Three-List Preview: Virginia Football Seeks First Top 25 Victory Of 2021

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Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall’s first game against his former team is a significant storyline heading into Saturday evening’s matchup at BYU. When the game starts, however, it’s all about football, and specifically all about the offenses as a scorching Cavalier offense taking center stage against a top 25 team.

Brennan Armstrong throws a pass in UVA’s 48-40 win over Georgia Tech. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

UVA boasts the no. 4 offense in total yards (539.9), the no. 2 passing offense (404.6 yards per game), and no. 16 scoring offense (37.6 points per game) in the nation among Football Bowl Subdivision schools. As good as the Hoos were early this season, they have reached another level in the past three weeks. Going back to the fourth quarter of the Week 6 contest at Louisville, Virginia has scored 117 points in the past nine quarters. This includes 48 points each of the past two games against Duke and Georgia Tech, wins that boosted the Hoos to 6-2 overall this season and 4-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Virginia has won four straight games, including two consecutive road games, heading into Saturday’s 10:15 p.m. EST matchup in Provo.

The Hoos feature redshirt junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong and an array of other offensive weapons. Armstrong leads the nation in passing yards (3,220), is second in passing yards per game (402.5) and is fifth in passing touchdowns (23 while throwing six interceptions). Sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks is sixth among FBS receivers with 847 yards, is averaging a whopping 22.3 yards per catch and has eight touchdowns. Wide receiver Billy Kemp IV (56 catches, 524 yards, 5 TDs), football player Keytaon Thompson (42 catches, 572 yards; 27 carries, 193 yards), tight end Jelani Woods (26 catches, 378 yards, five TDs) and wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry (25 catches, 457 yards, 2 TDs) are other major players in UVA’s high-octane passing attack.

BYU, which ranks 84 in the nation in pass defense, has faced only three teams with a passing offense ranked in the top half of 130 FBS schools – Utah State (303.4 passing yards per game, 15 in the nation), Boise State (278.6 yards, 23 in the nation) and Washington State (262.5 yards, 40 in the nation). The Cougars did pick off three passes in the wins over Utah State (2) and Washington State (1), but if UVA can stay away from turnovers, Armstrong and company present a major challenge.

The Deseret News asks, “Is BYU equipped for a shootout with Virginia?” We very well may find out the answer. In eight games, BYU has posted over 30 points twice: 35 points against South Florida and 34 at Utah State. Virginia’s defense, which saw two key defenders leave last week’s win over Georgia Tech early (the status of DL Mandy Alonso and LB Noah Taylor for BYU is uncertain), has improved since surrendering 699 yards and 59 points to North Carolina in Week 3. Last week, though, showed that the Hoos still struggle with explosive players, as Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (365 total yards, 3 TDs) and running back Jahmyr Gibbs (132 yards, 1 TD) gashed the Cavalier defense at times, posting 40 points in a losing effort.

BYU, ranked 66 in the nation in total offense (402.4 yards per game), features a steady and productive dual-threat quarterback in Jaren Hall, a star running back in Tyler Allgeier who is on his way to a second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, and a plethora of tall receiving options led by 6’4” Neil Pau’u (a team-high 37 catches and team-high four TD receptions), 6’2” Gunner Romney (second on the team in catches with 26), is questionable due to injury), 6’2” Puka Nacua (20 catches) and 6’6” tight end Isaac Rex (16 catches).

Of the 27 touchdowns the Cougars have scored, only 10 qualify in the “big play” category (10+ yards rushing, 15+ yards passing), plays that have bitten the UVA defense big-time the past two-plus seasons. BYU ranks 85 in the nation in scoring offense (26 PPG), but it has been successful when it reaches the red zone, scoring 26 of 28 times (92.9%, ranking 15 nationally) including 21 touchdowns (15 nationally in red zone touchdown percentage). A strength of the UVA defense this season has been red zone defense, allowing opponents to score 72.4% of the time, good for 18 in the nation. This figures to be an important matchup come Saturday.

(Click here to read our Game News page for all information on this game.)

