If you had asked most fans and media pundits at the beginning of the season, they probably would have marked Saturday's game against the University of Virginia as an "easy win." But after a strong start to the season for the Cavaliers, it's looking like that may not be the case. After taking #7 ranked UCLA down to the final possession and upsetting #21 ranked Louisville at home, Virginia is poised to prove that last season's victory against the Cougars was not a fluke.
The strength of Virginia's defense has allowed it to overcome an inconsistent offense and to be just one possession away from an undefeated start to the season. Through 3 games the Cavaliers have forced 13 turnovers, which leads the nation. However, that number is somewhat inflated because of a seven turnover game against FCS-opponent, Richmond. Strong play from the front-seven of Virginia anchors the defense. Linebacker Henry Coley will lead this Virginia team, after nearly costing his team the game with two crucial penalties that led to Louisville touchdowns, look for him to bounce back with a strong game.
If fans thought last weeks game was a tough one for the offense, particularly in the last 34 minutes of the game, this could be another difficult test for Taysom Hill and company.
The defense headlines my bold predictions for this week's game at Lavell Edwards Stadium.
1. BYU will force 4 turnovers
Last game the Cougars did not get any takeaways after forcing two against Connecticut and four against Texas. Don't expect to see that happen on Saturday. Virginia's starting quarterback, Greyson Lambert has thrown three interceptions in as many games, throwing two against UCLA . Through three games the Cavaliers have given up eight turnovers. In his two games against FBS competition, Greyson Lambert has 274 passing yards and -13 rushing yards with two total touchdowns. Lambert hasn't done anything to inspire fear in opposing defensive coordinators in his early college football career and that isn't going to change on Saturday. BYU's defense is known for hitting hard and rattling players. A few well placed hits on the quarterback and receivers will help BYU get the turnovers it will need to win the game.
2. The Cavaliers will have less than 275 total yards
Virginia doesn't have a particularly strong passing or running game. Lambert hasn't distinguished himself as a strong pocket passer and Virginia's run game pales in comparison to BYU's rushing attack. Kevin Parks is Virginia's top rusher and he has 173 yards on 52 attempts with one touchdown. To put that in perspective, Taysom Hill has 356 yards on 62 carries for six touchdowns and Jamaal Williams (in two games) has 228 yards on 47 carries for two touchdowns. Four BYU rushers, including Hill and Williams, average more yards per carry than any of Virginia's backs. On top of all that, the Cougars swarming rush defense is giving up an average of 54.3 yards per game, headlined by their holding of Houston to 10 yards of rushing last week. A typically stout run defense has been supported by a strong pass defense that's giving up 258.3 yards per game through the air. John O'Korn did a good job of picking apart the Cougar secondary last week, but Greyson Lambert isn't as talented as O'Korn. He's not going to throw for over 300 yards and account for 97% of his team's yardage. The Cougar defense, from the defensive line to the defensive backs, will hit hard, swarm the ball and cause fits for Steve Fairchild's offense.
3. Virginia will start all but two drives inside its own 25
BYU punter Scott Arellano has been very good so far this year. His punts have been an average of 43.3 per kick and five of those have landed inside the 20. The most impressive of those kicks came against Texas on a 64-yard kick that sailed within a couple yards of the end zone and bounced along the goal line and out at the one. Special teams, particularly punting, may not be the sexiest topic when it comes to football, but any coach will tell you its crucial. Great special teams allows a team to consistently win the field position battle, which is essential to being an elite football team. BYU's offense was not very good in 2012 but some of that was offset by a great punter in Riley Stephenson and a great coverage team. Those long punts, combined with an elite defense, went a long way to giving the Cougars better field position. Even though the kickers are kicking the ball to just in front of the goal line it is leading to, for the most part, many short returns that get stopped inside the 25. This was on display against Houston. Many of Houston's kick returns didn't make it to, or much past the 20 yard line. Look for the game against Virginia to be much the same way. Special teams may not be talked about that often, especially when BYU has an exciting, dynamic, talented duo in Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams, but it is what sets apart the good teams from the elite.
4. The Cougars will have more passing yards than rushing
It wouldn't be a bold predictions article without talking about the offense. This prediction may be too bold based on the offensive game BYU is currently utilizing. BYU's rushing attack has out gained the offense in two of the past three games and has done it by an average of 95 yards per game. It's not that the passing game was bad in those two games, though it could have been better, it's just that the rushing game has been excellent. Jamaal Williams, Taysom Hill, Paul Lasike, Alge Brown and Adam Hine have been great in the running game. The read option is lethal with Taysom and Jamaal at the helm. I see the passing game being more effective for a few reasons, Virginia's defensive strength is its front seven, the receivers are getting more comfortable and the offense is still improving. Jordan Leslie is starting to come on as a go-to receiver. But that doesn't mean that Taysom has forgotten about Mitch Mathews. We all saw what Devon Blackmon can do when he gets the ball, evidenced by his touchdown reception on his first touch, though it was called back on an illegal formation. Alge Brown may also be returning and the Cougars missed him in the short passing game. When it comes down to it BYU's offense is still evolving and expect the passing game to be more active this time around.
This game isn't likely to be delayed because of a torrential down pour like last year. Taysom Hill isn't going to throw below 35% this game, like last year. This isn't the 1st game in a new offense, its the 17th game in this offense. The offense will be improved and the defense is just about as good as last year, possibly better. At the same time, Virginia is noticeably better than it was last season. I expect this to be another defensive battle, albeit a little bit higher scoring. BYU continues undefeated run and wins 27-16.