he’s outplayed Wolpin on the season and was the leading returning rusher from last season. He’s the guy the Hoos need to watch out for.

The Broncos also lost two of their three starting WRs from last year along with the starting TE. The lone returnee is Cedrick Wilson, who was the second-leading receiver from a year ago. He had 56 catches 1,129 yards and 11 TDs. For comparison purposes, 1,129 yards would be the second highest total in Virginia history. For BSU, it wasn’t even tops last year.

The next highest returning receiver is TE Jake Roh, who had 10 catches for 113 yards. Roh had a disappointing season last year after totaling 68 receptions over his first two seasons.

Wilson is a JUCO transfer who was a QB in high school. Cedrick is the guy the Hoos need to focus on in the passing game, especially if Rypien is, in fact, playing. He has 30% of the team’s receptions and almost half of the team’s receiving yards so far. Side note, his father was an NFL WR for the 49ers and Steelers and won a ring in 2005 with Heath Miller, James Farrior and the Steelers.

Meanwhile, Roh actually leads the team in TD receptions, so he’s somebody to watch out for in the red zone. Against UNM, Roh both caught and rushed for a TD and both were interesting plays. The TD reception came off a read-option play, with Cozart pitching the ball to Roh, who had been outside blocking. It was barely a forward pass. The rush TD came out of the wildcat formation. You don’t see a lot of wildcat TEs, but Roh has very good athleticism for a TE. He was actually a WR in HS and was moved after arriving at BSU.

Both running backs are potential threats in the passing game as well. McNichols was the third-leading receiver last year, and Mattison is second so far this year. The Broncos run a lot of screens, which is something the Hoos will have to be ready for. They’ve defended the screen pretty well so far this year. Quin Blanding, in particular, is very good at reading screens and making plays to stop them. Of course, there isn’t much that Blanding doesn’t do well. But he’ll need help from Malcolm Cook and Chris Peace to snuff out those plays as BSU is very good at camouflaging the screens.

The Broncos, like so many teams (including the Hoos), run almost exclusively out of the shotgun. When Cozart is in the game, there is a read-option look to most plays. With Rypien, they’ll still show the read option at times, but it isn’t a staple of the offense. Run plays often look like read-options, even if there is no option.

On the OL, the unit is an interesting mix of veterans and youth. RT Archie Lewis is one of the better OTs in the nation and is an Outland Award nominee. At OC, senior Mason Hampton has only been starting for a year, but he’s a Rimington Award nominee. The other three linemen are all young and inexperienced. LT Ezra Cleveland was a DT coming out of HS and has had struggles early this year.

This is a bit of a down year for the Broncos offense. They currently rank 107th in total offense, after finishing 21st last year. They’ll likely finish much higher than 107th, but it is a sign that the offense simply isn’t clicking. They had just 357 total yards against Troy and just 264 against New Mexico. They averaged almost 500 yards per game last year. The Hoos defense has been impressive this year, and they’ll need to continue their high level of play this week if the Hoos are going to pull the upset.

Key Matchups

1) Cedrick Wilson vs Bryce Hall / Juan Thornhill

Wilson is the big play threat in the BSU offense. He’s 6’3” 188 and has very good straight line speed. He’s not the shiftiest of guys, though he does have some open field skills. He’s the Broncos primary KR and backup PR. He had a 73 yard PR last year, which somehow did not go for a TD.

Both Wahoo CBs have been strong both in zone coverages and man coverages this year. Thornhill has stood out, but that may be a result of QBs picking on him as he transitioned back to CB from S. Both guys will likely get their shot at Wilson, as he tends to move around the formation a bit.

The other BSU WRs are talented, but none have the physical skills that Wilson has. AJ Richardson is a quick slot receiver, but not a big play threat and Sean Modster is more of a possession WR. Wilson is the guy that Rypien looks to for big plays and big chunks of yardage. Slowing down Wilson is key to slowing down the BSU offense.

2) Chris Peace/Malcolm Cook vs Broncos OL

The Broncos have given up 11 sacks in 3 games, which is 109th in the nation. They haven’t been great in pass protection, and its cost them. Troy sacked Rypien 4 times, WSU got Rypien twice and Cozart twice, and UNM got Cozart 3 times. The Hoos arguably have better pass rushers than any of those teams, but so far this year the Hoos pass rush as come mostly from Micah Kiser, who has 5 of the 8 Wahoo sacks this year. BSU has had problems with pass rush up the middle, and that’s what caused Rypien to get knocked out.

Bronco Mendenhall and company are very good at using stunts and twists to find rush lanes for the LBs. This is a big part of why Kiser has been so strong this year. But the Hoos are going to need others to step up. The Broncos are going to focus on keeping Kiser out of the backfield, which means less attention on the outside. Especially on the right side of the defense (left side of the offense), whoever is matched up with Ezra Cleveland needs to win those battles.

