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The Big Preview: Virginia Cavaliers at BYU Cougars Football

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Four straight wins have gotten Virginia Football to bowl eligibility early and moved the Hoos into the national picture a bit. Though not currently ranked in either poll, the Hoos are listed at 25th in ESPN’s power rankings, as well as several other places. The Hoos do have votes in all of the polls.

BYU is going the other direction. Though they are coming off a 21-19 win over Washington State, they had lost their previous two games after starting 5-0. They reached a high of 10th in both polls and then promptly lost to Boise State and Baylor. Neither of those are “bad” losses, though the Boise game was at home and that’s a game they felt they should win.

These two teams have played five times, with the Hoos owning a 3-2 record. That includes a win in the 1987 All-American Bowl. It also includes a home-and-home in 2013-2014, with each team winning their hosted matchup. Virginia hosts BYU in 2023.

Of course, this is also a matchup of Bronco Mendenhall’s current and former teams. As Bronco discussed, he is six years removed from BYU, so none of “his” players are still around. He may have recruited some of them though.

When: Saturday, October 30, 10:15PM Eastern
Where: Lavell Edwards Stadium, Provo, UT
TV: ESPN2

Virginia on Defense

After seeing some improvement, including a shutout of Duke, the Virginia Defense struggled again last week, allowing 570 yards and 40 points to a mediocre (48th ranked) Georgia Tech offense.

That said, the performance wasn’t as bad as those numbers make it out to be. The Jackets first three drives totaled 220 yards and helped them open up a 13-0 lead. Their final four drives totaled 192 yards and largely came against a “prevent” defense. Six drives during the middle of the game, when the Wahoos took control of the game totaled 158 yards, and 71 of those came on one play.

This is the 71 yard TD run from Jahmyr Gibbs. Look at this hole. Anthony Johnson appears to have edge contain, but he can’t get there quick enough. Joey Blount is supposed to be filling this hole, but he overruns the play and can’t get back. It’s a good job from the Jackets, but also a poor one from Virginia.

During the middle two quarters, Virginia was finally able to get some pressure on Jeff Sims. Once they opened up a lead, GT was forced to throw more than they intended. They attempted a season-high 44 passes and averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt. Coming into the game, they were averaging nearly 10 yards per pass, which is an elite number. Although they didn’t get sacks, they made Sims get rid of the ball quicker than he wanted. That was certainly not their game plan coming in.

The final stat line may not look great, but the performance was better than the numbers imply.

BYU’s Tyler Allgeier is seventh in the nation in rushing, with nearly 900 yards. Amazingly, Allgeier didn’t have a single DI offer out of HS and started at BYU as a walk-on. He isn’t the fastest RB, but he has great vision and burst.

BYU QB Jaren Hall can also run it a bit, so Virginia will have to be ready. Hall doesn’t run much, just 38 carries, but he’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry (higher than Allgeier actually).

This is a designed QB run, and a look they show occasionally. They’ll also run some read-option and some traditional option play. If Virginia doesn’t do a better job in run defense, BYU is going to run all over them.

On the season, BYU has 278 rush attempts and 230 pass attempts. That’s similar to what Virginia faced the past two weeks, with both Duke and Georgia Tech focusing in the run. In both of those games, Virginia was able to get out to a lead, forcing the opposition to play catchup, which means throwing the football. Virginia would be wise to do the same, because BYU doesn’t want to sling the ball around.

Not that Jaren Hall can’t throw. He’s completed 64% of his passes and is 51st in the nation in passing yards per game. And he has weapons in the passing game, starting with Neil Pau’u, a 6’4” 215 junior who leads the team with 37 receptions.

Pau’u isn’t usually the deep threat, he averages just 12 yards per reception. But Pau’u has size and speed and is dangerous when he goes downfield. This is what happens if you bring pressure against BYU and don’t get to the QB.

This season has seen far too many open receivers downfield against the Wahoo defense. Here is the latest one.

When the camera pans to the target, the defenders are just arriving. So where were they when the pass was released? How does a guy get that open against a cover-2?

On paper, BYU’s offense isn’t great. They rank 66th in total offense, 67th in rushing offense and 61st in passing offense. The balance is admirable. The overall numbers aren’t great though. What they do well is avoid negative plays, turnovers and penalties. That keeps them out of third-and-long and explains why they convert 45% of their third down opportunities. In their win over Washington State last week, the Cougars were 8/13 on third down, with eight of the thirteen attempts coming from five yards or shorter. They converted two of five from longer than five yards.

In their loss to Boise State, the Cougars were 4/9 on third downs. They converted four-of-four of five yards or less, and zero-of-five from greater than five yards. (They also turned it over four times against the Broncos, just an uncharacteristic performance.)

That is the key for Virginia, try to limit their first down offense and keep them “behind the sticks”. Keep the Cougars in third-and-long instead of third-and-medium, and the defense has done their job. Easier said than done.