Three Cougars To Watch: Offense

Jaren Hall, Quarterback, #3

Coach Mendenhall said he did not recruit most of the players on this BYU team, something that makes playing this game “not easy” but “easier” to play.

Hall is one of the few coach does recognize. The 6’1”, 205-pound quarterback verbally committed to the Cougars when Mendenhall was still head coach, and he signed in February of 2016, two months after Mendenhall’s departure. Following a two-year mission trip out of high school, Hall enrolled at BYU in 2018. The redshirt sophomore has played in 15 games, earning eight starts, six of which have come this season.

A dual-threat option for the Cougars, Hall has passed for 1,348 yards and nine touchdowns and is second on the team in rushing with 205 yards on 38 carries (a 5.4 average per carry). He has completed 63.6% of his 173 passes and has thrown three interceptions.

Tyler Allgeier, Running Back, #25

BYU’s work horse, Allgeier finished eighth in the nation in rushing a year ago with 1,130 yards on the ground. The 5’11”, 220-pound redshirt sophomore is well on his way to eclipsing 1,000 for a second consecutive season. Through eight games, Allgeier has rushed 168 times – an average of 21 carries per game – for 861 yards and 11 touchdowns. Utilized as a receiver as well, Allgeier has 16 receptions for 79 yards in 2021.

While he does not have blazing speed, Allgeier was fast enough to break a 67-yard run earlier this season. His strengths appear to be his vision, balance, and toughness, and he gets stronger as the game goes on. Stopping Allgeier, who rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s win over Washington State, will be paramount for Virginia to be successful in Provo.

Puka Nacua, Wide Receiver, #12

The versatile and intense Nacua, a transfer from Washington, has proven to be a valuable contributor in multiple areas for the Cougars this season, most notably as a receiver and a rusher.

If/when the Cougars take deep shots, the 6’2”, 210-pound sophomore tops the list in terms of potential targets. Nacua leads BYU and is one of the top players in the nation in yards per catch (22.2). He enters Saturday night’s matchup second on the team in receiving yards (444, eight behind Gunner Romney) and third in receptions (20, six behind Romney and 17 behind Neil Pau’u). Nacua had a big-time effort against Baylor, hauling in five catches for 168 yards and a touchdown.

Nacua has not been a major focal point of the ground game, but he has been productive when given the opportunity, racking up 70 yards on seven carries.

Three Cougars To Watch: Defense

Ben Bywater, Linebacker, #33

Expect to see Bywater around the football early and often Saturday night. The 6’3”, 230-pound freshman has been excellent this season, as he leads BYU in total tackles with 63 – the next closest defender has 43 – and solo tackles with 42 – the next closest defender has 22. Bywater is tied for second on the team in tackles for loss (4), one of which was a sack, and he also has a quarterback hurry to his credit.

Payton Wilgar, Linebacker, #49

Wilgar is the man who is second to Bywater in total tackles and solo tackles, but he leads the Cougars in tackles for loss with six. Another big-bodied linebacker, the 6’3”, 235-pound Wilgar also has made plays against the pass, tallying three pass breakups and an interception, and as a pass rusher with 1.5 sacks and a quarterback hurry to his credit. Wilgar has forced a fumble too.

D’Angelo Mandell, Cornerback, #5

Described as an “excellent cover corner” in Brigham Young’s game notes, Mandell brings good size (6’1”, 192 pounds) to the position. While he has yet to pick off a pass so far in 2021 (safety Malik Moore leads the team with three), Mandell leads the Cougars in pass breakups with four. He is sixth on the defense in total tackles, racking up 29 including 21 solo efforts and a tackle for loss.

Three Keys

Start Fast

BYU has trailed only twice at halftime this season. The Cougars lost both of those games, falling to Baylor on the road, 38-24, and Boise State at home, 26-17. BYU was tied at the half with Washington State last week but held on for a two-point win, 21-19. In its five other wins, BYU led at halftime, and four of those leads were by double digits (the single-digit advantage was nine and came against Utah).

BYU is outscoring opponents 58-23 in the first quarter and 69-57 in the second quarter, which equates to 127-80 in the first half. Bottom line, the Hoos want to force a BYU to play from behind. Force Hall to win through the air and not allow Allgeier and the Cougar rushing attack to become a major factor. A strong first half would also help take the crowd out of the game, which leads me to the next key.