And it isn’t just about getting sacks or even getting pressure. Especially when Cozart is in the game, the OLBs are key in slowing down the read-option.

3) Jordan Mack vs Alex Mattison

Kiser has gotten plenty of attention this year, but Jordan Mack has stepped up his game in a big way. He’s become the Robin to Kiser’s Batman and that has been the difference for a successful Wahoo defense.

The Broncos have struggled to generate offense this season, in part because of the loss of dynamic RB Jeremy McNichols. Alex Mattison is the heir apparent at RB, but he hasn’t been great. He’s still the best weapon they have in the backfield and he’s got big play ability. Obviously, it falls on the entire defense to slow him down, but Mack will be key in keeping Mattison from getting loose.

Hoos on Offense

Despite the offensive struggles for the Broncos, they are still 2-1 and largely outplayed the Cougars in the loss. WSU scored 2 defensive TDs and, of course, knocked Rypien out of the game. Still, the game went to triple OT.

The reason the Broncos have been successful in spite of the offense is the defense. Sound familiar, Wahoo fans? Their defense ranks 39th in the nation right now, and they’re fairly well-balanced. They are 26th against the run and 60th against the pass. That 60th doesn’t sound great, but they are 46th in pass efficiency defense, and they are 13th in sacks.

The defense is a bit of a hybrid unit, with a base that looks like a 4-3, but one of the DEs plays out of a 2-point stance on most plays, more like an OLB. This player is called the “STUD”. They’ll also run a bit of nickel, and actually call the SLB a hybrid SLB/Nickel. It isn’t a veteran unit, with just 1 senior starter, and that should scare the rest of the MWC for the next couple of years.

That lone senior is the SLB/Nickel, Gabe Perez. He was a key player during his sophomore season, then missed all of 2015 and most of 2016 with injuries. He hasn’t been able to replicate his earlier production thus far this year, but the LB corps is still the strength of the unit. WLB Leighton Vander Esch leads the team in tacklers and MLB Tyson Maeva is 2nd.

Vander Esch is the guy to watch. He’s perfect for the WILL position. He’s 6’4” 240 and is a freak athlete. He can cover, he can rush the passer and he’s a sideline-to-sideline guy. He had 27 tackles (3.5 TFLs) and a sack as a reserve in 6 games last year. He missed the rest of the season with various injuries, including a concussion. So far this year, in 3 games, he has 36 tackles (3 for loss) and 3 sacks. He also has an INT and 2 forced fumbles. Vander Esch had 3 tackles as a reserve in the 2015 matchup between these two teams.

Maeva is undersized for a LB, especially on the inside. He’s just 214 pounds. And he’s not as fast as you’d expect for a smaller LB. He’s just a very smart player, and reads the play in front of him. He is strong in the middle zones as well as against the run. But because of the lack of size, he’s going to struggle if you can get a blocker on him. He’s a surprisingly good tackler for a small LB though.

The secondary is very young, with 3 sophomores and a junior. The CBs are Tyler Horton (the junior) and Reed Harrison-Ducros. Both are on the small side, but both have good cover skills and good instincts. UCONN’s CBs were similar, though BSU’s are much more talented. The Hoos need to continue to use their bigger WRs in ways that use their size. Getting Doni Dowling on a deep slant, where he can use his body to shield the smaller DB, is a good way to make a big play. The Hoos can also run back-shoulder throws where the WR uses his body to protect the ball.

The deep passes that we saw last week won’t be as open this week against the safety duo of Kekoa Nawahine and DeAndre Pierce. The Broncos play a lot of 2-deep zone, and try really hard to not let anybody get beyond those 2 safeties. Though both are undersized, they cover a lot of ground. Pierce is 3rd on the team in tackles and Nawahine is 4th. That means the intermediate stuff will be available. That means some crossing routes, some of the slants I mentioned, and some good old fashioned hitch routes. Benkert just needs to be careful on the hitch routes, because a late through could mean six the other way.

Evan Butts was a forgotten man last week, but he has such a big mismatch in this game because BSU’s defense is almost all undersized. Butts could have a field day over the middle using his big body to create space.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anybody on the DL yet. That is, in part, because nobody on the DL has established themselves yet this year. That said, DT David Moa is a great player. He was a preseason nominee for the Bednarik Award, Outland Trophy and Bronco Nagurski Trophy. He led the team with 8.5 sacks a year ago, but he has just 1 through 3 games this year. Because of the hybrid defense the Broncos play, Moa sometimes plays as a 4-3 DT, but sometimes plays as a 3-4 DE. In the middle is NT Sonatane Lui, who at 305 is the space eater that usually resides in the middle of a 3-4 defense. Lui has just 2 tackles through 3 games, after totaling 10 tackles last year as a reserve.