Virginia on Offense

For the first time this season, Virginia eclipsed 200 yards rushing against an FBS opponent. And they did in style, averaging eight yard per rush. Brennan Armstrong led the team with 99 yards rushing, along with two TDs. But the “traditional” running game was also on point, despite the absence of Mike Hollins.

This is Devin Darrington on the run. Darrington had 22 yards on just three carries. Not too shabby. There is a reason Darrington doesn’t get more touches, and his name is Keytaon Thompson. The “football player” broke the rock after posting 65 yards rushing on seven carries, along with nine receptions for 89 yards.

Thompson is just a beast running the football. He refuses to go down. Arm tackles don’t bother him. He always falls forward. This play has no business gaining more than about five yards. After that, it’s all effort from Thompson.

Armstrong’s ability to run the football opens up yet another weapon for this offense that is currently ranked fourth in the nation. The passing offense is second, while the rushing offense is just 89th. However, the Wahoos rank 53rd in yards per carry. That’s not amazing, but when the passing game is as good as Virginia’s, the run game doesn’t need to be amazing.

Look how hard the Jackets bite on the read-option. They just didn’t expect Armstrong to run the ball as well or as much as he did. Although Armstrong’s 12 carries and 99 yards led the team, the combination of Thompson, Darrington and Wayne Taulapapa rushed for 141 yards on 18 carries (7.8 ypc). Don’t expect more than 10-ish carries for Armstrong going forward, because the coaches want to avoid Armstrong getting hit more than necessary. That’s one reason many of Thompsons’ runs come on direct snaps. It’s the same look, but keeps Armstrong from getting hit. And again, Thompson is just such a beast, he needs to see the ball as much as possible.

This is not a good throw from Armstrong, and might’ve been picked off if not for Thompson’s one-handed grab. Keep in mind that Thompson hadn’t played WR prior to last season, and that he’s playing with a cast on his left wrist. What he is doing is amazing and he has put himself on the NFL’s radar at WR. With his size, speed, and ability, NFL teams will find ways to get him the football, much like Virginia has done.

Armstrong had a couple of misses this week. But, his WRs are making plays for him. No QB is perfect, everybody has some throws go awry. But Armstrong hasn’t missed much.

This is a tremendous throw into a very tight window. If that pass leads Wicks too much, it’s an INT. If it’s behind Wicks, it’s an INT. But the pass is right on the money. It’s a great play call as well. Look at how all the flow is to Armstrong’s left and he comes back to his right to make this throw.

This week, Armstrong takes on a Cougar defense that ranks 72nd overall, and 89th in passing yards allowed. They are, however, 49th in pass efficiency defense, as they allow just 7 yards per pass. Their focus is on preventing the deep passes, but they’ll give up shorter completions. Opposing QBs have completed 65% of their passes against this defense.

This is exactly the type of play Armstrong has been making this season. If he has time to throw, he will find an open man. The Cougars play a hybrid defense, running some 4-3 and some 3-4. Their depth chart lists five DEs, three LBs and seven DBs. Obviously, you can’t play 15 guys on defense, but this shows just how malleable the defense is. Against Arizona, they played mostly a 4-3, but against Arizona State, they played mostly 3-4. Against Boise State, it was a 3-3-5. They’ll rotate guys at various positions, play extra DBs, play hybrid LB/DB. It makes it difficult for opposing QBs to read the defense, but it can also lead to missed assignments.

One of the reasons BYU has to change defenses so much is that they don’t have much of a pass rush, ranking 98th in the nation in sacks. Some of that is design. They want to prevent big plays. But some of that is due to personnel. They simply don’t have a real dominant pass rusher, so they have to scheme pass rush.

They bring six pass rushers here, and still Arizona’s QB has three full seconds to throw before he’s in trouble. It’s good coverage, and that’s where BYU’s strength is.

This is really a three man pass rush, with a LB spying the QB. But the coverage downfield is good, and the QB makes a mistake. BYU probably won’t bring much pressure this week, as they use coverage to try slowing down Virginia’s offense. Armstrong has to be content with what they give him, and not try to do too much. Virginia can’t afford turnovers or negative plays in this game, not with the way the defense is playing.

Conclusion

Both of these teams are 6-2, and both are awfully tough to beat when playing their best. Virginia’s offense is better, but BYU’s defense is better.

The real difference here is the home field. BYU players live at altitude and in the mountain time zone. Virginia players live and practice at sea level and on eastern time. Both of those changes are tough to practice for and tough to overcome. It’s a significant advantage for BYU, and it’s probably the biggest reason why BYU is favored by 3 points, according to DraftKings.

If that spread was bigger, I would take the points. But it’s small enough that BYU covers.

Prediction: Cougars 38, Virginia 31 (season record: 5-3)