With a 3-0 record and a ranking of 21 in the latest college football poll, the BYU Cougars wouldn’t seem to have much to worry about in hosting the ACC‘s Virginia Cavaliers this Saturday. But looking a bit deeper, the Cougars should be on upset alert against a Virginia squad to whom BYU’s national ranking and unbeaten record will mean very little.
Saturday’s game is the first one this season in which BYU will feature a decent defense. And for most of this early season, Virginia’s defense has been better than that. The Cavaliers gave up only seven offensive points in a 28-20 loss to then-7th-ranked UCLA to start the season. Virginia then easily dismissed FCS opponent Richmond, 45-13, before holding Louisville to 21 points last week in a 23-21 upset win over the 21st-ranked Cardinals. That win was Virginia’s first ACC triumph since 2012, and it has some believing that perhaps head coach Mike London‘s program has finally turned the corner in on-field performance to match is unquestioned recruiting prowess.
In beating up Connecticut and Texas, the Cougars mostly had their way on offense, rolling up 942 yards, 55 first downs, and 76 points in two easy victories. Certainly the country took notice when BYU demolished the Longhorns for the second consecutive season. Last week against Houston, the BYU offense was on point again, but the defense gave up more than 300 yards passing and the BYU escaped with a 33-25 win that shouldn’t have been that difficult.
A similar scoreline this Saturday would be a surprise. Both Virginia and BYU are in the top 50 in the national in points allowed, but even that stat is skewed a bit in Virginia’s favor when you remember that UCLA’s defense returned two interceptions and one fumble for touchdowns in Week 1 vs. UVA. The Cavaliers defense has only conceded 41 points in the first three games (2-1), an average of 13.7 per game. To put that in perspective, BYU is 14th in the nation in scoring defense at 14.0 points allowed per contest. And no team has scored any defensive points against the Cougars.
Another reason why BYU should be wary is that Virginia’s offense may finally be starting to figure some things out. The Cavaliers still haven’t answered their questions at quarterback, with Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns both potential starters at the position. But in the win over Louisville, Lambert got most of the snaps, going 13-for-24 for 162 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The biggest knock on Lambert has been his inability to throw moderate to long passes. That’s one area that must improve if Virginia is to upset BYU.
But BYU’s biggest threat, the running of quarterback Taysom Hill (356 yards on 62 carries and six touchdowns) may play right into Virginia’s strength. The best feature of the Virginia defense is the group of defensive linemen, led by Eli Harold (three sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown), and a linebacker group featuring Henry Coley, who has been in on 29 tackles and has 3.5 sacks with two forced fumbles. If that group can hold Hill to about four yards per carry, BYU’s offense could struggle.
BYU may very well win, after all the Cougars probably should have knocked off the Cavaliers in Charlottesville last season, but lost 19-16. It was one of only two games UVA won all season. But performances so far in 2014 suggest this is a better Virginia team, and the Cougars cannot take them lightly or be overconfident based on the numbers they have put up offensively to begin the season.