The leaders in sacks through 3 games are a pair of backups at the STUD position. Those are Curtis Weaver (2 against Troy) and Jabril Frazier (1 each against WSU and UNM). The starter, Sam Whitney, has 1 sack. The pass rush this year has largely been coming from Vander Esch. But if he’s rushing the passer, that means there’s an opening in the passing game. Generally speaking, Boise State doesn’t like to blitz. They were just 53rd in sacks last year. As I said, they play a cover-2, and the goal is to avoid big plays and force the opposition to dink and dunk their way down the field. Then they pounce on any mistakes you make.

The Hoos OL looked a lot better last week, but the opponent was subpar and was learning a new defensive scheme. That is not the case this week, so the OL will have to be on their game. If the improvements continue, the Hoos could be successful. It isn’t a very big DL for the Broncos, continuing a theme of the defense. If they can keep Moa out of Benkert’s face, and keep Vander Esch away from Jordan Ellis, the offense will be successful. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

So far this year, the Broncos are doing it with turnovers. They’ve forced 8 turnovers in 3 games. That is a very high rate and unlikely to continue throughout the year. The Hoos have only turned it over once, but they’ve put it on the ground several times and recovered each one of them. That also isn’t likely to continue. The Hoos need to be secure with the ball, because Boise State is very good at turning turnovers into points.

The Hoos are going to have opportunities to make plays. Against UCONN, the deep balls were there and the Hoos took advantage. This week, the plays are going to be underneath and over the middle. Benkert and Robert Anae need to be content with that. Continuing to develop a running game will be nice, but this team is still going to be a passing team. Taking what the defense gives will be important, and not trying to bite off more than they can chew. If Benkert tries to get greedy, BSU will capitalize. If he plays under control and consistently finds his guys for the 8-10 yard passes that should be there, that will force BSU to be a big more aggressive. Benkert also needs to be willing to use his legs when it is there. We don’t want to see Benkert running loose all game, but if BSU is going to play a soft zone, then Benkert should have some rush lanes open.

Key Matchups

1) Hoos WR vs Broncos CBs

As mentioned, the Hoos have a huge size advantage on the outside. I’ve repeatedly talked about how the WRs are the most talented unit for the Hoos, and they certainly proved it last week. However, they also were partly to blame for the loss to Indiana. So they need to be more consistent. Winning their one-on-one battles and making some plays after the catch is really going to take pressure off Kurt Benkert.

Certainly, a repeat of last week’s performance would be nice. But it isn’t necessary. But there needs to be a middle ground between the dropped passes against Indiana and the big game against UCONN. The idea of taking what the defense gives is important for the WRs as well. If they face soft coverage, then they need to be happy with a 5 yard hitch route. That pass will be there. If a guy like Joe Reed or Doni Dowling can break a tackle and turn a 5 yard pass into a 20 yard gain, that really helps. The catch and run is more likely to produce a big play this week than a deep pass.

2) Jacob Fieler/Dillon Reinkensmeyer vs David Moa

Moa hasn’t done much yet this year, but that may just mean he’s due for a breakout game. He’s too talented. He had 8.5 sacks a year ago for a reason. He’s the pass rusher for the Broncos this year. If they can’t get pressure from him and the rest of the DL, then they have to bring the LBs. That, in turn, opens up spots for Kurt Benkert to find his WRs. If Vander Esch blitzes, that might leave too much space for Olamide Zaccheus or Joe Reed to take a quick hitch route and turn it into a big play.

3) Kurt Benkert vs Leighton Vander Esch

Vander Esch is the read for Benkert. He needs to find the WLB and use that to decide where the ball is going. That might mean watching if Vander Esch is coming on a blitz, it means changing a run play to the opposite side of the formation or it might means throwing a pass to the secondary receiver on the strong side of the field.

Moa is probably the best NFL prospect on the BSU defense, but Vander Esch is the best player right now. He does everything and he’s all over the field. Just because he’s lined up on the left side, doesn’t mean he won’t make a play on the right side. Benkert’s read doesn’t end on the snap, he needs to know where Vander Esch is at all times. He’ll come on a delayed blitz. He’ll run-blitz. He’ll drop back in pass coverage. All of this will determine what Benkert does with the ball.

Conclusion

Considering how bad this matchup seems, the matchups actually look pretty solid for the Hoos. BSU’s offense is struggling this year, and the Hoos have been playing very well defensively. If the Hoos can keep BSU off the scoreboard, that means a low scoring game. A low scoring game means one big play can change the outcome. The Hoos certainly made enough big plays last week.

One thing to watch is special teams. Neither team is particularly confident in their kicking situations, but the Broncos have very good return and converage units. As we saw against Indiana, a big punt return or kick return can change a game. BSU had a PR for a TD last week from freshman CB Avery Williams.

I like the Hoos to have a much better performance than they did last time these two teams played. But Boise State has the famous blue turf and they’re very tough to beat at home. BSU isn’t UConn and although they aren’t the same team they were a decade ago, they’re still deeper and more talented than the Hoos.

Prediction: Broncos 24, Hoos 14