UVA can play with BYU, but can ‘Hoos bring home the W?

uva-logo-new2The betting line for Saturday’s UVA at BYU game has come back a bit, from BYU by 16 at the start of the week to as close as 13 and a half on one Vegas book.

That’s still a big gap between two teams that are probably close to even on a neutral field.

What? Close to even?

I’ve made this point since before the 2014 season kicked off. UVA has more talent on its roster than you’d expect to see from a team coming off a 2-10 season. With 19 returning starters, and a four-year record of recruiting that puts the ‘Hoos with the fourth-best accumulation of talent in the 14-team ACC, this is a team that should win seven or eight games this year.

Nothing that we’ve seen to this point has taken me off that talking point. Virginia could very well have beaten preseason national #7 UCLA in the opener, holding the Bruins to one offensive touchdown in a 28-20 loss that was the result of a sloppy offensive second quarter that gave the Bruins two pick-sixes and a third defensive TD on a fumble return. Then the Cavs went out and defeated then-#21 Louisville, which was getting talk about how it might be the second-best team in the ACC this year, last weekend.

BYU, on its side, has a lot going for it. Taysom Hill, the starting quarterback, has accounted for 1,045 yards of total offense and 10 touchdowns as the Cougars have rumbled to a 3-0 start that includes a 41-7 beatdown of Texas a couple of weeks ago. BYU is putting up 488 total yards and 36 points per game on offense, and while opponents have been able to find success through the air (258 yards per game in 2014), that could be a factor of the Cougars getting big leads on opponents who abandon the run in favor of going through the air to try to get back in the game.

Abandoning the run against BYU is not a bad idea in general, though, from a look at the numbers, with the Cougars run D giving up just 54 yards per game on the ground, and just 2.1 yards per rushing attempt.

How does Virginia game-plan for BYU, then? Aside from the obvious, very carefully, the focus for this UVA team in 2014 has been winning with its defense and special teams. The Cavs have forced 13 turnovers through three games, and the D harassed UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, a preseason Heisman Trophy short-lister, into a pedestrian effort that included five sacks, two forced fumbles and just one scoring drive in the 16 offensive series that the Bruins had in the opener.

Virginia has been comparably as stingy as BYU in its rushing defense, limiting opponents to 85 yards per game and 2.6 yards per rush, and racking up four sacks per game.

The focus is on Hill, who is as dangerous, if not more so, with his feet as he is with his arm. The Virginia front seven has been able to get enough pressure on the likes of Hundley and Louisville quarterback Will Gardner that both developed happy feet in the pocket early that led to issues for both as the game went on. If Virginia is able to stifle BYU’s running game early, and make BYU a one-dimensional, passing team, can Taysom Hill, talented as he is, win a game with his arm alone?

On offense, then, it is imperative for Virginia that offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild sort of pitches backwards, as we say in baseball. Fairchild and coach Mike London have kept their offensive game plans vanilla as first-year starting quarterback Greyson Lambert gets his feet under him, and opponents have stacked the box to take away the running game and put the pressure on Lambert to beat them with his arm. That’s how UCLA escaped Charlottesville after going in as a 22-point favorite.

Fairchild needs to trust Lambert, and Lambert needs to step up and get the ball to a group of talented receivers led by Darius Jennings and Canaan Severin, for UVA representing the changeup setting up the fastball, with the preference of the coaches toward using the run to set up the passing game.

BYU is no doubt going to follow what their study of game film will tell them and stack the box against the Virginia offense and dare Lambert to throw it over their heads. If UVA can’t establish early that it is willing and able to take what the defense is going to give up, the offense will sputter.

These two teams played last August in Charlottesville in a game that UVA won, 19-16, before the two sides headed in very different directions. Virginia would not beat another I-A team in 2013, and BYU would win eight. There were some odd things about that day in Scott Stadium, to say the least, most notably the lengthy midgame weather delay that had to have helped the underdogs.

It’s Virginia making the cross-country trip this year, which adds to the home-field advantage for BYU.

Another advantage this year for the Cougars is that Hill is in year two as the starter at QB. The version of Hill that UVA saw in the 2013 opener was just getting his feet under him in the complicated offensive scheme of coordinator Robert Anae, and the numbers (13-for-40, 175 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) bear out that he was not quite there.

The Hill that Virginia will see in 2014 is a top-flight dual-threat QB who is expert at running the fastest of fast-break offenses in the college game.

That said, the Virginia defense that Hill will face is much, much better than the 2013 unit that shut him down. Coordinator Jon Tenuta has been pushing the right buttons to this point, and if not for the second-quarter turnoverfest that marred the UCLA game, his D would have this team at 3-0 with wins over two ranked teams to show for its work.

Breaking this one down, it’s two pretty good units, the BYU offense against the Virginia defense, going head-to-head, and a solid BYU defense against a still-trying-to-find-itself UVA offense going the other way.

Based on what we know now, the advantage has to go to BYU, on its home field, without a weak link among its units, but this game isn’t two touchdowns or more. Virginia is in this game into the fourth quarter, but just doesn’t have enough punch on offense to pull it out.

Keeping it close, though, will help UVA grow a little more in defeat.

– Column by Chris Graham


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