Handle The Hostile Environment

I don’t see the Virginia players being affected by this being Coach Mendenhall’s first game against his former school. If anything, it may serve as motivation. The bigger challenge is the road atmosphere. BYU’s average home attendance this season is 62,182. The crowd will be fired up and figures to present the most raucous road atmosphere the Cavaliers have seen all season.

I like the way Hoos played at Miami and Louisville. The offense was steady throughout in Miami Gardens, and the defense rose to the occasion to help keep UVA in the game at Louisville. It’ll be important for the Hoos to play in a similar fashion in what will be a challenging atmosphere at Lavell Edwards Stadium. This especially goes for the defense, which may need to rely on young players if linebacker Noah Taylor and defensive lineman Mandy Alonso are out with injuries.

Turnovers

Keytaon Thompson feels like Virginia is the only thing that can stop Virginia at times. Turnovers certainly are a way the red-hot Hoos can hurt themselves on Saturday. BYU has been good in this category so far in 2021, forcing 14 takeaways (eight INTs, six fumble recoveries) while surrendering the ball only seven times. The 14 turnovers gained is tied for 18 in the nation among FBS schools, and the Cougars are tied for 15 in turnover margin.

UVA has done very well in turnovers the past two weeks, forcing five (four versus Duke, one versus Georgia Tech) and surrendering the ball only once, an inconsequential Jacob Rodriguez fumble late in the game versus the Blue Devils. Virginia did not have any turnovers against a Georgia Tech squad that had forced a lot of fumbles coming in.

PICKS

The Hoos step out of conference this week to travel to BYU. That presents a few challenges with the potential emotions surrounding the UVA coaches’ return to Provo, the time zone shift, the 10:15 p.m. ET kickoff, the altitude, and the fact that the Cougars are also 6-2 and ranked No. 25 in the nation.

When it comes to making a pick, I’ve got both defenses on my mind. For Virginia, injury concerns have become significant as the team goes into its ninth straight week of competition. Defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa is out for the season, while many others are playing through varying things. Linebackers Hunter Stewart and Noah Taylor left the GT game early as did defensive lineman Mandy Alonso. Fentrell Cypress II has missed two straight games as well. That’s five one-time starters that potentially could be out for this game. It doesn’t include others dealing with casts and other nagging things either. BYU is not a high-scoring team, entering this game 85th nationally at 26.0 points per game, but it is an offense that’s capable of breaking 30 (twice this season) and one that can control the clock with a good running back and one that helps win the turnover margin. The Cougars have lost just 7 turnovers all year. The Cavaliers have some problems with defensive consistency and injuries won’t help.

On the other side, however, I don’t think BYU is equipped to deal with the passing attack of UVA. Virginia is ranked No. 2 nationally in passing offense behind star quarterback Brennan Armstrong, while the Cougars are 85th in pass defense. BYU’s pass defense is ranked that low while facing only two top 25 passing attacks. Armstrong has lit up similarly ranked defenses from Miami through Georgia Tech the past four weeks.

So, for me, the question is – which defense does enough to get the job done? For Virginia, that means limiting explosive plays and long touchdowns. For BYU, that means forcing turnovers. I think some UVA players grind it out through injuries and the Cougars aren’t as much of a big-play threat – particularly through the air – as some previous opponents so I think the Hoos keep things mostly in check. Plus, the offense keeps rolling. VIRGINIA 38, BYU 27. Season to date: 5-3.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

BYU may be ranked no. 25 in the nation, but on paper the Cougars are about average in most major categories. Good first halves, turnovers, a solid scoring defense, a really good running back and low penalties have been the recipe to help BYU achieve a 6-2 record. They have not faced the firepower a red-hot Cavalier offense has shown, particularly the past three games. Offensively, BYU presents some issues for Virginia, particularly if key starters are injured. I think BYU will be able to post over 30 for a third time this season. In the end, though, I think Armstrong and company continue to roll and Bronco Mendenhall gets a special win. VIRGINIA 42, BYU 31. Season to date: 5-3

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